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Chelsea Mak

How to create your own rhythm. Words by George Upton. Photography by Justin Chung.

Born in Los Angeles to parents from Hong Kong and Taiwan, fashion designer Chelsea Mak grew up among many different cultures: the affluent, buttoned-up” LA suburb of San Marino; Shanghai, where Mak would join her mother on work trips and browse the city’s fabric markets; and, later, LA’s punk rock scene.

When Mak launched her eponymous brand in 2018, she drew on these formative experiences, creating collections that owe as much to easy-going Californian style as to the traditional old-world tailoring of Hong Kong. Here she explains how design and technology can bring communities together in an era of fast fashion and globalization.

Why did you decide to start your brand?
I grew up in LA, but my mom was working in Shanghai. Every summer and Christmas break, we would go there and browse the fabric markets, picking out textiles and working with tailors to make clothes for ourselves. When I hit a point in my life where I felt creatively stifled working as a designer for other companies, I decided I wanted to start my own line. I just went to Shanghai, found a tailor, and sourced all these locally produced silks. A lot of the fabrics that you’ll see in my collections are silk taffetas that may seem a bit dated, but I think that’s what sets the brand apart.

How has that influenced the aesthetic of your brand?
I take inspiration from master tailoring, but when it comes to me designing the clothing, it’s a lot of scribbling and working directly with the tailor [in Shanghai]. It would be very different if I were working with a large manufacturing company. 

How do you stay local when managing a brand with international production?
The last couple of years has really shown how the bigger brands pump out styles. My brand is definitely dependent on its community—I see my friends and all these creative, dynamic women in LA as my muses. I want to create clothing that these women would keep forever, and to go back to a time when women had Tupperware parties and would trade and shop at home. It can be really rewarding to see them respond to and wear the pieces so differently from one another.

How does your experience of different cultures come together in your collections?
When I started the brand, I wanted it to feel like there was a casual formalness—for these clothes to look put together but not be too stuffy. It’s a homage to the old world but in an avant-garde way, and there’s a juxtaposition between East and West.

What role does technology play in your creative process?
If it wasn’t for Instagram, I would not be able to have a successful brand. I’m able to market the brand directly, by myself, and go at my own pace—off the fashion calendar. I only do two seasons a year and can drop new collections when it feels right for me.

It’s interesting to me that technology is at a point now that I can chat to my tailor on a video call, even though we are across an ocean from each other. I haven’t been able to travel to Asia because of the pandemic, but I’ve still been able to come up with new collections. I don’t need all these different tools in order to make a collection anymore, just my phone. I use a to-do list on it, and then to switch off at the end of the day, I’ll either grab a book or go for a walk. 

This story was created in partnership with Samsung as part of Slow Systems—a new series offering simple ideas for transforming everyday moments into more meaningful experiences.

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