Schön! presents LIGHT UP THE FIRE, a piece uniting the talents of photographer Eliška Sky, Chinese fashion correspondent Scarlett Ning Deng, stylist Lukas Kroulik, model Nicola Matear and designer Grace Chen.
LIGHT UP THE FIRE shows that creativity and international collaboration still burns intensely in New York, with artists contributing from across the world, even in the pandemic.
Royal stylist Lukas Kroulik interviewed Chinese fashion correspondent Scarlett Ning Deng, a leading Chinese fashion commentator, as she introduced this extraordinary project by Grace Chen, top Chinese designer and couturier to China’s First Lady and America’s Talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
LIGHT UP THE FIRE was truly multicultural, drawing on exceptional talent from China, USA, the Czech Republic, Great Britain and Australia. Locating the 2020 fashion shoot in New York City in the middle of the pandemic, under London based photographer and art director Eliška Sky, serves as a reminder of the time when we will all freely travel around the world and make our dreams come true. Eliška worked with Australian model Nicola Matear, who is well known for her unique androgynous look and performance qualities, while Lukas gave the project overall international creative direction.
On behalf of Schön!, Scarlett and Lukas talked about the importance of showcasing great Chinese designers and creating international collaborations around them. On a darker note, at a time when China has been widely criticised, they also spoke about the importance of the new movement, #stopasianhate.
First, Lukas asked Scarlett what attracted her to this project.
She told me that at a time of tensions between different parts of the world, she was so inspired by the collaboration between Grace, Eliška and me. This was a lightbulb moment giving her a deep understanding of the ways in which international fashion and fashion storytelling can make a difference to the state of our world. Scarlett was struck by Grace Chen’s own philosophy, in which she tells us that:
“Fashion is about life experience. It is not only technical, not just material, but more importantly, it’s spiritual. As a designer, you need to inspire people, you need to give your clothing meaningful substance under the fabrics, the embellishments, the forms.”
Scarlett then declared her passionate belief that China is becoming a new force in the fashion world, which will be completely different from the established Western fashion powerhouses. Chinese fashion brands will change the world. She is very confident that Grace Chen will be one of them.
Lukas and Scarlett went on to explore what inspired the title ‘LIGHT UP THE FIRE’ and the visual look of the editorial campaign.
Scarlett recalled Frank O’Hara’s famous poem “Gamine” (the French word for a street urchin):
“All the roofs are wet
and underneath smoke
that piles softly in
streets, tongues are
on top of each other
mulling over the night.”
Locating a street urchin-like girl on a wet night in New York City evoked that spirit, as the shoot revealed New York’s famous skyline and nature’s elements with the flavour of travel, learning, exploration and experience. Scarlett reminded me of the time when I told her that Grace Chen had studied and lived in New York for 15 years, making this a beautifully nostalgic place for the shoot. Scarlett also felt that the styling revealed Grace Chen’s purpose for fashion: it is about a woman’s life and dream – it not only makes her beautiful from outside, but also happily fulfilled from inside. It is part of herself not just clothing. That is why, Scarlett said, a woman who wears Grace Chen always stands out from the crowd, she shines with the glory of her best self. Scarlett told me that in China, the women who wear Grace Chen are called the GC girls.
Lukas asked her why it was so important to produce a project like LIGHT UP THE FIRE in these challenging times.
Scarlett explained her background. She is a fashion correspondent based in China who also studies at world-famous London College of Fashion, majoring in marketing and management. She had mastered English culture and especially the art of polite English conversation with former tutor to the British Royal family Richard Hilliard. That supported her goal to be a citizen of the world, but she also wanted to be someone proud of her own heritage and culture. She felt that projects spanning cultures in times like these were critical for the future of humanity.
She drew out the importance of the red colour in the shoot. As she explained, the red colour in Chinese culture symbolises luck and warmth – both of which we very much need at present. And the colour red speaks to being someone who is gentle, elegant and wearing sustainable fashion. Crucially, this was a special opportunity to encourage more Chinese women designers to step onto the global stage, drawing out the meaning of special symbols like flower patterns and the flowers that feature on Chinese garments. My interview with Scarlett was in February. As she pointed out, Chinese people celebrate the spring festival every February, and this is also the Chinese New Year. Scarlett said that she is declaring a new beginning for the way in which Chinese women designers engage with the rest of the world.
Scarlett is a regular at famous fashion weeks around the world. Lukas asked her what made the 2021 China Fashion Week special. For the first time since the pandemic began, Scarlett and other fashion lovers who were invited by Grace could travel to Shanghai and be there in person, while others joined virtually from around the world.
Scarlett told me how Grace’s new show was the climax of this Autumn/Winter edition week-long extravaganza. Grace Chen’s fashion was inspired by the qin, a seven-string musical instrument and one of the four arts in ancient China. The qin and other traditional musical instruments were played, reflecting Grace and Scarlett’s conviction that “incorporating traditional culture in our daily life is the best way to preserve it.”
She also reminded me that the “fabulous invitation” to the Amazing Grace 2020 collection — a fully virtual show in the depths of the pandemic — had come from me. It was very different, she said, because all her friends and mine around the globe were able to get together — all sitting on the virtual front bench to witness the show as it was being live streamed online.
This showed fashion as a truly global force: for the first time, she said anyone could access it anywhere in the world and get straight onto the runway just by scanning the QR code on the phone invitation.
But Scarlett hopes that we will all be back in the real fashion world soon. She told me how impressed she had been with Grace Chen’s first couture fashion show in London, which I had produced for Grace at the prestigious Royal Palace of Lancaster House in 2016, featuring her Highness Princess Olga Romanoff on the runway. She loved the cultural fusion in the collection, which was called Simply Divine. She saw that it was inspired by the English Royal style of the Victorian era, but at the same time was very Chinese, with many elements of Chinese artisanship and heritage influence. Scarlett would like to create something like this with a wonderful crowd – which at the Simply Divine show included members of the Royal family, ambassadors, artists and business elites as one of London high society’s most memorable fashion events.
On a more sombre note, Lukas and Scarlett spoke about the increasingly frequent verbal and physical attacks on the Chinese community in Western countries. For Scarlett, education is the way forward. Projects like LIGHT UP THE FIRE are truly educational in that they can show directly how people from different countries and different cultures – who share a dream, in this case about New York City – can make something remarkable happen. That was the creation of a living story about warmth, friendship, elegance, and sustainability in fashion and, once it is permitted again, in travel.
photography + art direction. Eliška Sky
fashion designer. Grace Chen
fashion correspondent. Scarlett Ning Deng
production + international coordination. Lukas Kroulik
model. Nicola Matear @ Major Models NY