Exclusive: Stylist Titi Kwan Revealed

Titi Kwan in Paris (above)

I hate to admit it, but I’ve recently become addicted to The Rachel Zoe Project. As a fashion editor, I’ve always steered clear of styling – it was the idea of getting into the minds of fashion designers that I loved, not the promise of dressing celebrities or the more “glamorous” side of the business. That being said it was interesting to understand that part of the business through a celebrity stylist’s eyes, which brings me to my next subject…

Hong Kong’s very own uber stylist Titi Kwan has always been a bit of an enigma. Titi has been dressing Hong Kong popstar Faye Wong for many years and is regarded as one of Asia’s top stylists and fashion visionaries, although he has always kept a low profile.

I was fortunate enough to be granted an interview with him last October when he was launching his fashion collection in Paris. Known for being super shy, I was impressed at how quickly Titi opened up about his life and intense passion for fashion. It was inspiring to meet him. Here’s the story I wrote as well some quotes that didn’t make it into the published version….

Looks from Alibellus Spring/Summer 2012 collection

AS THE saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. In fashion, however, it’s the high powered stylist that makes or breaks the woman. Lady Gaga claims she would be a fashion mess without best pal and style guru Nicola Formichetti, while Rachel Zoe transformed Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie from spoilt brats into style stars.  

While the West has seen its fair share of celebrity stylists, no one in Asia comes close to local legend Titi Kwan. While his name may not ring any bells, people will definitely recognise his most famous client, Asian pop diva Faye Wong. For more than 15 years the two fashion lovers have collaborated on countless of show stopping and edgy looks that have made the singer a style icon and garnered her the moniker of Madonna of the East.

During this time Kwan has stayed happily in the background, preferring to let his work and Wong to do the talking. He keeps very much to himself, shuttling between Hong Kong and his second home in Paris, rarely granting press interviews and avoiding public appearances. And while his name is whispered with reverence in fashion circles, there is still a thick cloud of mystery that shrouds Asia’s most infamous stylist.

It was on a sunny day in the middle of Paris Fashion Week last October that Kwan chose to break his silence. The occasion was the unveiling of his new fashion line which he was launching after a three year hiatus. In true Kwan style, the presentation was held at a quiet gallery near Rue Saint Honore and attended by a few select invitees.

It’s early afternoon but Kwan has just woken up from a nap and is dressed casually in an old Tee, pink jeans and banged up leather jacket. He is nervous and speaks slowly while taking long drags from a cigarette in between his sentences. He starts to loosen up when we start talking about his new line and his latest project, a fashion boutique that he will open this month in Chai Wan.

“It will based on the concept of my apartment. When my friends come to visit me in Paris they always love going through my wardrobe and seeing what I have collected. I have collected so many things over the years and don’t know what to do with them so why not open a store?  I can sell pencils, rubbers, silk blankets – whatever I want, that’s part of my lifestyle. I will also bring in some designer friends and get special pieces.

“I’m opening it in Chai Wan because I like the area – most of the studios are there and the industry people are there.  For me Chai Wan is Hong Kong. I don’t really know Central that well even though everyone tells me I have to shop there. When I hear Central, all I think about is the bank,” says Kwan nonchalantly. 

Perhaps the industrial neighbourhood reminds Kwan of his own upbringing where he grew up in a council estate in Kwun Tong with nine family members in a cramped 200 square foot apartment. As a young boy he would watch and copy his father who was a tailor and worked from home. 

“I don’t know if he was an influence exactly, but the fabric inspired me. I am a curious person so I observed him and tried many things myself. I made clothes from fabric that was leftover and discovered the bias cut this way,” he remembers.

Kwan’s curious nature also brought out his rebellious streak and during his teens he would frequently get into trouble for dying his hair red or stapling together his school uniform. While these may seem like typical adolescent pranks, his mother eventually got fed up and shipped him off to Paris at 15 to stay with his older sister.

“I was uncomfortable with my surroundings in Hong Kong – I was lost and felt uncomfortable with the system. Really, I just wanted to be different,” says the now 43 year old Kwan.

“It was a shock when I first moved here. But then I went to the Centre Pompidou and admired the punks in the streets. It was during the boom of the new wave and I loved the fashion, the safety pins, everything. It was so cool that everyone was accepted. Finally I didn’t feel that different.”

Kwan’s exposure to fashion continued throughout high school where he observed the chic style of young French girls wearing high heels and miniskirts.  At 18 he discovered Paris’ famed fashion school Studio Bercot and enrolled. To pay his tuition he secured a part-time job as a waiter during the evenings, while he studied during the day.

“Studio Bercot opened my mind a lot at the time. That being said I didn’t have time to do the work and was always rushed, although my teacher always complimented my work.  I always believe compliments kill your creative spirit, which is why I hate them.

“Eventually I quit because I was so busy with other styling work. I knew I would have to learn in the field and I needed the money. Styling was new at the time and people were so hungry for stylists. I was really lucky since I was one of the first Chinese faces,” he says.

Fate intervened when he met Wong during a trip home after an eight year absence. It was the mid-1990s and Kwan was looking for an artist to feature in a new fashion magazine so made an appointment with Wong’s management team. While locals loved the bling fashion from the late 1980s, Wong and Kwan bonded over young and edgy names such as Dries Van Noten, Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela, who at the time were just starting out in fashion.

“The first outfit I made her wear was a Versace dress mixed with flip flops – plastic ones that were very Chinese looking. It was obviously a shock to most people but she was happy with it. The vibe between us was right. She was such a nice person and was the opposite of what I expected, especially since she was really famous. She wasn’t an ice queen; she was just a warm person.”

Since then Kwan has worked almost exclusively for Wong, while living between Paris and Hong Kong. It wasn’t until Wong decided to take a break from the industry in 2004, that Kwan was free to revisit his first passion, design.

 “I always wanted to be a designer but opportunities meant I took a different path. A few years ago Faye decided to take a rest which was perfect for me. I took this time to clean my mind. I saw so many collections that when I designed clothes I lost my own personality. It was easy to be influenced by others and I knew what was sellable and what is strong. I want to try something new and different for me so I stopped looking at fashion for three years,” he says. 

He launched his first collection in 2008, which quickly caught the attention of French fashion icon and retailer Maria Luisa and that was short listed at the prestigious Hyeres fashion festival. Despite this, he didn’t feel confident and put it on the back burner until another opportunity presented itself late last year. This time round, he has a much bigger support network to help with sales and distribution, which he says is vital for any new brand in the industry.

Under the name Alibellus which means memorandum in Latin, the 70 to 80 piece collection is divided into three sub-lines: Luxury casual, which is a collection of separates for every day; Dresses, featuring handmade pieces that make a statement; and Limited Edition, showcasing one-of-kind styles made using vintage fabrics from Kwan’s personal collection amassed over the years. The line will be stocked at edgy retailers around Asia including Liger and Shine in Hong Kong.

“I like classic pieces but I twist them. I keep telling myself I must get bored by myself first before people are bored by me. I need to keep reinventing things. Faye is perfect for me in this way. It’s a challenge that every time I have to do something new,” says Kwan of his style.

“My customers are women that I know. They want something functional and have a different point of view on how to dress. They want something simple but they want to stand out of course. I put a lot of effort into the proportions, so the look is quite slimming. I don’t like things that are tight.”

The starting point of the collection was a photograph Kwan took of the sky while on a plane. The silhouettes are clean yet soft as seen on the jumpsuit with frayed edges and long draped white dress that pays homage to Madeleine Vionnet, one of his favourite designers.  A white dress made from lace resembles clouds while a zip up dress is covered in fabric petals. 

Highlights from the limited edition collection include fashion forward styles such as dresses made from layers of plastic, muslin with exposed seams, gold brocade and lame. Of course Wong has already been photographed in several of the pieces, almost guaranteeing the line’s success before it lands in stores this March.

“Looking ahead, I now have three branches to grow which gives me lots of choice. Meanwhile I have professionals to make decisions on where the brand is going. I don’t need to think about this. I don’t want to make big money, I just want to try and make things right in fashion and what I like.  People may love it for the fact that I am well known, or they may hate it for the same reason. We’ll see,” he says with a smile.

And quotes that didn’t make it into the final version..

On the most important woman in his life:

“My sister is the most important woman in my life – she taught me how to be nice, a  gentleman – in a human way. She is very wise.”

On leaving Hong Kong:

“I was lost in Hong Kong a way, I felt uncomfortable with the system. Everything I did was wrong, and I wasn’t hurting people. I didn’t understand why my behaviour was wrong.”

On his love for young designers:

“I always like to challenge so with Faye I would only work with young designers. To me  they have a fire – they have something to say whether it’s wrong or right. It’s burning. They are hungry to express themselves and I knew I could find energy there.”

On new designers vs old designers:

“I have to accept the new generation. The old generation are more into their philosophy and what they believe in. They really focus on making something new. The new generation is more focused on being seen and being famous. I’ve stopped saying it was before – it’s different. It’s a natural progression. I don’t want to hang on to those old days.”

On his inspiration for Faye Wong:

“I like to shock her and please the audience. For me the audience is my client not her. I always put myself into a different angle – for me its audience and her and not other people – the management or record company.”

On purging his mind before starting his new collection:

“I store the information quickly in my mind. I wanted to put things out of my brain and do something new and something else. I wanted to move forward. This is how fashions should be for me – it feels good.”

As published in the SCMP, January 2011

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