Hong Kong’s unique style of popular music, Cantopop, reached a fever pitch during the golden years of the ‘80s and ‘90s, where — buoyed by a heady mix of the city’s status as a world-class melting pot of cultures and the immense wealth being created throughout the region — it catapulted talents of the day to the forefront of pan-Asian pop culture, and spread the allure of Hong Kong’s local culture from Japan to Malaysia. For designer Derek Chan, who grew up in the afterglow of those electric years, Cantopop has always served as a window into the city’s vitality as well as prevailing liberal attitudes towards experimenting and bending the rules of gender, exemplified by the likes of Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui.
In 2014, he attempted to capture that anti-establishmentarian spirit by launching his fashion label, DEMO, in an effort to redefine masculinity and femininity, dismantle gender boundaries and bring together philosophy and poetry in designs created to defy expectations. Chan’s designs are imbued with a signature style of soft masculinity that is brought to life with handmade embellishments and embroidery, rich textiles such as tweed, and classical elements which are contrasted with contemporary styling to subvert stereotypes.
Ahead of his showcase at the 10 Asian Designers To Watch exhibition taking place this month in Shanghai, we spoke to Chan about what it means to stand out in a crowd, the history of unconventional gender roles, and the changing nature of self-expression over time.
Q. Why fashion? What made you want to be a designer?
When I was young, I always tried to fit into the norm. I liked drawing and thinking creatively but not video games or sports like football — those things that boys generally enjoy. I would still try to fit in with my peers so as not to be “abnormal” as it feels more secure if you are within a social circle. But when I grew up, I realised that I don’t have to fit in for other people. Fitting in is an action that is not embracing who you are, not embracing your specialities. Why do I have to play football like a “normal” kid but not enjoy quiet sketching or drawing? Society gives children and people so much pressure to fit in to the norm. Each individual should have their own unique qualities to shine bright and to be proud of. Especially when we are young, we want all people to like us, love us, adore us. We will change ourselves to fit other people’s expectations. And it hinders our own frequency and attitude to shine through. But we should be more than that. We should let ourselves shine through something. Making a statement, whether through fashion or song, is like creating a bundle of light to let other people see you. For me, clothes helped me to do so. That’s I became a fashion designer.
Q. If your teenage self could see you now as a fashion designer, what would he/she think?
Congratulations. You did what you wanted to do.
Q. Sometimes, inspiration strikes in the most unlikely place/time. Please share your experience of finding inspiration for your designs.
I always find the inspiration from something that I like. This is a very common practice for every designer, The history of gender has always inspired me. For example, onnagata in Japanese kabuki theatre, reversed gender roles in Cantonese and Peking opera, the castrato singing style of Italy， wakashū adolescents in Japanese history, and pederasty in ancient Greece. Those historical gender issues are something unexpected and they surprised me because of their cultural and historical differences. They are also an inspiraton for my brand direction when I perceive the ways of gender.
Q. DEMO’s pieces leans heavily into gender-fluidity & soft masculinity. How does DEMO break the existing pre-conceived notions about dressing to suit one’s gender?
Putting both feminine and masculine elements together in a single fashion piece is one of the ways. For example, people always expect to see fancy tweed in womenswear but we choose to put it on a shirt jacket or men blazer. You can always be surprised by seeing something unexpected going together.
We try to style the look for both male and female characters. Of course in technical terms, we will have different sizing and cutting for males and females because of the physical differences. It is easier for people to view the products in different body shapes and genders.
Q. In the 1980s, HK stars were flamboyant, daring and not afraid to show their trueselves. In today’s society, why do you think self-expression is important?
Today’s situation is the opposite of the 1980s, in terms of the image and style of the stars and general public. Back then, it was a peak period for the entertainment industry — we had many revolutionary icons like Leslie Cheung, Anita Mui and Roman Tam, who were famed for their rebellious style and performances, and were pioneers on the stage. You can see so many singers and entertainers, no matter in Japan or Hong Kong, who were eager to show off their unique style. However, in today’s society, because of the development of social media, everyone can be a influencer or thought leader. We record what we do, think and see daily and share with other people. This trend is about self-expression and personality.
Q. What is one fashion trend that you hope never comes back?
It is a difficult question. As a brand designer I guess I should say fast fashion? But I am not quite sure. Every trend and brand has its own value. If they can exist in the market, it means they have value and that people are sustaining it. We don’t have any right to judge whether they should be never come back unless you view it in the context of the environment.
Q.Music is a large part of the runway experience. How does sound/music influence the way you view fashion?
Music and fashion are both a form of creation. They both transform your idea and concept into a form of art. Music is a sense of hearing. Fashion is a body art. They are actually very similar — just the medium of presentation is different. To have good music and fashion, we need a talented composer, lyricist and fashion designer to execute their ideas in a sophisticated way. So when I listen to the music, especially Cantopop (which is my mother language), I always try to put myself into the lyricist’s mind and learn from their skills and techniques to present their story in a poetic way. To absorb the work of other talents is one of the ways I learn and improve my design mindset.
Q. What is your all-time favourite track that inspires you?
Classical music, from soprano opera to Cantonese opera. I am quite obsessed with high-pitched music but I am not sure of the reason.
Q. From the punk-inspired revolution of Vivienne Westwood to the Indie-rock androgyny of Hedi Slimane, the world of fashion is filled with music references. Why do you think that is?
Fashion is not just a visual form of expression. It is about combining different senses, including hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling. And a full fashion presentation is a compound (I used compound instead of mixture because there is a chemical reaction between different media) of different forms of art, from the clothes, to the stage design, music, make-up, etc. It’s no wonder music has a very close relationship with fashion.
Q. Total silence when you design, yes or no? Why?
Not exactly total silence. When I design I prefer to have no one talking to me and disturbing me. I prefer to have some music in the background so I find some music that’s related to the idea and theme that I am creating in that collection. Then I immerse myself in the atmosphere of the idea that I create.
Q. If your designs could sing, speak, call out to you or make any sort of sound, what would you be hearing and why?
Shine bright. Everyone is a star and can be a star.
Held in collaboration between KEF and Lane Crawford, the 10 Asian Designers To Watch exhibition will be held in Shanghai from March 31 to April 11 in an effort to spotlight the most promising young talents in fashion across Asia. Highlighting the role of sound and music both to inspire and bolster the power of fashion, the KEF Experience Zone will allow attendees to engage with the latest cutting-edge audio technology to transport the mind within the headspace of the designers. Find out more online here.
Cover Image: Derek Chan / DEMO