Chelsea Mak is very much a Los Angeles clothing label. It is imbued with the intricate contradictions of a city that is impossible to replicate: diverse and homogeneous, rebellious and formal, old and new money. It’s a city with invasive palm trees and an image invented by outsiders; a glamour perpetrated by movies and popular songs. But only a native Angeleno could dream up a clothing label that plays with these stereotypes. Last week, Chelsea Mak premiered a video, entitled Lost Spirit, for the new SS20 collection at Zebulon in Los Angeles. Inspired by a gorgeously composed song by Paul Dally, and based on the mood of the collection, the video is an idiosyncratic 8mm love letter to a city permanently bathed in a kind of blurring, dissociative sunlight that shines over crystalline swimming pools and wide lane boulevards. We got a chance to ask Chelsea a few questions about her new collection and label.
Autre: What was the impetus for starting the Chelsea Mak label?
Chelsea Mak: It was the need for creative expression and having my own voice. It was honestly also the result of a mental breakdown. I was at a point in my life when I was being pulled into all these different directions professionally and personally that resulted in me hitting the life-reset button hard. I didn't know why at the moment, but there was something 'missing' in my life, and I guess it was this.
Autre: What did you do before fashion?
Mak: I always did fashion! I had a small stint in fashion PR before doing design, but for the most part I was a designer. I spent the most formative years of my career at Band of Outsiders with Scott Sternberg, who very much shaped who I am as a designer. I also designed for other LA brands, like Current Elliott, Raquel Allegra and Entireworld before Chelsea Mak.
Autre: Chelsea Mak has really interesting silhouettes in its collections - pattern-wise, how would you define the look of the brand?
Mak: Forgiving and versatile. So much of womenswear out there is so overtly sexy and form fitting, nipped, tucked and uptight. Or it goes the other way and you're wearing a sack. The silhouettes speak to the brand’s message, which says you can be elegant/cool, revealing/tasteful, laid back/proper all at the same time.
Autre: Can you describe the inspiration or mood behind the new collection?
Mak: I was inspired by a few different things, in no particular order: Los Angeles, Sarah Morris’ film 'Abu Dhabi', the 80s, sex, spirituality, and Joel Chen of JF Chen's Instagram.
Because the brand is based here I really wanted to tie the collection back to LA. I always get such a sense of Los Angeles when driving through Hancock Park and that sorta led me into an obsession with the community and houses there.
I also watched this amazing film by Sarah Morris called 'Abu Dhabi' while visiting White Cube gallery in Hong Kong last fall. It's very political and I am in no way inspired by that, but the colors in the film are amazing. There's a lot of driving through the arid deserts of Abu Dhabi - dusty blues, sand tones, the ocean, and then pops of bright colors from commercialism. That piece very much informed the color palette of the collection.
The 80's — I'm always inspired by the 80's. I like to describe the brand’s muse as if Norma Kamali skipped cotillion and went to a punk show. Then the next day had to have dim sum with her godfather before going to an internship in her 80's power suit.
Sex / Spirituality – Everyone seems to be really into spirituality right now — seeking higher meanings, deeper connectivity, finding self. Maybe it’s LA, or maybe it’s just me, but this year has involved a lot of diving in and doing work on myself. I feel like I've only scratched the surface. Spirituality, love, sex, self is all one for me.
Autre: You utilize some really interesting fabrics, where do you go to source the materials for your collections?
Mak: Most of the collection is made from deadstock silks that I find in the local fabric markets in Shanghai. No one uses silk taffeta and silk shantung nowadays because it seems so dated and old lady but I'm very drawn to it.
Autre: The video you made for the new collection is fantastic, it’s a paean to Los Angeles but also to Hancock Park - is it the architecture, the beauty, the people?
Mak: Yes! The architecture. I follow JF Chen's Instagram who is a family friend on Instagram and he's always posting these amazing homes in Hancock Park while he goes on neighborhood strolls. Something stuck to me and inspired me. Also low key obsessed with the people — I'm not sure it's kosher to say I'm obsessed with the Hassidic Jewish community but I'm just fascinated because it's a community I'm not apart of. It feels secret and mystical.
Autre: You mentioned that each piece in the collection is named after a street in Hancock Park.
Mak: Yes! Each piece is named after a street in Hancock Park. I always name my styles something funny. Last season all the pieces were named after famous Chinese movie stars from the 80's. It's whatever I want to tie the collection back to.
Autre: The song in the video is great, was it composed exclusively for the video?
Mak: Yes, 'Lost Spirit' was written and composed by Paul Dally exclusively for the collection. I discovered Paul Dally through Reverberation Radio earlier this year and listened to his album New American on repeat during the inception of this season. It's very somber and heart wrenching and spoke to me so much, so that I knew I needed to get in touch with the artist and see if he would do a piece together.
Autre: How did you and Paul Dally communicate the mood for the video?
Mak: After a brief intro via DM on Instagram, I emailed Paul with the mood board and described this 'journey' I was feeling for the muse, which was the search for love through spirituality. But in doing so, ultimately surrendering and finding herself. I wanted the song and the film to feel like an emotional wash more than anything and I was really specific about that.
There was a sense of simpatico right off the bat. He asked me a bunch of questions in return but before I got a chance to answer them he sent a song over and it really hit the nail on the head. The first song he sent me was a 'go’ and the only big edit we really did was to make it more upbeat for the film so the viewer wouldn’t get too sad. The original edit is pretty melancholy.
Autre: You are a native Angeleno, how does the city reflect in the label?
Mak: I grew up in San Marino, a stone’s throw from LA proper with landmarks like the Huntington Library and the Norton Simon Museum in my backyard so there’s that sort of Old LA, old world, buttoned up style that you can really feel in Chelsea Mak.
My mom and I were in this mother/daughter organization called National Charity League. It’s funny because while this meant we had “made it” into this part of Pasadena society, we were still one of the two Chinese American families and we were very much outsiders. I remember almost missing my debutante tea because I got too stoned the night before and slept in at my boyfriend’s house. My parents had sent my best friend (one of the cinematographers of “‘Lost Spirit’) to get me the morning of. I remember her speeding down the 110 freeway to get me to the Biltmore Hotel downtown. It’s not a proud moment but informs this rebel debutante vibe that’s very brand, that and being Chinese.
I’m also always super inspired by how all the kids dress at shows like at the Echoplex or warehouse parties when I used to go to them. And all the skaters you see on the Eastside, maybe more influential in attitude than anything. So there’s really a lot of LA in a lot of different ways.
Autre: Who are some of your ultimate style icons?
Oh man, this is hard. Sometimes I wish I could dress more like a man than a woman — Pablo Picasso, Bernard Sumner in the 80s, all the ladies who lunch.
Autre: What kind of advice would you give to young designers starting out in a rapidly evolving retail economy?
Mak: I think the advice I would give is...be authentic to your vision, stay humble and don't be afraid to ask for help. No matter how much you think you know or think you can do yourself, there's always someone else with more experience, connections or even just more time. And when it's your turn don't forget to pay it forward.
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