Credit: Russell James
The 38-year-old Edison Chen in a Ralph Lauren tuxedo and boots.
Who doesn’t remember Edison Chen? He’s the Canadian-born, (then) Hong Kong-based actor and singer who was one of the most recognisable faces in Asian show business in the ’00s, headlining some of Hong Kong Film Awards winners’ movies such as “Infernal Affairs” and “Initial D”. The locals affectionately know him by his Chinese name, Chen Koon-hei, the king of Cantonese and Mandarin hip-hop who pioneered the genre in Asia, way before it became a trend that it is today. Along with his passion, he brought streetwear culture into Hong Kong and Asia. In 2003, together with his childhood friend, Kevin Poon, Chen started his own fashion label, Clot. The brand is known for collaborating with Nike and Kanye West, and for bringing the international rapper to Hong Kong for his “Touch the Sky” tour — Hong Kong was his only stop in Asia. But all the fame and popularity did not bring him any contentment or joy. It got to a point where he was frustrated and felt it was “demeaning” to be treated as a bargaining chip among management companies. After a series of other less-than-happy events, he left Hong Kong (he said was going to “be away from Hong Kong entertainment indefinitely”) and settled down in Los Angeles.
In the last decade that he has gone under the radar, one thing has not changed — Chen, now 38, is still the same man behind Clot. The 15-year-old brand was built upon the idea of bridging Eastern and Western cultures, a philosophy that is dear to Chen’s heart. It harked back to his heyday, when people would always make fun of the way he dressed and the way he spoke, which very much took after the streetwear culture he was used to. “It wasn’t such a big thing in the late ’90s, early 2000 in Asia. Maybe in Japan, but not the rest of Asia,” said Chen, whom T Singapore met at The Polo Bar in New York for this cover shoot, earlier in September.
Edison Chen is wearing a Ralph Lauren sweater and his own jeans.
At that time, Chen wanted people to understand what he was doing, what he was representing. Clot was conceptualised by Chen and Poon as a gateway for introducing the brands they love into Hong Kong and China. It was also intended as a platform to collaborate with international names. At the same time, Chen also noticed there was a huge gap in high quality, well-designed Chinese products in the American market. “What’s important to us is to be recognised by the world that we are a Chinese brand, but we work with the best company,” says Chen. Clot has been Chen’s longest project to date, and his passion for it has never waned, evident from the way he was expounding on the concept of Clot with such passion. Today, Clot is stocked at multi-label boutiques such as Dover Street Market, and soon, at Selfridges.
More than just a fashion label, Clot also boasts a retail space, Juice, which is a fashion and lifestyle store offering a range of curated apparel and goods from around the world. Today, Juice has 10 boutiques globally, including Hong Kong, China and Los Angeles.
Edison Chen in Ralph Lauren tuxedo and boots.
One of his idols in the fashion industry is Tomoaki Nagao (affectionately known as Nigo), founder of Japanese streetwear label and lifestyle brand, A Bathing Ape. During one of Chen’s trips to visit him in Japan, Nigo urged him to make something out of the energy that he (Chen) had, which was his fame and popularity. In addition, “There are lyrics from rappers like Tupac Shakur that inspired me [and made me] understand the power that I have,” said Chen.
Like the essence of all streetwear brands, Clot is actively doing collaborations with international brands such as Nike and Converse. It took a while for a collaboration with the former to eventuate — that marked the sportswear giant’s first crossover with a Hong Kong label — as Nike had rejected Chen the first time, mainly because of the stigma of having a “Made in China” label. That was a motivating factor to level up his game and Chen then spent the next three years improving product quality and design to prove that his standards of work and creativity are by no means inferior. His efforts were certainly not wasted as Clot and Nike have launched numerous shoe designs since then.
Edison Chen in Ralph Lauren sweater, coat and trousers.
Chen shared that he had often had to ask himself how he could prevent China-made products from being spurned by consumers. The answer: by boldly taking the brand out to the world. In March this year, Clot presented at New York Fashion Week for the first time, and it was by invitation from the CFDA (The Council of Fashion Designers of America) to be part of the China Day line-up. In June, Clot set up a pop-up store, and brought the vibrant Hong Kong night market scene to Paris Men’s Fashion Week, and showcased collaboration capsules with brands such as Sacai and Fear of God. And earlier last month, Clot collaborated on a T-shirt with Dover Street Market in conjunction with the latter’s new Los Angeles store. On the front of a white T-shirt, “Welcome to DSM Los Angeles” is written in Chinese characters, while at the back, a riff on the classic California flag that says “Clotifornia Republic”.
“People think we are selfish because we don’t collaborate with a lot of Chinese companies, but that is not true,” said Chen, who recently turned his attention to China for new talent and has signed on Chinese graphic designers and photographers. “They don’t speak English much, but through me, I feel like I can give them some guidance and pointers, and hopefully one day, when I retire, these people can live with teachings that are aligned with our kind of standards and viewpoints.”
Edison Chen in a Ralph Lauren sweater and Polo Ralph Lauren parka.
Last year, Chen gave a talk at the US-China Entrepreneurship Business Forum held at New York University. As an entrepreneur, he inspired the next generation of Chinese youths to strive for quality that meets international standards, not something that is just “good enough for China”.
Chen’s achievements to date certainly provide inspiration to many Chinese youths around the world, even to those who are in their early 20s (those who were too young then to have known Chen in his heyday as an entertainer). But as he mentioned earlier, he wants to put the influence he has to good use; to inspire a new generation of Chinese youths, to instill a mindset that Chinese culture and heritage are rich enough to make quality products that are desired around the world.
“But how do we change the view of what people [in the world] think of us?” asked Chen.
Edison Chen in a Ralph Lauren sweater, his own jeans and sneakers.
To Chen, the record-breaking box office movie “Crazy Rich Asians” — Hollywood’s first all-Asian cast in 25 years — is still very stereotypical. Previously, Chen had been to movie castings where he was requested to tone down his fluent English with a Chinese accent. The Chinese culture or flavour, while it is more widely acceptable and exposed these days, is still forcefully juxtaposed.
“We have to bend their thinking through great products and, art and creativity. There are a lot of people who are open to the idea of expressing themselves. But a lot of them are also looking for monetary value only,” said Chen. “Making money is important, but at the same time, making products that are agreeable around the world is more important right now.”
Work and creative endeavours aside, Chen shared that he spent only four days in the summer working, and the rest with his family. Last March, Chen and supermodel partner Shupei Qin welcomed a baby girl, Alaia, into the family. “I’m trying to be a good father. I don’t know how to exactly define that, but I just want to spend as much time and guide my child as much as possible, to show her much of the world as I possibly can,” said Chen, in a softened tone, rich with emotions.
It’s a dream come true for Chen who, just three years earlier, had done a documentary with Vice that ended with him expressing his dream to start a family.
Edison Chen in a Ralph Lauren tuxedo.
“It’s invaluable. Money…” said Chen as he brought his thoughts back to the interview. “Money can’t replace the feeling of seeing my daughter walk or speak for the first time,” said Chen, after a long pause. He feels that people have changed their perspective on him ever since he became a father. “It’s interesting to see how having a family affects people’s view of you. Just yesterday, Ralph Lauren [the designer] saw me asked ‘Where’s your daughter?’” “And I said, ‘[but] I’m here, what’s up?’ He seems to like my daughter a lot,” shared Chen, with a smile.
The young Chen had the opportunity to meet Lauren a couple of times in the past. Earlier this year, Chen posted a photo of baby Alaia and Qin with Lauren on his Instagram (he has over 2 million followers as of press time) after Ralph Lauren’s show during New York Fashion Week. Earlier in our conversation, Chen mentioned he attended the Ralph Lauren 50th anniversary party yesterday. To Chen, the invitation was a testament to his perseverance and creative culture in the industry. “We are trying to push the envelope with our creativity and it’s amazing that Polo Ralph Lauren accepts us,” said Chen, revealing that his next project in collaboration with the brand’s Polo range is a validation of his work that pushes him to the next level; a project that he also claims to be “the most challenging I ever had”.
“I don’t want to put a logo on something and say ‘hey, we did it.’ I want to penetrate the market further so that it makes sense with this Chinese identity and how to infuse that into [Ralph Lauren’s] 50 years of heritage and make sense [of] it, not gimmicks,” said Chen of the project.
The Ralph Lauren polo shirt is something that is close to Chen’s heart. When Chen moved from Vancouver to Hong Kong, his father would often dress him in polo shirts. As he was presented with the Polo Ralph Lauren project, he took a look through his high school yearbooks and realised that in every year’s photo, he had always been the one wearing the polo shirt. Growing up as a hip-hop fan, he looked up to Wu-Tang Clan whose members were (usually) all “Polo-ed out”.
“At that time, I was wearing [an] extra large. It would go down to my knees,” Chen recollected with a laugh. “These days, I wear small or medium. The cut and fit of Polo on your body is very telling of what kind of person you are.”
“And I think I’ve grown not just in the way I am as a person, but in fashion as well.”