Vivian Chan Shaw Celebrates 40 Years of Avant-Garde Knitwear

Vivian Chan Shaw Celebrates 40 Years of Avant-Garde Knitwear
(Vivian Chan Shaw)

Chinese Australian fashion designer Vivian Chan Shaw is known all over the world as a source of amazing and unique hand-made knitwear. This year marks the 40th anniversary of her eponymous fashion label and to celebrate Vivian and her daughter Claudia, co-director of the label, have launched a retrospective exhibition at the Whitehouse Institute of Design in Sydney.

An official event of the City of Sydney Chinese New Year Festival, the exhibition features garments starting from the first collections designed in fabric in the early 1970's and follows the transition to the hand loomed knitwear for which Vivian Chan Shaw has a global reputation.

Vivian Chan Shaw began her fashion career in the 1960’s and launched her eponymous label in 1972. Working out of a small boutique under Sydney’s Hilton Hotel and selling hand-made one-off designs in exclusive fabrics, the label was discovered by international stars Margaux Hemingway and Bo Derek, who were guests at the Hilton at the time.

Although she originally began crafting her garments in fabric, the prevalence of fabric clothing encouraged Vivian to seek out a more unique and individual medium with which to craft her fine garments. The solution came in the form of a hand loom, the machine through which Vivian Chan Shaw has fashioned a global following and a legacy that will last for generations to come.

A refusal to succumb to fashion trends combined with obsessive attention to detail has made Vivian Chan Shaw an icon of avant-garde women’s wear. Painstakingly crafted stitch by stitch on the hand loom, each one-off piece is a work of art characterised by the sumptuous fibres and the soft, draping structure that flatters the female form.  Hers is a form of artisan couture rarely found in the world of contemporary fashion.

Although Vivian Chan Shaw is a fashion icon, her designs are distinctly anti-fashion – “an alternative, different way of dressing,” according to Claudia. The most rebellious characteristic of the label is the signature lack of tailoring that defies prevailing fashion trends but ensures a comfortable fit that does not constrain the body.  By avoiding the physical constraints of skinny-model couture, Vivian Chan Shaw provides women who do not have the “perfect model body” with a source of luxury designer garments.

An insight into the Vivian Chan Shaw ideology is the typical Vivian Chan Shaw customer as described by Claudia. “Our target market is a woman over the age of 30 who is confident, sure of herself, doesn’t mind looking different and is not a trend slave,” Claudia explains. “Our designs are not girly, they are very sophisticated – they are alluring as opposed to revealing,” Claudia adds.

Vivian and Claudia’s unique vision has ensured that a Vivian Chan Shaw creation is instantly recognisable. Claudia describes the garments as “soft, feminine, and floaty – a combination of comfort and glamour that goes way beyond the knitted jumper.” From the carefully chosen colours to the use of variegated yarns to create impressionist-like fabrics, every component of every garment is a reflection of the unique Vivian Chan Shaw ethos.

The launch of the retrospective exhibition as part of the Chinese New Year Festival alludes to Vivian and Claudia’s Chinese heritage, elements of which are incorporated into the range. The label’s trademark soft lines and fluid, flowing forms are a reference to traditional Chinese dress that results in the cross-over look that is a feature of many of the signature designs.

As well as the reference to their Chinese heritage, Vivian and Claudia also pay homage to their Australian heritage – particularly with their choice of colours. A shipment of items exported to the US and the UK were instantly identified as being of Australian origin because of their colours. “The rich greens and vivid blues evocative of the direct, bright sunlight of Australia are recognisably Australian,” says Claudia.

According to Claudia, if there is one phrase that sums up the Vivian Chan Shaw label it would be a comment made by a customer that “everything is so beautiful, elegant and refined.”  The one piece in the exhibition that best reflects the statement is probably a fabulous piece from the 1970's that is being loaned to the exhibition by a customer. The garment is inspired by a Cheongsam, with high neck and hand-made buttons. It's from the “Margaux” series. Why Margaux? Because the glamorous Margaux Hemingway bought this piece when she visited Sydney as the face of the fragrance “Babe.”

Vivian Chan Shaw: A Retrospective” is at the Whitehouse Institute of Design until 13 February 2013