Browsing through the cabinets of Chan’s Soho boutique feels like discovering the fantastical treasures of a distant land, brought back and displayed alongside the designer’s unique collection of taxidermy creatures – a tribute to the remarkable forms of the natural world that captured the designer’s heart from an early age. “I’ve been collecting taxidermy, as well as butterflies and beetles, for 15 years,” explains Chan. “Travelling is one of my biggest passions and when I was younger I would visit the jungle and work with local scientists to study the insects and collect specimens that had died naturally.” Originally, this early fascination with the wonders of nature remained just a hobby for Chan, who embarked on a career in architecture while boxes of neatly categorised specimens slowly stacked up in her home.
It wasn’t until a transition into the world of fashion that Chan’s passion was fully unleashed, winning a role at Alexander McQueen to work in print and embroidery. “When I went to the interview, I didn’t have any experience in fashion, but I had a portfolio of paintings and drawings from studying flora and fauna, exotic birds, butterflies and so on – things that have a duality, such as the blossoming life of a flower, and the decay that follows. It was that sort of visual language that they felt fitted well with McQueen’s aesthetics, and won me the job.” From there, for the first time, Chan was able to enjoy a symbiosis between her work and her passion, working directly under Lee [Alexander] McQueen, a figure who greatly influenced Chan’s creative vision. “It was such an honour to be a part of his team,” she explains. “Lee’s work was so poetic and was all about pushing the boundaries of creativity and craftsmanship. The idea of storytelling and creating a narrative definitely stuck with me too.” However, after four formative years under the brand, Chan found herself craving a slower, more considered pace of creativity. “I became tired with how fast-paced fashion was and how much we were having to produce and design each season,” says Chan. “I also missed making things with my own hands – in fashion you lose that tangibility.”
A JOURNEY INTO JEWELLERY
In search of a new direction, Chan enrolled to train as a jeweller at the royal College of Art. As the course progressed, she found herself once more returning to her homemade archive of natural specimens, drawn back to the forms that had inspired her for decades. “I started building butterfly sculptures using wings I had collected over the years, using a jeweller’s technique to build the structure and set them. The wings are so fragile and it’s a very delicate procedure, much like jewellery, where everything is on a small scale and has to be very precise,” says Chan. The finished pieces were presented at Chan’s final show – mesmerising, intricate sculptures made from splayed butterfly wings. “I studied the internal structure of a flower and how that could be translated into a mechanical system,” she explains. “I saw the pieces I created as almost like an immortal flower.”
Chan still handcrafts the sculptures for clients today, alongside a diverse jewellery line which draws inspiration from everything from fruit-laden orchards and blossoming flower gardens to vivid rainforests. All pieces are handmade in Chan’s London workshop, using laboratory-grown stones – a modern material that Chan believes perfectly complements her traditional approach to craftsmanship. “I made a very conscious decision to champion gemstones grown in a lab over those mined from the ground after visiting a mine during my honeymoon in Sri Lanka,” explains Chan. “It was a life-changing experience – witnessing the conditions people worked in and what a risky operation it is, I concluded there must be a better alternative. The more I learned about laboratory- grown stones, the more I fell in love with the material. not only is it more sustainable and ethical, but it opens my pieces up to a much wider price point and therefore a broader demographic.” Chan believes that the merits of these precious materials have rarely been showcased to their fullest extent until now. “In the past, lab-grown stones have been used in quite plain settings, but that is changing and we are proud to champion that change. We are one of the first brands to embrace the material in the way you would a mined stone – we don’t treat it any differently.” Chan’s ambitious, exciting designs illustrate the untapped potential of laboratory- grown stones. “We still receive the stone in the rough and cut and polish it in the way you would a mined stone – the only difference is the origin. I think people are opening up to these stones more and more, particularly when we showcase them with the craft and design they deserve.”
The process of developing the brand’s elaborate designs begins with a mood board for each collection, collated by Chan, followed by a highly traditional making process, which snubs CAD [computer-aided design] models in favour of hand-carved wax prototypes, which are then cast into metal and worked into with more engraving and detailing, constantly evolving under the hand of the craftsperson. “It’s a very manual process,” explains Chan. “Each piece can change significantly throughout development – that’s when you see it start to come to life.” Chan believes that her diverse career history also lends her designs particular flair. “My architecture training means I look at jewellery design from a different perspective – it’s very much about proportions and scale and the relationship between space and the human body, as well as the technicality of how pieces fit together,” she says. “And my fashion training with McQueen gave me a real love of craft-based creativity. I merge all of these different skill sets and perspectives into my jewellery.” This unique combination helps Chan stand out in the market, attracting a clientele looking for something more unusual than the pared-back offerings of the familiar jewellery brands. “Our customers come to us for something special, different and joyful,” she explains. “They tell us that they could be in a bad mood or wearing a plain outfit, but then they put on one of our cocktail rings and it uplifts their spirit and they feel empowered.”
Chan’s brand is also unique for its decidedly friendly, approachable customer experience, which Chan hopes challenges the often intimidating atmosphere that surrounds some fine jewellery brands. “We make sure visiting our boutique is a relaxed, fun and enjoyable experience,” she explains. “regardless of whether or not someone makes a purchase, I want them to have a good time visiting and trying on our pieces.” Chan believes that the approachability of her brand is reflected in the broad demographic it attracts. “We have customers ranging from their late teens to their early 80s and I am immensely proud of that,” she explains. “It demonstrates that an increasing amount of people are open to the idea of fun jewellery that you can enjoy wearing for years to come.”
St. James’s Market, 1 Carlton Street, SW1Y 4QQ. 020 7024 9848.