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A dying art: Chan Shaw’s work showcased in Sydney

on 15/08/2019

An exhibition has opened in Sydney featuring the work of one of Australia’s most remarkable fashion designers.

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From a Chinese migrant family, Vivian Chan Shaw’s hand-knitted garments have for decades attracted international attention.

Chan Shaw’s unique attention to detail led to a lifetime’s work and it all started casually.

“Somebody wanted somebody in a fashion shop. I thought, I might just sort of stick my nose in and see what I can do,“ the fashion designer recalls.

More than stick her nose in, Chan Shaw became a trailblazer of Australian fashion in the ’70s and ’80s. Propelled by necessity, as a single mother of four children.

“But when I got into it, more and more and more, I loved it, it was sort of like second nature,” she says. “I thought, I am home, this is it!’

Her family had been here a while. Migrating in the Gold Rush in 1860, but she was born in Hong Kong, then raised in Sydney – as a fashionable child. Her mother owned a clothing boutique and her grandmother taught her how to knit.

As a designer, she pioneered working with artisan hand loomers and innovative and experimental knit-wear became her trademark.

“It’s sort of like a dying art, because it’s very hard to do and very time consuming,” says Chan Shaw. “It’s not as easy as say running up a garment on a sewing machine, so that’s the difficult part.”

Chan Shaw’s daughter, designer Claudia Chan Shaw, works with her mother, and says it’s not just the designs that are unique, but also the way they are made.

“To find something hand made in Australia, let alone Sydney – you know everything these days is made in China and India and Bangladesh – it’s very, very unusual,” says Claudia. “Sometimes you’ll have Australian designers having little capsule collections made in Australia, but it’s very, very rare for an Australian designer to have the complete collection – every single piece, including jewellery, all made here.”

Chan Shaw approached America and Europe with a single focus and the oldest sales and export technique.

“We used to take what we call a ‘trunk show’ over, which means you take a whole lot of garments, put them in a bag, and have a showing,” she says. “We usually sold the whole lot. We would come back without any.”

The secret: her distinctive process.

Each handmade garment is valuable because they couldn’t be copied en masse. Like her daughter’s wedding dress, worn once, and now in the Powerhouse Museum.

It all helped Australia’s fashion image. Before Vivian, Australia’s only fashion image was of Drizabones and swimwear.

“Vivian opened doors in those famous American department stores that were so tough,” says fashion luminary Leanne Whitehouse. “And to sell to those department stores – you didn’t sell a collection of knits – you sold a top, and there was a buyer for the tops, and there was a buyer for the skirts and a buyer for the dresses, and to have a cohesive collection sitting in one of those department stores was like winning the lottery.”

Through four decades of Vivian Chan Shaw’s designs, a distinct and unwavering style has endured, remarkable in the fast changing world of fashion.

She puts her longevity down to this uniqueness.

“We are different. We aren’t for everybody, therefore we have a selected sort of clientele,” says Chan Shaw. “If they love us, they love us forever. Really, they have grown old with me, together.

Vivian Chan Shaw designs to her own rhythm; she’s not a slave to fashion. Her elegant flounces, unique colouring and hand-made detail inspire intense loyalty from her life-long customers – local and international.

A special design commissioned for Barbie’s 30th birthday is attracting wearers such as Dionne Warwick and Margaux Hemingway.

At 78 and still working, Chan Shaw has surprised even herself with the way it all turned out.

“I was thunderstruck,” she says of walking through her own retrospective. “I thought, God – is that what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years? I mean – I must have!”

Vivian Chan Shaw – 40 Years, A Retrospective is on display until 13 February in Sydney.


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