(Designers)

Meet the L.A. Designer Behind Some of Instagram’s Most Viral Pieces

How Chelsea Mak is building a community around her deeply personal brand.

Courtesy of Chelsea Mak

Though it’s been a while, fashion brands know how to throw a party. They’re fancy, have plenty of elbow-rubbing opportunities with interesting folks, and if you position yourself just right, you’ll never miss a passed-appetizer opportunity. But that’s not exactly the kind of party designer Chelsea Mak has in mind when it comes to her eponymous brand of dressed-up pieces in taffeta and vintage-inspired styles with a thoughtful touch of frill. “What I envisioned is bringing back that old-school Tupperware party vibe,” she says, “just women getting together and shopping.” Of course, the reality is that Mak, like all designers, isn’t in a party-planning mode for the time being yet she’s still finding a way to connect with her community and making a case for special-feeling, if not necessarily special-occasion, clothing.

The Los Angeles-born and -based Mak launched her label in 2018 after honing her craft at labels including Band of Outsiders, Raquel Allegra, and Entireworld. “When I started my own brand I really was looking up to designers here in L.A. and New York, these dynamic women,” says Mak over Zoom. “I saw the lifestyle and business model that Jesse Kamm or Beatrice Valenzuela have and I really looked up to how they incorporated community and their personal lifestyles into their career. I thought if I could achieve that it could be such a win.”

The result is a collection of pieces that take inspiration from designs from the ‘80 — formative years for Mak who’s now 35 — that have sharp tailoring but pack a punch with their use of detail and volume. It’s not over-the-top and it doesn't feel directly plucked from a vintage store, either. They’re “lady clothes for cool girls,” as Mak notably describes them. “A lot of girlfriends my age, there’s sort of this nostalgia for the time we grew up in that didn’t feel spoken to in the market.” She says her line hits the sweet spot of accessible cool that's unfussy, unprecious, and unpretentious. And, as Instagram documents, it’s catching on.

“The Vienna blouse was like a haphazard mistake,” she says of a ruffled-collar, button-down shirt that’s become easy to spot on Instagram from its many influencer fans, including Sissy Sainte Marie and Olivia Lopez. “I didn’t even know if I liked it or not,” she admits of her first impression of the now-viral design. “It just came out as this really sculptural, loud thing. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m just going to go with it, it looks different from what’s out there.’” In more recent collections, it’s been the Élea Shrug — a ribbed, two-piece set — that’s become widely recognizable on the backs of stylish insiders, too. “I never know what’s going to be popular. It’s just going with the feeling of what I want to design,” she says. “The shrug is really funny. I forget why I wanted to do it, I just kept sketching it.” The inspiration made much more sense after the piece went live on her site. “Somebody that I hadn’t talked to since middle school commented on Instagram and said ‘You were wearing a shrug like that in your photo when you were Best Dressed in 8th grade.’”

There’s so much more history — both personal and generally speaking — in the line past the surface level, as well. Produced in Shanghai, where Mak, a first-generation Chinese and Taiwanese American, would visit as a child, the collection uses deadstock fabric each season. “A lot of my brand is so inspired by old-world aesthetics and old-world tailoring, and the relationship you used to have with your tailors which is exactly the relationship I have with mine in Shanghai.” This past year when travel to meet with her collaborators in Asia wasn’t possible, she maintained a purely digital connection to create the Spring/Summer ‘21 collection that features her signature taffeta specialties as well as cotton separates that feel easy but still have a dose of glamour. The inspiration ranges from Jean Luc Godard’s politically charged 1967 film, La Chinoise, to the Japanese psychedelic rock band Les Rallizes Dénudés. “All my collections are sort of these pieces of different areas that I’m really inspired by at the moment, melded together.

Courtesy of Chelsea Mak

To hear Mak talk about the process of modernizing vintage silhouettes or her relationship with her tailors on the other side of the globe, it makes sense why she leans toward small, intimate gatherings and close community to showcase her brand: there’s a rich story behind every garment, maybe too much to capture in a straightforward model shot or a fleeting moment on the runway. That said, given the realities of running a fashion brand in 2021, Mak did turn to a lookbook to present her newest collection, but fittingly not in a run-of-the-mill kind of way.

“We decided to make a calendar because it felt so right to look forward to 2021,” Mak shares of the collage-style design created in collaboration with Woon, a Chinese restaurant in Historic Filipinotown in L.A., and its founder Keegan Fong. The calendar features model Vermeer Ha posing in the Spring/Summer collection in and around Woon. To top off each page, Mak included a Chinese proverb for each month, words of advice passed down by her maternal grandfather.

“This collection was supposed to be launched as an in-person presentation on Woon's patio where guests could show up, view the collection on models in person, then leave with dinner,” she says, adding that she decided on a virtual dinner party instead. “I think it turned out for the best and was really pleased with the impact it made amongst our community!”

Courtesy of Chelsea Mak

The brand is intended to grow and change along with Mak, be it responding to her closest friends becoming mothers — “I see and hear the need for simple yet appropriately chic wardrobe pieces that will make you stand out subtly but won't break your heart if your toddler uses them as a napkin.” — or, in the case of the last year, an emphasis on comfortable dressing. “I’ve been speaking to the new normal in my own ways,” she says, referring specifically to designs like the Kowloon Pant. “It’s still a pretty Avant-Garde and designed silhouette, but in a really comfy shirting fabric, because I don’t know about everyone else, I don’t wear loungewear at home every day. I’m just kind of sick of it.”

As she sees it, Chelsea Mak is for the woman who wants to get dressed and appreciates each piece she owns. “The way the clothes are designed, with the fits, this isn’t something that you’ll throw out in a couple of years. You’re still going to look good in it when you’re 40 or 50.” In this way, Mak aligns her brand with the slow-fashion movement, too — one that values quality over quantity of clothing and makes sense for a more conscious consumer. “I rather people buy one of something of mine and that’s it and have it forever.”

As for parties — Tupperware or otherwise — they're still on the backburner but Mak's feeling hopeful. "At some point, when we’re all out of this, it’s sort of going to be the roaring '20s and everyone’s going to want to be dressed up again."

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