Chelsea Scott-Blackhall: East, West, A Cut Above the Rest
Chelsea Scott-Blackhall has two things in common with one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Their names both have “Scott” in them, but that’s stating the obvious. In The Crack-Up, a compilation of articles written by Fitzgerald, he opined that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” By espousing this contradiction, Chelsea has created a definitive ethos for her own label, Dzojchen, whilst simultaneously translating it into form through the use of hard and soft fabrics. Her latest Cruise Spring/Summer 2016 collection which was showcased at Singapore Fashion Week in May, displayed her ability to rise to the occasion and progressively evolve beyond the confines of being purely a denim brand – a notable departure from when she first launched in 2011. The runway looks boast pieces like a structured blazer treated with metallic gold brocade detailing, a leather motorcycle jacket and, for a fillip of sex appeal, a plunging neckline silk crepe de Chine blouse that elicits your attention. This womenswear line of sophisticated, insouciant polishness was put together in just 6 weeks. An incredible feat, which demonstrates her discerning eye and aptitude as a designer.
A wave of excitement hits me, a brief moment before I enter her office. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen many Singaporean designers who are able to transcend their provincial roots and appeal to an international audience. Chelsea has managed to bridge this seemingly insurmountable gap successfully by combining Eastern and Western influences, with a keen business acumen. This engaging mix of urbanity and edgy coolness, stems from her half-Singaporean and half-British heritage, worldly travels, and prior modelling experience – I later discover that the ‘model tag’ is something she tries to shun away from.
In person, Chelsea shines with effulgent beauty: her inky soft wavy hair, pillowy pout, fine sculpted cheekbones and feline-like eyes are instantly noticeable once we exchange handshakes. Wearing a contrast lapel blazer, white button-down blouse, slouchy jeans, and boots, she is a breezy embodiment of ‘comfort smart-casual’. My photographer enters, and the shoot commences first. It’s poetry in motion as each frame captures a dignified elegance that is also personified in her behaviour. Holding good posture, her energy has a certain intriguing mystery – there are elements of softness, strength and cleverness which I find myself inexorably drawn to – like a moth to a flame.
As we begin to chat about her life, business and raison d’être, she suddenly leaves her chair. “Are you sure the music is not too loud?” She asks rhetorically, before lowering the volume. “I worry for you.” I joke about hearing wrongly, and turn my attention back to her.
WY-LENE YAP: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
CHELSEA SCOTT-BLACKHALL: It was quite a mix: architect, veterinarian, lawyer… everything seemed to interest me, and yet it also depended on what stage of my life I was in. When I was five or six, I had a dream of owning an island so that I could take all the stray animals in the world and just put them there… and drive golf buggies. [laughs] Ultimately, you could say my imagination ran wild and my career choices and path followed that imagination.
WY-LENE: Were you raised in a creative environment?
CHELSEA: Yes. My father worked in advertising, my mother (at one time) was a theatre producer, now she’s a child psychologist. Creativity did run in the family when I was growing up and even during Sunday brunches, my dad would tell me about the campaigns that he was working on – SIA was one of his clients! It almost became a game of how to think of angles to brand something, or come up with creative taglines.
WY-LENE: I understand that you lived in Singapore till you were 18. Did you go to New York after that?
CHELSEA: No, I went to New York a few years later. I was mainly in Singapore, but I spent some time in England too. When I finished high school, I went back to London for a couple of years, and then I decided to travel the world. I lived in Australia, Hong Kong, Bangkok… I basically threw a dart. New York was actually meant to be a holiday as I was visiting a friend, but I fell madly in love with the city within the first week, and thereafter kept extending my stay there. What started out as a 10-day trip, turned into a 3-month stay. Eventually, I had to leave because of my tourist visa, and I tried to find every reason to go back. That kinda happened for the first year. Subsequently, I thought: how can I make this work? I loved being in New York, but I couldn’t use that solely as the basis for my reasoning.
WY-LENE: Didn’t you use to model?
CHELSEA: This particular aspect of my life has been brought up a lot in interviews, but it is the one thing I like to shy away from because you get pigeonholed easily and people tend to perceive you in a certain light. I never believed I was particularly good at modelling, which was why I wasn’t invested in it as a career. It fitted my purpose at that time, and I used the money I made to travel.
WY-LENE: How were you discovered?
CHELSEA: I was scouted on the streets of Singapore.
WY-LENE: What age was that?
CHELSEA: Around 20. It seemed interesting then, so I signed on, and quite quickly I started getting opportunities to live in Hong Kong, Bangkok, etc… I was always a commercial girl and not high fashion to begin with. It was more along the lines of: “Do you want to do a pantene hair commercial?” And I would take whatever work that came my way. My modelling career lasted much longer than I had expected because I did fairly well in Asia. When I went to New York, I was able to get a work visa through an agency called Wilhelmina Models. But I soon realised the real world of modelling was completely different from Asian modelling.
WY-LENE: New York is cut-throat.
CHELSEA: It’s more than that. I did not go there with a dream of becoming someone. I simply used it as a stepping stone to figure out other options.
WY-LENE: You did not like modelling at all?
CHELSEA: Saying that would undermine the good it did for me. Modelling was the university of life. I learnt so much about the world and my own passions at the same time. It also taught me how to be street smart, humble, and personable. I won’t say I hated it, I just never felt truly comfortable with it.
WY-LENE: It’s interesting how you didn’t go down that conventional path. Nowadays, a lot of girls aspire to be models.
CHELSEA: To be honest, I never understood my appeal. You see a lot of attractive people on the street. Even now that I’m on the other side of the fence casting models, I sometimes wonder whether I would cast myself. And I don’t think I would. [laughs]
WY-LENE: Did modelling spark your interest in fashion then?
CHELSEA: Absolutely. But it wasn’t the only factor. I always had an appreciation for fashion because I’m a practical person, and it’s practical art.
WY-LENE: What do you mean by practical art?
CHELSEA: People dress themselves every day and I want to create art that is wearable. There is a difference between a straight-cut pair of jeans versus a pair that has an added bit of zhoosh. Being in the fashion industry allowed me to have a better understanding of the various aspects and pin down what I loved about fashion. I didn’t know whether it was the marketing aspect, or the branding part which was more ingrained in me than the actual design… but on the whole, I love the business side, designing, shooting campaigns, or pitching my products. All of my accumulated experiences prior to launching my label played a big part in why I wanted to have my own brand and not work for someone else as a designer.
WY-LENE: You have managed to combine your passion, strengths and interests in what you do.
CHELSEA: I loved business studies and I excelled in that area in school. I also have a strong interest in photography. To be able to incorporate all these elements into something I am creating, fascinates me. I like to wear many hats.
WY-LENE: When did you know you wanted to become a fashion designer?
CHELSEA: I don’t think I ever really knew…
WY-LENE: How about a particular point when you realised: “I can really do this.”
CHELSEA: I still have those moments! When I launched my brand, I didn’t perceive it to be my be-all and end-all. It just made the most sense at that time. If you recall, I went through many years living a life of freedom and being free-spirited. Incidentally, over the course of developing the brand, it came with responsibilities, expectations and a sense of pride. That’s when you start to tick the boxes, and know more about your capabilities.
WY-LENE: Did you launch Dzojchen when you were in New York?
CHELSEA: Yes. Being in New York gave me a lot of exposure to the fashion industry. I can write, style and photograph – but I wanted to create something, so it started with denim. I also felt there was a void in the market whereby denim was just denim… plain and unimaginative. Yet, it was a growing industry at the same time.
WY-LENE: Was that in 2011?
CHELSEA: Yes. I launched my first denim collection in 2011. Those 2 years were tough. It took me a period of time to get my bearings and figure things out: For example, what courses should I take? If I am going to be a boss, I need to know more than my employees. I’m still learning a lot and every day is a learning curve. If I compare what a collection is right now to previous ones – it’s night and day.
WY-LENE: What courses did you take?
CHELSEA: Paper pattern, CAD, animation design, and digital photography. For the first time, I felt the need to educate myself. I can’t expect the skill to come to me magically – I had to be driven and tenacious.
WY-LENE: Why not go to Parsons, FIT or even Central Saint Martins?
CHELSEA: I did not want to specialise in one field and be a designer or a merchandiser. As each year passes, I realise more and more that a degree validates what you are learning, but you can also learn by being in the industry and throwing yourself into the deep end. Even when I hire someone who has a degree, I still have to educate them on how the business works. No matter how smart they are, I always believe that taste and creativity come from one’s sense of self.
WY-LENE: Did you consider doing an internship at a big company like Rag & Bone or Helmut Lang?
CHELSEA: No. To date, my thinking has not changed.
WY-LENE: Asian designers like Alexander Wang, Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung have made it big in New York. And Suzy Menkes has termed it as “The Asian Wave”. Why didn’t you try and make your mark there?
CHELSEA: It’s not that I didn’t want to make my mark in New York. My attachment comes from various places. A lot of designers you have mentioned, neglect their Asian origins. I am Singaporean – my home, family, and everything that is important to me, are still here. Don’t get me wrong, I do want a global brand, and I will always take into account the important markets that are necessary for expansion. New York is important to me because it did help to craft my brand and who I’m as a designer, but I never wanted to forsake my foundation.
WY-LENE: How Singaporean are you?
CHELSEA: Culturally, I understand how to be a Singaporean, more so than being British.
WY-LENE: Do you think Singaporeans can truly appreciate your design aesthetic? Conventional silhouettes and ‘safe choices’ are still the norm here.
CHELSEA: No. It’s hard for one designer to think they can change a complete mindset. We are a 50-year-old country, and to think our fashion industry or consumers can catch up at warp speed with the rest of the world, is unrealistic. But I am hopeful. While I do feel it’s much easier to gain success overseas, it’s still a dream of mine that at some point in my career, I will reach a stage where people in Singapore can appreciate my brand, and having a ‘Singaporean tag’ in a creative field is not a negative thing. We can be just as good as anyone else.
WY-LENE: ‘Paradox’ and ‘Duality’ happen to be my two favourite words. Are these two concepts an extension of your own personal identity and beliefs?
CHELSEA: Definitely! For many years, I was my brand. I worked solely, and every business plan or button was done by me. Paradox and duality and the wholeness that can come from it, is the foundation of the brand. It is embedded in the way I design, shoot catalogues, or market to potential stores. If people don’t understand the concept of my brand, then they will never understand the product differentiation, or who I really am.
WY-LENE: Does the ideal Dzojchen customer need to embrace this unexpected balance of contradiction?
CHELSEA: I will not turn a customer away if he or she simply likes a shirt for no particular reason. We all have that side in us. It’s not always so deep, since it is clothing. But a true Dzojchen fan or loyal customer appreciates our DNA. Initially, Dzojchen started out with a lot of androgynous styles: the play between masculinity and femininity, hard and soft. But I like to change things up, and for the Cruise 2016 collection, I pursued a new direction because I did not want to be one-dimensional. Previously, there were hardly any dresses. Now, it’s about changing people’s mindset that duality can be expressed in different ways. I want people to understand that they don’t necessarily have to be edgy to wear my clothes. They can have their own interpretation and find their own values within the brand.
WY-LENE: In the 80s and 90s, pop stars like David Bowie and Madonna mixed menswear and womenswear together. Even now, Rihanna does that very well. Who would you like to see wear your clothes?
CHELSEA: Wow, that’s a really tough question. There’s a difference between someone who wears my clothes and someone who understands the DNA of my brand. David Bowie is my idol and I’m obsessed with him. I was an 80s kid, so Labyrinth and all of his movies played an integral part in my upbringing, and probably influenced my taste. If I had to choose a person, it would be him.
WY-LENE: Any woman in mind?
CHELSEA: I find the female consumer a lot more complex. They tend to be fickle because they have a lot more choices and that makes it harder for them to understand the core of something versus the value of an item. The funny thing is, it’s not about who will wear my clothes well, but who I like as a person. [laughs] I like Emily Blunt and Cate Blanchett. And I will think of items in my collection that might fit them as a person and resonate with them. Clothes are an extension of who you are – it’s your second skin. Moreover, it is the first thing people notice before they know who you are. For me, I can’t look at someone in a magazine and make appearance-based decisions – I need to know them on a deeper level first and see if they are a suitable fit.
WY-LENE: That’s very interesting because fashion is built on superficiality. Yet, you scratch beneath the surface.
CHELSEA: I like to think so!
WY-LENE: There was a video on NYMag and stylists revealed how much celebrities get paid to wear a certain designer. It can hit six figures, and once they are photographed on the red carpet, it is the talk of the town. Furthermore, stylists select outfits based on what looks good on their client.
CHELSEA: Even the blogger culture – you never know what is an endorsement. They’re very good at masking product placement. Are they wearing a pair of shoes because they really like them? The whole fashion industry is now a very blurred line.
WY-LENE: Why did you choose to do both womenswear and menswear? Designers normally start with one or the other. Isn’t it challenging?
CHELSEA: It’s exhausting. [laughs] But I thought I could do it. I don’t want to do what’s comfortable for me. The fact of the matter is, I really enjoy designing for both men and women because I design for the person.
WY-LENE: Which do you love more?
CHELSEA: It changes every season. I might love doing menswear for one season, and be obsessed with womenswear the next season.
WY-LENE: Is your creative approach towards womenswear different from menswear?
CHELSEA: Definitely. Your creative approach is also part and parcel of what the industry standard is. I do cater to the sensitivities of a female and male consumer. And I know the formula for what sells for men and what sells for women.
WY-LENE: Can you tell me the formula?
CHELSEA: For women, it’s freshness – how can I feel like I’m wearing something effortless, yet at the same time, also make a distinct statement? For men, staying loyal to cuts – if they wear a pair of pants they like, they will hate to think that in a year from now, they can’t find the same cut. They also want the assurance that different fabrics are available and detailing options are present.
WY-LENE: Where does your inspiration come from?
CHELSEA: Everywhere… and mostly from experiences. For the Cruise 2016 collection, my inspiration came from horse riding. A girl friend of mine wanted to learn horse riding and she said, “Give it a go.” I never thought I would love it so much. Elements like straightening my posture or wearing boots to protect my ankles from chafing played a part in my overall designs.
WY-LENE: Do you look up to any designers?
CHELSEA: Not the designer per se, but fashion houses. I love Balmain, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. However, I don’t like Saint Laurent’s creative direction right now.
WY-LENE: You don’t like Hedi Slimane?
CHELSEA: I liked his previous work.
WY-LENE: His work for Dior Homme was amazing.
CHELSEA: Personally, he suited Dior Homme more than what he is doing at the moment.
WY-LENE: As a designer, what are some of the greatest challenges that you face?
CHELSEA: The process from concept to actualisation. I can design something, but when we go into production, there are certain constraints we need to take into account; like factories, availability of fabrics, logistics… and they are actually far more important than the design itself. Coming up with a collection can take a week, but making that collection can take months because the final version requires multiple rounds of revision. If I had all the time in the world, it would not be an issue, but there are tight timelines to meet and I need to turn my designs into actual pieces.
WY-LENE: How big is your team?
CHELSEA: We have 2 people in the States and 2 people here [Singapore]. It’s a small team of 5 people.
WY-LENE: How does your design process begin? Does it involve sketching or looking at a piece of fabric?
CHELSEA: A bit of both, and it changes from season to season. For example, I could be at a fabric trade show and if I see some amazing fabrics, I will try and incorporate it into my design. Or I could be sitting in an apartment in New York, and an idea comes to mind like: feminising jumpsuits for women. So my starting point does vary.
WY-LENE: Have you designed pieces for yourself before?
CHELSEA: Actually, no. That’s probably why my wardrobe is quite plain. From all my collections, there are only a few pieces I feel I can wear. Usually, I have a muse in mind, but it doesn’t have to be a specific person. It’s an idea of someone and what I picture on them.
WY-LENE: Funding wise, do you have any partners or investors?
CHELSEA: No… I had to scrape my pennies at the beginning. But it worked out. [laughs]
WY-LENE: I read that you have plans to open your first brick-and-mortar store in Singapore. How’s that coming along?
CHELSEA: It’s put on hold because our wholesale model has exceeded my expectations. We are doing very well and partnering with great showrooms in Paris and Milan. And with CFDA now, I will be flying back to New York in a couple of weeks to partner with a showroom there, and talk about potentially doing a show for New York Fashion Week. With such a small team, I can’t spread myself too thin.
WY-LENE: When will you be launching your online store?
CHELSEA: I don’t want to do that prematurely. The e-commerce platform is ready on the backend, and it’s just a matter of pressing a button. But I have been postponing the launch because I need to know which markets to focus on, the ideal price points, and the pieces from the collection that would sell the most. I don’t want to overproduce and have excess stock. That being said, I do have plans to release the Cruise 2016 collection online in September, together with the launch of our e-commerce website.
WY-LENE: Will you sell denim too?
CHELSEA: Yeah, denim is seasonless for us.
WY-LENE: Your brand has evolved from a denim line to a contemporary luxury label. What’s your ultimate vision for Dzojchen?
CHELSEA: To me, it is about having a strong brand, and the ability to have many variations within the brand. We did denim and it made sense. We did Ready to Wear and it made sense. Even footwear… and we’re starting to do eyewear. I want the brand to keep on growing, but at the same time, stay true to itself.
WY-LENE: How did you get inducted into the Fashion Futures programme?
CHELSEA: Tjin [Lee], Joyce [O’ Dwyer], and Jeremy [Tan] from Mercury asked me to join the programme, as they were the ones who initiated this project with SPRING. I think it was a mixture of factors: I had done a number of collections, my business model was sound, and my brand reflected the potential of globalisation. It also helped that I had done overseas shows before and they probably valued my experiences designing for an international market.
WY-LENE: What kind of advice did you receive from Diane Von Furstenberg and Victoria Beckham when they saw your Cruise 2016 collection?
CHELSEA: They did not know anything about the brand and only saw a very small selection of pieces from my collection. Basically, their advice was very generic. “Don’t focus so much on overseas markets… all eyes are on Asia.” “Focus on your backyard.” They also looked at quality, and thankfully, I care a lot about that so they did not discredit my work. The meeting I had with Sarah Rutson (VP of global buying) from Net-a-Porter was phenomenal. She has a strong retail background in Asia because she used to be from Lane Crawford. Everything that came out of her mouth was priceless and she knocked me off my feet. It was constructive criticism and I will put it to good use as I move ahead with Dzojchen.
WY-LENE: How did you feel after Singapore Fashion Week – a sense of relief?
CHELSEA: Of course – whether it is showcasing at Singapore Fashion Week or doing a U.S. trade show. It’s always a huge relief: thank goodness, I can eat and breathe again. Directly after that, it’s pride. I surprised myself with how far I could actually push my boundaries. We designed this collection in 6 weeks, and I’m thankful for having a great team because I couldn’t have done it without them. To hear the news that I was part of Fashion Futures, 6 weeks before my runway show was very new to me. I did not have a collection on hand, so we had to do everything from scratch and in the midst of that, do all the press rounds and leg work which was expected of us. I don’t normally do Cruise collections. While DVF and Victoria Beckham showcased their Fall/Winter collection because they’re selling to the consumer, I’m selling to the industry as I still have a lot to prove. I wanted to be relevant, and not showcase a Fall/Winter collection comprising wool coats and full leather outfits. Therefore, the only way to be well-received was to design a Cruise collection.
WY-LENE: How many looks did you do?
CHELSEA: 22 looks consisting of three garments each. That’s 60 over separates – of which, we only showcased half of what we actually designed. We designed over a 100 pieces and made all those pieces in 6 weeks. I literally patted myself on the back.
WY-LENE: Wow, that’s remarkable. How are sales doing at Keepers?
CHELSEA: Keepers is an anomaly. It is my one little give back because I wanted to be part of the design community. Sales are tricky – as our wholesale business grows, it leaves us less time to cater to these small projects that I care about. Keepers carries our overstock from past seasons and they are entry-level items like denim, button-down shirts, etc. It started off well, but then Keepers extended to Jan 2016, and they’re building on what is selling the most – which is a particular segment that does not reflect my brand in totality. There is a disparity because I don’t fall into the same price points as everyone else, I don’t use the same fabrications, and even our aesthetic and branding are different. I am trying my best to fit a circle into a square and unless I’m willing to change everything about who we are, it is not going to do as well as the other brands.
WY-LENE: How about internationally? Which markets bring in the most sales?
CHELSEA: We’re still growing, and it used to be America… now, it’s Asia [Japan], Australia, and the Middle East. We have just signed with a great sales and PR showroom in Paris, so we are going to focus on Europe too. Asia and Europe will be my two main priorities.
WY-LENE: Let’s talk more about yourself. What do you do to recharge?
CHELSEA: I don’t switch off from work because I am a very passionate person. It’s really hard to let go as I can see my efforts paying off. At this juncture, my brand is the most successful it has ever been, and knowing it will still continue to expand makes me want to work harder. But I realise there are moments when I need a break, and I will indulge by watching an episode of Game of Thrones.
WY-LENE: What is your secret vice?
CHELSEA: Oh gosh… I don’t know. I don’t drink alcohol or smoke. [long pause] Okay, junk food: pizza, chocolate, and anything fried. I have the diet of a 12-year-old child.
WY-LENE: How about weaknesses?
CHELSEA: Pretty things. [laughs]
WY-LENE: So it’s tangible.
CHELSEA: And intangible. I become enthralled. It can be something I see in a store and makes no sense, but I just want to buy it or I get weak to certain traits in people and get addicted to them. I do romanticise a lot and it becomes a weakness because I run away with the idea, item or feeling…
WY-LENE: What do you fantasise about?
CHELSEA: What do I not fantasise about… [laughs] Everything.
WY-LENE: That’s a really generic answer.
CHELSEA: I can’t be specific here! My head goes to places that no one should know…
WY-LENE: Now I’m more curious than ever. Is it dark?
CHELSEA: No, no… I’m not a designer who needs to be in a dark and intense environment and have a plethora of emotions. It’s like creepy things which I don’t even want to say to you… I can be next to a person, and smell something, and that sparks a fantasy.
WY-LENE: [laughs] I’m deeply fascinated. Do you have any hidden talents?
CHELSEA: Ummm… I like to rock climb, I play a lot of sports like badminton, tennis, and squash. Despite growing up as a city girl, I’ve always felt a connection to nature and I love being a part of it.
WY-LENE: Like forage for food? And collect spring water from a mountain?
CHELSEA: Yeah, exactly! Start a fire… build my shelter…
WY-LENE: Finally, what are you most grateful for in life?
CHELSEA: My family. They have been incredibly supportive and understanding throughout my journey. They mean the world to me and have made me the person I am today.