We captured the global dialogue between Fashion Editors – Chiun-Kai Shih and Leon Yuan, both influential Asian figures within New York City // Article by Leon Yuan & Chiun Kai Shih, Photography by Chiun Kai Shih / Special Thanks Justin Violini for the CKS Portrait.
LY: How did you begin your career into fashion industry?
CKS: When I was young, my mother was always very much into fashion trends and I would always accompany her with my sister to Macy’s, I found myself observing the VM people changing mannequins, which peaked my interest and started to observe how different clothes looked on different people. Fast forward to my college senior year, at the School of Visual Arts, my professor and famed fashion photographer, Bob Richardson, introduced me into the world of art and fashion photography. Since graduation, when I considered my portfolio was strong, and began my dream of shooting for Conde Nast Taiwan, and on with all the other international magazines titles.
CKS: How about you?
LY: I started my career with Club Monaco, a subsidiary of Ralph Lauren now, back in my hometown of Canada. I began by working at the stores at 15y.o., then multiple locations before eventually working overseas when an opportunity came up, with Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. I was attending a prestige university in Canada for fashion design at the time, but decided to put study on hold to pursue the opportunity. Working abroad in Asia gave me a new perspectives to the world of fashion, I knew at the time I didn’t want to go back to Canada , so I chose a detour via America to attend Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and began my studies in fashion merchandising and marketing. Through a friend’s connection, I got a job as publicist. Speaking of which, that’s when I met you, Chiun-Kai, backstage at one of the shows I worked on!
CKS: Oh yes, that’s right! Now I remember you were so young when I first met you, but always try to look more mature to fit your position at the time. I can’t remember exactly, but how did you jump into the magazine world?
LY: Well, one of my best friend that I met in Asia happens to be the editor-in-chief for Esquire Taiwan at the time, despite my Chinese writing skills, he believed in me and encouraged me to begin writing. How did you decide to pursue a career in photography?
CKS: When I was 10 years old, we moved to New York, I wrote down all my crazy thoughts into a diary, despite not being familiar with the english language and later found out my mother had been reading my diary, so I turned to photography as the medium to document life and thoughts. I really wanted to learn more about the craft and decided with LaGuardia High School of Music Art and Performing Arts, to study photography. For my art major I chose black and white photography and met Bruce Weber, whom frequented our school seeking new talent.
I did my internship and began to shoot actor friends, many of which soon became models in the industry. Agencies also asked me to photograph their models’ portfolios. In order to elevate the level of my images we needed great clothes, so we headed to some clubs to met upcoming designers! Publicist Norma Quinto also learned of my work before offering me an internship. As my parents owned restaurants at that time, allowed me to take other internships where I had fun and learned a lot. The camera soon became my vision and my voice, every image meant something to me and photography became my life.
LY: It’s surreal. even humbling as fashion editor I’ve had to opportunities to meet designers and chat about their lives. I still remember my first interview, was with Giorgio Armani, they opened the first mega store on 5th Avenue, in New York. It was most memorable because I think I did a terrible job. I recall there were 10 people from his team around while his translator relayed my questions. Over time, my interview techniques were honed with Christopher Bailey of Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, and Italo Zucchelli of Calvin Klein Collection. I’ve always wondered, what’s your definition of a good photographer, and what do you see through your lens?
CKS: I think a great camera produces a great photographer, that’s for sure! For me it’s how I see the world and light. I believe a good photographer should allow his pictures to speak for itself. What I see though my lens is definitely of pure Love & Joy! 99% of the time, its happiness and excitement I feel during my photoshoots. I’m always pushing my subject on shoots and worried they would get annoyed because Im constantly saying “One More…just Two More!!! Almost done!”
LY: That’s funny, but shows your passion. It’s exactly how I remember you, everytime on-set! Since we’re on the topic of camera and technology, over the years I felt the traditional way of doing advertising and promotion via web and print media have changed drastically. When I first started in the business, we use to rely on this costly subscription services – “fashion calendar”, as well continual trips to showrooms to see the collection upclose; but now most of my time is divided between reviews, press release, news from PRs Executives by their Facebook and Twitter updates, not even e-mails anymore. The current day press relations strategy.
LY: What are your thoughts on all the new “tools” available today that’s related to your work? What are the differences of a photographer in the 90s and now in 2012?
CKS: There are many answers to this question. I think it’s harder for up-coming photographers to make a name with accessibility to programmes like Photoshop, apps, instagram has been a great equalizer, allowing everyone to explore photography. It’s so important to tap into new medias to improve my photography skills. The days of working as an independant photographer are long gone, there’s a real need to be involved with the industry as well as clients you are shooting for. The 90’s marked the beginning of the digital media era, there were many new job opportunities and positions open due to new technology.
The biggest difference is that most photographers today are digitally savvy, and if you don’t catch up fast, you will be left behind! It’s not an easy industry, as it requires alot of clarity and inspiration, that’s why travel and feeling refreshed is very important to me, as well as many other photographers I know. An example, my ultimate getaway is Tokyo, Japan. I see the city as being very animated, inspired and everything is so cute! I would love to have the opportunity to go and revisit my inner childhood for a week would be perfect!
LY: Very insightful! I love Tokyo and Europe, having returned from recent trip to Paris and Rome. The lifestyle is completely different than what we’re used to here in New York. Regarding fashion, I found many ateliers in Paris and lots of handcrafted shoemakers in Rome. The pace and lifestyle varies from what I’ve observed. Over the years, what would you say changed and what had remained?
CKS: Well, I personally think the rules of the game is the same, but with added new players. The fight to be at the top of the game has never been more fierce! I love that fashion changes, and have immense respect for it.
LY: What about designers? Who are your favorite designers?
CKS: Are you sure you want me to answer this question? Haha, Im an avid supporter of American
designers; lately I’ve had my eyes on Michael Bastian’s version on preppy classic American style but with a twist to it. 3×1 Jeans by Scott Morrison’s new approach on how the world would select and wear customized jeans is very unique, the fit and quality of denims previously unseen. I love every pair I own! Theres Steven Alan’s shirt I could never have enough of! Seize Sur Vignt’s made to measure suits also and JFK white dress shirts by James Journey. Last but not least, I have guilty pleasure for footwear! Cole Haan by Phil Russo, is my go-to brand for shoes, I’ve been wearing Cole Haan since college. The ever changing colors combined with new technology from Nike, it’s truly cool!
LY: I agree, it’s funny both of us are wearing the same branded jeans and shoes even! I love 3X1, I did an interview with Scott and found his advice on denim just mind blowing. as for Cole Haan, they are simply the most comfortable shoes I own; I wore them to Europe, for 8 plus hours a day, but felt I was wearing a pair of Nike runners!
So tell me about your most memorable model & celebrity shoot. Do you have any favored stores or locations?
CKS: Definitely, Zachary Quinto, for GQ Taiwan, in 2009, at Yabu Pushelberg’s New York apartment! I always aim to shoot at different locations, but enjoy the Upper West Side of Manhattan, as well as Central Park, Riverside Park and the Columbia University Campus. I think Manhattan really have a lot to offer in terms of fashion at every corner of this beautiful city.
LY: For me, I love the Ralph Lauren mansions on Upper East Side, Barneys New York’s Madison flagship -recently undergone major renovation, a good friend of you and famed interior architect, Yabu Pushelberg! I’m constantly on the look out for new and fresh things on the market, forecasting what is going to be popular in the near future. Im drawn to more classic inclined style. How about you?
CKS: I am a very simple guy as well, but I enjoy experimenting different looks and styles. My day to day outfits tend to be in Steven Alan, Read Wall, and J. Crew for tops, either 3×1 or RRL jeans, footwear is often Converse or Cole Haan. I dress smart for special occasions like fashion week and special events, and have a weakness for fitted blazers!
LY: Now onto Fashion evolution, from print to online, what are your thoughts and which do you prefer?
CKS: Not going to lie, I love print format, but I see so many benefits of online publications, from environmental to connectivity thru social media. The limits of online publishing is most obvious with translating some artist’s vision, some works simply looks better on print, worthy to collect and admire, 90% of my clients are all still print, I do try my best to deliver images that are print worthy and can be keep as collectors item. I will continue to support print media, but at the same time not oppose online magazines or publishings, I’ve come to appreciate people share the same joy as me once they see the images, no matter if its print or online.
LY: I think for me, I still like the ability to open a printed book or magazine for reference. I know it’s longterm impact on the environment, but that’s my personal choice. Most of the major brands are replacing physical catalogues to e-versions; they are much easier to view, and circulate via portals, apps and marketing strategies. A notable change was last New York fashion week. with the launch of Fashion GPS, most designers now prefer using this service to send out their invitations instead of conventional mailing. This not only cut down a lot of invitation production fees, but the convenience of online tracking becomes attractive for brands. Fashion show invitations often revealed hints of the collections, so it does get boring when thoughtful invites are replaced with uninspired text and image e-vites.
Tell us, what your fashion week experiences have been like?
CKS: My experiences revolved around New York Fashion week, my first time to attend was in 1992 which was also my first year in college, I found it lively and full of young talent. At that moment I knew I was facinated by the fashion industry. What it represented to me was hope and excitement, which lasted with me until the very last show at Bryant Park, then Lincoln Center. The energy is different now, it takes alot of effort to prove to your fans and investors to keep a brands alive. Fashion is evolving but becoming growing predictable these days. I think another shift is due again very soon, I would like to see that free spirit from previous years, return to the NY fashion scene again, I sure miss it.