Chau Har Lee

...engineered aesthetics

by Jemma Gray
As a designer Chau’s background is mixed. If her footwear MA at the Royal College of Art was technically orientated, her occasional stints at the fashion houses have encouraged her to rethink the role the fashion industry has to play in her designs. She doesn’t belong to the fashion industry but is aware of it. Chau appreciates the distinction between fashion led and concept led design: ‘With fashion you tend to look more at the overall aesthetic, whereas the more conceptual way of working tends to look at one element of the design.’ She admires Pierre Cardin and Luigi Colani, designers committed to ideas – she references them in her own work.

Building design is another source of inspiration: This is especially evident in the way she structures and engineers her pieces. Architectural references are rife in her work and, like her other points of reference, all have something in common – ‘They are there to protect and support a person.’ Chau’s designs have a lot to do with balancing the structure of the shoe. Many designs rely on only one critical supporting structure in order for them to be able to be worn: some of Chau’s are heel-less, others have a paper thin heel structure. The success of these designs relies on them being able to stand balanced with or without a wearer. To make this possible Chau’s technical skill is supplemented by a computer programme called Rhino. Her degree collection represents a shift away from conventional shoemaking with an emphasis on modern technology and new materials. Whilst she ‘still loves everything about this [traditional] kind of work’ she is also excited by utilising innovative methods.

Like most of the designers I have met Chau is very aware of new technologies and the capacity they have to enhance your designs. ‘I have combined traditional shoe making techniques with new technologies. Thinking three-dimensionally and building up from the last using rapid-prototyping and laser cutting to create architectural structures. I have also introduced materials such as steel, acrylic and wood to contrast with the softer, stretched and moulded leather.’ Chau likes to take the time to learn about all these processes, it enables her to do as much of the work on her own as possible. She finds the most satisfying part of the process when she can finally take the heavy yellow foot mould out of the piece and it proves strong enough in its construction to retain its shape and structure. ‘It is something of a turning point and a relief!’

Chau hasn’t always worked with such unconventional materials but it was the aim of this particular collection. Her earlier work is a stark contrast, made with leather and always flat. This new collection looks futuristic in comparison and every shoe has an interesting and considerable heel. It is to her credit that she managed to explore an entirely different creative approach.

Chau has found that others tend to see her designs as pieces of art rather than pieces of footwear. But she is adamant that she intends her shoes to be sold and worn: Whereas art can be detached and out of reach, she wants most of the pieces to be touched and easily wearable. Chau has only recently returned from a trip to Paris showcasing her collection to buyers and press. She was overwhelmed by the positive feedback she received and the fact that people were so interested in the concept behind the shoes. She is asked a lot about wearability and decided to break up the collection and have two sections; one comprising of the more wearable pieces and the other adopting a more conceptual flavour. She does believe it is important buyers understand her creative narrative.

Chau is moving her collection into a commercial realm but she still thinks the concept is as important as the aesthetics: Both are integral to the overall design process. She is secure in the knowledge that whilst some of her designs are commercially viable, others are not. There is a narrative even here – of her creative process – beginning with a concept and ending with something more wearable. Her collection tells this story.

Chau enjoyed a creative upbringing. Her mother was constantly encouraging her and her siblings to play with things they had to hand and could make themselves. It was a lesson is resourcefulness and something that made a lasting impact on Chau’s shoe design. She is acutely aware of the volume of materials used in the making of a shoe and is interested in making her designs with fewer pieces, avoiding the unnecessary. She never wastes materials and scattered amongst her collection are bits borrowed from other designs. All prototypes are made with cardboard and masking tape. This economic approach contributes to an elegant and minimalistic aesthetic throughout.

I wanted to know if her design process has changed since leaving college. Chau felt that things had sped up; ‘You need to move faster, you have to sort out the sampling and production and logistics alongside doing the collection itself, some pieces are certainly quicker to design than others.’ Interestingly, Chau does have a design that can be taken apart and then re-assembled. This makes it more economically viable in terms of its production.

Chau tries to think about shoes differently, as a fetish, to present them differently from how they are normally perceived. She abstracts these objects the point at which they are no longer recognisable and then reconstructs them in an original fashion. One of her dominant themes is strength. Her collection is a statement of power and each shoe is a standalone piece, demonstrating her skill and showcasing the materials. They are intensely desirable, exerting their own commanding influence over the audience and the individual. Ironically, Chau’s commercial appeal derives from her creative integrity.