With the pandemic already sending the fashion industry into something of a tailspin, it's a strange time to cover up-and-coming fashion brands. But I'd been wanting to write something about Chelsea Mak since the end of last year, when I never expected a global health crisis would be relevant to the story.
"I'm still optimistic we'll be able to survive just because the brand is built on so many personal relationships and emotional connections with people," she tells me when I call her up earlier this week, just to catch up on all that's happened since our initial interview.
I started hearing about Mak, a Parsons alum who had done stints at Band of Outsiders and other cool L.A. brands before starting her own line, last fall. Then, I began noticing her handle (@chelmak) being tagged by stylish people I follow on Instagram, like Anna Gray and Neada Deters. In November, I saw the whole brand and come to life at Zebulon, a hip music venue that literally transplanted itself from Williamsburg to L.A.'s east side, at a celebration for the Spring 2020 collection and its accompanying short film, which stars Gray.
Mak has been thoughtful about creating community around her brand from the beginning. And that could be what keeps her afloat moving forward.
Mak was working at Entireworld, Scott Sternberg's current brand, when she began thinking about going out on her own. Growing up, she often accompanied her mother on work trips to Shanghai, where they would go to fabric markets and have clothes made at local tailors just for fun.
"When I wanted to start my own line, it felt like the most natural way to get started, so I was just like, 'I'm going to go to Shanghai and make a collection and see what happens,'" she explains. "I was pretty conservative with my goals."
Her plan was simply to shop the line to Highland Park boutique Nonna — her favorite store — or otherwise just have a party and sell it to her friends. She succeeded on both fronts, and made a more "fleshed-out" second collection that she promoted with another party, at her Silverlake home. She hired a band to perform (the all-female punk group The Paranoyds), dressing all the members in her designs.
"There's a little bit of the brand that's like a rebel debutant," Mak says. "I [describe it] as if Normal Kamali skipped cotillion and went to a punk show and the next morning had to get up and wear her '80s power suit and have dim sum with her uncle before her internship at whatever corporate job." (She also likes to call it "formal casualwear.") The brand's Instagram bio says it more succinctly: "lady clothes for cool girls."
Mak uses a lot of deadstock silks from Shanghai, where the line is produced. They're both distinctive and well-priced, and she cuts them into silhouettes that feel both ladylike and easy, buttoned-up yet free, timeless but modern. Updates are made from season to season, but Mak keeps signature pieces around. A bestseller is the Vienna blouse, an '80s-inspired silk taffeta top with a big ruffle bib collar — ideal for dressing up a pair of jeans. My personal favorite is the Brea dress, which features a sweetheart neckline and the dreamiest grosgrain ribbon bows up the open back.
"It's a blend of an old-world aesthetic mixed with how I want to dress in my fantasy life, which is actually I think the reason why the line's been well-received — because the fits are actually really flattering and relaxed, so you can be a part of this buttoned-up, super feminine world but really still feel easy in it," she says.
Another key look is an easy-to-wear minimalist suit featuring a relaxed blazer and high-waisted trouser set that Mak hopes will one day become a vintage score: "I really want to create a brand where 20 years from now, some young girl is like, 'Oh my god, I have this Chelsea Mak suit and I'm gonna wear it to death.'"
Mak does all of her own promotion, with occasional help from friends to shoot the dreamy look books and short films that correspond to each collection. She doesn't seed product to influencers she hasn't gotten to know personally first, and maintains relationships even after they work together.
In addition to selling through her own website, Mak has gotten her wares into a number of small, beloved retailers like Mohawk General Store, Bird, Stand Up Comedy, Totokaelo and Need Supply. But unfortunately, she just had a couple of major Spring 2020 orders cancelled in the wake of the pandemic.
"It was supposed to be a big season for us and now it doesn't have the place to thrive," she laments. She also couldn't make it to market in Paris this past February because her samples were stuck in China. She's also had to postpone a couple of collaborations.
On the positive side, because her business is still so small, Mak doesn't have much overhead and has been able to devote more time to forging personal relationships with her customers.
"I'd rather make sales through 20 really personal, great, emotionally-connected customers than 100 [who are] not," she says. "At the end of the day, I'm a small business and, sure, I need to make sales, but I'm not trying to be a huge corporation."