We chat to Anabela Chan, a woman of endless talents…
Jeweller, sculptor, taxidermist, architect and designer Anabela Chan is a bit of a big deal, so I jumped at the opportunity to interview her. A few phone calls later we found ourselves amidst a Morocco-themed dream at Ellermann Flower Boutique in Hong Kong talking about her time at Alexander McQueen, the beautiful birds featured in her recent jewellery campaign and how to preserve butterflies… apparently it’s easier than it looks!
Architect, taxidermist, sculptor, jeweller… your list of interests goes on. What’s your first love and how do you fit all of your hobbies into your busy life?
Travelling in my first love and visiting exotic places to experience the wonders of nature is my biggest source of inspiration, passion and relaxation; the jungle and the sea are two of my favourite places to be. I love the tangible craftsmanship of making, to be able to create something beautiful with your own hands is empowering.
The key is to be selective with your time, to only do the things you love, be it for work or for leisure. I really like the famous Confucius saying, “Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.”
How did you get your internship at McQueen and why did you decide to leave the company?
When I was in my second year at architecture school, we had the opportunity to do a work placement during the summer vacations. Whilst all my schoolmates were applying for big architecture firms, I secretly applied for the fashion design internship at McQueen. It also helped that all of my flatmates were at Central St. Martins, who gave me the phone number of the McQueen studio to call – that was both the most nerve-wrecking and best phone call I ever made. After the internship I completed my architecture studies and continued to work on the show collection embroidery and print designs over the next few years, and when I was offered a senior role at All Saints London I took it as it gave me the opportunity to learn about the business side of fashion.
When did you discover your signature eclectic design style?
I am a hopeless romantic so my design style is romantic, playful, modern and glamorous with an obsession to detail and artisan craftsmanship.
Growing up, I was fortunate to be exposed to many beautiful things; it allowed me to develop a critical eye for beauty and detail. Visual imagery is very important in my work as a medium for storytelling, I remember my college professor always said my work was visually seductive and exuberant, as I find the sensuality of what you see very powerful and moving.
I think my architectural training has influenced my attention to detail with an obsession to perfection; I think the sensibility of scale, proportion, geometry, materiality and story-telling are all very similar traits shared between architects and jewellers.
Having worked in architecture and fashion for seven years from Richard Rogers Architects to print and embroidery design at Alexander McQueen, both experiences have influenced me profoundly as a jeweller today. Working at McQueen was a total submersion in creativity and craft at its best; pushing boundaries of wearable art and design with insane beauty that is both intoxicating and so inspiring.
Nature and animals are two prominent themes in your jewellery and you have a huge collection of exotic birds. Can you tell us a bit about your pets and how they inspire you?
Nature is my biggest source of inspiration as I think it is where the most beautiful colours, geometries, textures, proportions and forms are found. I am obsessed with exotic birds and butterflies in particular; their mesmerising colours, their variety, their freedom. There is something almost magical about their flight that seems to symbolise the very idea of imagination.
Your beautiful boutique is in London, can you take us through a day in your life in the city and your favourite spots?
I have lived in London for the past twenty years, it is a truly diverse multi-cultural city full of treasures to be uncovered, be it in realms of art, culture, history, culinary or retail.
I have a home studio in Chelsea where I have my library and do most of my design work, I have recently moved my workshop from The Goldsmiths’ Centre in Clerkenwell to the area also. My home is my sanctuary; a treasure trove of my most priced collections of exotic birds and butterflies, gemstones and minerals, seashells and fossils, prints and books.
I try to spend at least two days a week at my boutique where I can meet clients and talk to visitors. I have never worked in retail before so I cherish this personal experience to meet and talk to people who love and wear my jewellery; I learn from each and every one of them. I’m very lucky my boutique is nestled in the beautiful tree-filled courtyard of the Ham Yard Hotel, it really is an oasis in the city that has become my second home in the heart of London, at Piccadilly Circus, moments from Regent Street, Mayfair and Soho.
I start everyday with a homemade organic green smoothie, followed by an hour of emails. I like to spend my mornings getting inspired and working on new designs, followed by an afternoon of meetings and visit to the workshop to work on new pieces. Lunch is usually sushi or a healthy salad, and I take an hour break of either pilates or cardio training in the afternoon 4 days a week, to keep me energised for the evening. I love my food so dinner is usually quality time spent with my husband or friends, we love to explore the best restaurants and bars the city has to offer.
When I’m busy working on designing a new collection or special bespoke pieces, I can often start working again from 10pm deep into the early hours as I love the solidarity and quietness of working through the night.
What advice would you give aspiring jewellery designers and how can they get a foot in the industry ladder?
Do it with everything or not at all. Never dream about success, work for it.
What attracts you to Singapore and what are your favourite places in the city?
Singapore for me has the most beautiful urban skyline in the world by night. A true cosmopolitan city where East meets West and old temples and pockets of tranquility nestle in-between modern imposing skyscrapers. For dining I love to visit Luk Yu Tea House, where my grandfather and father used to go religiously since they were schoolboys. Although Singapore has an abundance of fine-dining and Michelin-starred restaurants, it is the local street foods such as egglette waffles that always steal my heart.
How does the jewellery industry differ to the fashion industry?
I love jewellery’s longevity to transcend generations. Jewellery is timeless, it does not decay or go away, it offers a chance to hold onto the past and at the same time reach out to the future, and I find that endearingly romantic. Jewellery is empowering, it brings joy, inspires emotions and elevates the spirit like no other.
What advice would you give to designers looking to find a supportive retailer?
Offer something unique and different, be true to your design integrity and aesthetics with an acute awareness of your market needs. Enter as many international design competitions as you can, as you can gain invaluable exposure to the industry; meeting buyers, stylists, editors and other aspiring talented designers globally.
What do you love about working for yourself and what advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs?
That not one day is ever the same and the freedom of creativity.There is no rush, take your time to learn and observe and only set out on your own when you feel ready. Follow your gut and not what others tell you to do or say will work. As Diane Vreeland famously said, ‘You are not supposed to give people what they want. You are supposed to give them what they don’t know they want yet.’
What young designers in the fashion industry should we keep an eye out for?
I tend to fall for the fashion houses with traditions; I love Raf Simons for Dior, Valentino, Lanvin, Azzedine Alaia and Dolce & Gabbana. I do love the playful romantic dresses by Simone Rocha and shoes by Aquazurra.
Check out Anabela Chan’s jewellery collection at Lane Crawford.