Edison Chen Unlocks Globalized Swag

The Chinese Celebrity and Entrepreneur Speaks Out on the Power of Google Translate, Contemporary Art, and Michael Jordan

Interview: Thom Bettridge
Photography: Cameron McCool

“We’re living in the Emo Age,” Edison Chen tells me, as our conversation leads us toward Drake lyrics, cracked iPhone screens, and trendy sadness. Chen has a knack for smashing ideas together on the fly. After a sex photo scandal exiled him from an acting and rap career in China, he relocated to Los Angeles and quickly recast himself as a streetwear entrepreneur. At home in this new role, Chen seems driven by world travel and a voracious appetite for street culture and contemporary art from every time zone. His Hong Kong-based brand CLOT feeds on this content-philia, spinning it off into exhibitions and clothes as well as collaborations with Cali Thornhill Dewitt, Perks and Mini, and Hood by Air. Yet for Chen, this mission is about more than just t-shirts. For him, streetwear’s rapid collision of high-low-medium culture speaks to the digital age’s ability to foster creative unity on a global scale. He describes himself as a role model in a landscape dominated by JPEGs and hype.

Thom Bettridge spoke with Edison Chen, who was photographed in Los Angeles in looks by Acne Studios and Raf Simons

Thom Bettridge: It’s becoming more and more apparent that the near future of global culture is going to be dominated by a triangle of hip-hop, streetwear, and contemporary art. You happen to be engaged with all three of these things at once.

Edison Chen: I grew up on NBA basketball, where Michael Jordan during his three-peats really influenced the direction my life went into. Through Michael Jordan, I started listening to hip-hop and following Tupac. Then I moved to Hong Kong and started getting influenced by Chinese culture and kung fu films. It was also British colonial rule that then crossed over into Chinese rule, so I started to see things change really drastically. It wasn’t a street struggle. It was more of a cultural struggle. That’s when a new influence came into my life in the form of art, which added another layer on top of how I could express myself—not just like a “fuck you,” but in a more elegant way. Being in China is interesting because you’re not allowed to say certain things, so you have hide messages with a little mask in order to do what you want. So then it’s up to the consumer to decipher the messages that we’re trying to express.

Is that why American streetwear has caught on so much with Chinese youth, because of the ways the designs work as codes? You can secretly rep a subculture that your parents have no idea about…

It’s about freedom of expression. I feel like in China, kids have nowhere to express themselves. No way to say, “I want this lifestyle.” I think China caught on to the so-called “streetwear market” so quickly because all these kids are attaching themselves to it as movement, more than something that just says, “This clothing is made nicely.” They want to be a part of something and represent something.

“I’m trying to be a role model—not for people to copy me, but for people to express themselves freely.“

But a lot of these cultures are coming from another country, another continent. Is there a cognitive dissonance there?

That’s why I’m trying to be a role model—not for people to copy me, but for people to express themselves freely. I’m not held by boundaries. My creative thinking can go way, way out there because I’ve never been in a controlled environment. I didn’t go to university. I never graduated high school. So there’s no box I was ever put in. If you imagine an institutionalized education system and you multiply that by 10, that’s how people in China are feeling. So I want to free people’s minds from the boxes they’ve been put in.

In what ways does China’s history of manufacturing influence the output of ideas in fashion and cultural production in general?

I think it’s enslaved people into thinking they can only take ideas and then make them. I feel like there aren’t many avenues to be like, “Okay, I can make something new!” It’s always about taking something and altering it a bit. So at CLOT, we try to stay super far away from that. For example, we collaborate with Hood by Air and we try to do it in a way that is taking it to another angle as opposed to lowering the message. Because I think the mentality of the creator as opposed to the factory worker is something really important to show people. It allows someone to think, “Yes, I can do that.”

But when you see people line up around the corner to all buy the same t-shirt, this doesn’t feel like emancipation. Are people really buying into these ideas you’re talking about, or are they buying something that their friends own that looks dope?

I feel like this is the start of the tipping point. This is a way for people to sample stuff and build experiences that they can take home. We have a thing called 3125C. It’s an art initiative. And I tell people there that when you come here, I want you to bring something home. But I’m not talking about buying something and bringing it home. I’m talking about having an experience you can bring home and be inspired by and do something else with.

I think it’s interesting to put it in terms of a tipping point, because there is so much energy right now that is very real, but is also being dedicated to banal things like t-shirts. But what can that energy turn into? It’s the same on social media. There’s so much power in that bandwidth, but so far all we’ve figured out to say is, “Here’s my lunch. Here’s my cat. Here’s a picture of myself. Here’s the world’s best lip liner.”

I think it’s a double-edged sword, because we digest so much information, but how do you take that information to be an opinion-maker who actually makes a difference? Kids will tell me that they know all about the history of Raf Simons. But just because you scrolled through some thing and read a few paragraphs, it doesn’t mean you know. You don’t know. You have to delve deep. I come from an age when you had to go to the fucking library to go and research a paper. All of this is very new and interesting to me, and it makes me feel responsible, because this next generation knows nothing about actually reading books and seeing things in person.

“It’s about showing the youth what the difference is between seeing and knowing.”

So you’re acting like a bridge between two time periods.

It’s about showing the youth what the difference is between seeing and knowing. People will tell me about shit they saw on the Internet, and I’ll be like, “Yo, I’ll bring you to Japan so you can go and live it.” I’ll take someone to the Undercover retrospective show in Japan, just to introduce them to the tangibility of it, so they’re not seeing it through a fucking JPEG. I have a friend with a shaved ice stand in Hong Kong. And I asked him, “Does it taste good?” And he told me, “It doesn’t matter if it tastes good. If it looks good, people will put photos of it on the Internet and we’re doing business.” And I just feel like that’s the total wrong thing. The Internet is supposed to be a tool. It’s not supposed to be the truth. I can tweet, “I have a 15 inch penis,” but it doesn’t make it real.

You travel a lot. Does that help you stay in touch with reality? Or does it make matters more complicated?

It’s an important part of my creative process to travel, absorb it all, and let it all out to the people who follow me. I’ve been blessed to be all around and I wouldn’t be the creative person I am without seeing these things around the world.

What’s it like having such a big following and having this immediate feedback on the things you share? It’s like have a giant focus group in your pocket.

I fully ignore it. Because half of these people are just sitting in front of a computer not being responsible for what they’re saying. So a lot of people like to talk when they’re behind a screen, but when they’re in front of me they have nothing to say. I kind of use my social media to show a certain kind of lifestyle and to show the people who actually care a new side of something they might not be able to see.

Are there any things you’ve done where you’ve been surprised that they had a big reception? For example, your t-shirt that says “Emotionally Unavailable.” Did you immediately know that was an idea that would take off?

Sometimes the raw nature of that instant is so important. When I was single a year and a half ago, I asked a friend how he was doing, and he was like, “Man, I’m feeling emotionally unavailable. I’m physically present and down to fuck right now.” And I was like, “Wow, let’s print a t-shirt.” People loved it.

Detachment and sadness have become a trend. Look at Drake.

It’s emo. We’re living in the Emo Age.

Just look at my broken iPhone screen. This puts a trauma-filter over my whole world. And everyone has a cracked screen. These phones aren’t made well!

Last time I broke my screen, I told my girlfriend it was the new trend—like crooked, cracked realities. I’m surprised every day by certain things. These are all testaments to how we live today and who we are as people. The reason we named our CLOT season “New Age Ethnic” is because through the Internet nowadays there’s no boundary to what is cool in Hong Kong or cool in New York. There’s almost no difference. You’ll see the same people wearing the same thing everywhere as long as they’re part of that. It’s all a type of New Age spirituality. I have a close group of people who are all into exploring spirituality through substances like DMT. The experiences these people tell me about make me feel like we all come from a certain same dimension. We’re just put on this world and tested daily with imaginary dividing lines. That’s why I feel like we all live in one world. We all share the same sky. We all share the same earth. We all share the same Internet.

”Nowadays there’s no boundary to what is cool in Hong Kong or cool in New York.”

Our spirits are coalescing in our WiFi.

There are no divisions anymore. None. Especially with Google Translate. We all share the same beliefs. And I feel like the people in power are trying to keep us away, because if we all come together, our force is too powerful.

Language is important. Coming back to fashion, basketball, contemporary art, these are all forms that exist universally in any language. Even in rap.

Most people in America don’t even know what Young Thug is saying!

But you love it, because that raw emotion is universal and it gets you amped.

Horror movies. Horror movies are the best way I’ve explained this idea. It can be from Thailand, and you don’t even know what the fuck they’re saying, but you’re scared as fuck. We all have that same something inside of us. We just have to stop being ignorant.

Interview: Thom Bettridge
Photography: Cameron McCool