Asian Fashion Designer to Watch Chet Lo reveals how identity struggles and erotic art inform his latest collection.
Eroticism in fashion is hardly new. In the early 19th century, for example, Empress Joséphine Bonaparte inspired an entire movement that, though drawing from the Neoclassical period, dictated the use of lighter and more translucent fabrics, lower necklines and higher waists. Some noble European women who followed suit would even would go so far as to wet their dress before a ball to accentuate their body. With the development of cinema, fashion became even more provocative. Theda Bara, the original vamp, wore garments that left little to the imagination in films such as Cleopatra, Salome, Sin and Madame Du Barry. And, of course, there was the Italian actor Rudolph Valentino, whose appearance in The Sheik largely fetishised Arab culture and caused fits of hysteria and fainting among his fans – not to mention the modern-day sirens who capitalise on their sex appeal, like Lady Gaga, Madonna and Beyoncé.
But must references to sex in fashion be flagrant? They needn’t – no matter how explicit the source material might be, even if it’s as explicit as porn. Which is exactly what New York-based and Central Saint Martins-educated fashion designer Chet Lo used as a starting point for his spring/summer 2024 collection. Titled 鹹濕 – Haam Sap – it opened a long-overdue conversation on sexuality and sex appeal, especially among minorities, while never once veering into fetishisation or tokenisation. “This collection is dedicated to all the POC [people of colour], queer people who don’t feel sexy in their bodies,” read Lo’s Instagram statement. “You are seen. You are sexy. You are loved. You deserve love.” Haam Sap is seductive in its elegance and stimulating in its pithiness. It opens with an ecru leather two-piece skirt suit: the mandarin-collar jacket features an image of two figures kissing, painted in an early-Paco-Rabanne-esque op art fashion. As the collection progresses, it adopts a more graphic aesthetic. The sleek green knit dress with a plunging neckline, for example, features beautiful abstract embroidery, which on closer examination looks like a couple in physical congress. And what of the knit off-shoulder burgundy dress? That depicts two men performing fellatio.
You could imagine such bold imagery reaping a torrent of negative reactions. They didn’t, for despite the prominent sexual undertones the collection was tasteful and toned down, even when compared to the works of some of Lo’s peers, like Harris Reed or Anthon Raimund.
Lo says his work, “touches on the idea of representation in porn”. He adds, “There isn’t enough diversity in porn, and it quickly fetishises ethnicities, which are truly heinous. This idea then, together with the various sensual art forms of Eastern cultures, informed the rest of my collection.” His mood board, he adds, featured images of two art forms historically deemed taboo: Japanese Edo-period erotic shunga painting and Japanese bondage art, shibari, the latter more recently a popular BDSM practice. Shibari is especially prominent in spring/summer 2024, manifesting as satin ribbons snaking around the models’ arms, for example, or the “harnesses” made from red threads, which all connect to classic Chinese lucky knots.
This might also be Lo’s most intimate collection yet. Haam Sap is introspective and vulnerable, and it feels like an attempt to reclaim his identity as a gay Asian man in a “white-centric world”. “I think my identity has always been intertwined with my visual language,” he says. “I’m just trying to tell the story of my life essentially and the different parts of myself.”
Although Lo’s work has always been erotic, the dilemmas associated with sexuality were never his explicit themes until spring/ summer 2024. Shortly after graduation in 2020, his sexy fluorescent dresses covered in spikes garnered the patronage of the cool Gen Zs – Kylie Jenner, Doja Cat and Simone Ashley. But why spikes?
“They were inspired by durian,” he says. “This fruit is culturally significant to the East, and I thought it was a beautiful marker of my process of mixing the Western and Eastern. There’s also something so futuristic yet retro about the technique, which I find exciting.” (Lest we forget, Lo designs primarily with knitwear – despite a brief stint experimenting with latex, fishing wire and hair-thin nylon yarn back in college – which requires mathematical precision and immense patience.)
As happened with the saints of the golden age of fashion – Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Marc Jacobs – the world was quick to notice Lo’s talent and ingenuity. Last November, he was honoured as one of the 10 Asian Fashion Designers to Watch by Fashion Asia Hong Kong, alongside Prestige 40 Under 40 honouree Christian Stone and Chinese couturier extraordinaire Sensen Lii. “Being recognised by my own city was such an honour,” Lo recalls. “And, honestly, I’m so inspired by the young designers I’m alongside in this industry. I think we’re all doing so well, and I’m so happy to see us all struggling and winning together.”
And then, in December, he collaborated with Singaporean accessories brand Charles & Keith on a capsule of handbags, footwear and hair accessories – all devised in Lo’s signature spiky fashion. The collection turned out to be as sensual and seductive as you’d imagine. “Charles & Keith have been so supportive ever since we debuted at London Fashion Week,” he says. “They have such a stronghold on the Eastern fashion industry, so I felt it was something I had to do, and I think there’s no better introduction into the Eastern market than with them.” As it’s also Lo’s first foray into bags and shoes, perhaps we’ll soon see spike-adorned combat boots under the Chet Lo moniker.
Lo is a textbook definition of a sensational designer. He shot to fame straight out of college, thanks to easily recognisable elements in his work that seem versatile enough for his style to evolve. Now he feels the responsibility to be vulnerable with his audience – a mark of great growth. And we’re waiting with bated breath for those spikes (plus, we hope, lucky Chinese-knot shibari) to take over the world.