A Decade After Sex Scandal, Edison Chen Grabs the Spotlight Again, This Time with Fashion Business
Claire Yinan Che
Ten years ago, Edison Chen was one of the most popular entertainment stars in Hong Kong and mainland China, then he dropped off his laptop at a computer shop for repairs. A technician found more than 1,300 intimate photos and video clips of Chen and various female Asian celebrities – and soon leaked them to the press. The sex scandal went viral, of course. Overwhelmed and widely condemned by the media and public, he issued a public apology. “I will be away from Hong Kong entertainment indefinitely, and there is no time frame [for a return].”
Now Chen, 37, is back, this time as an entrepreneur. He’s refocusing on the fashion retailer that he co-founded 14 years ago. That was at the height of his acting and hip-hop singing career, when he worked with Cantopop star Andy Lau in the movie Infernal Affairs and was always in the media spotlight. But he was irritated that he was often treated as an expensive bargaining chip between management companies, so the free spirit started Clot with his childhood friend Kevin Poon to gain some independence.
The Hong Kong-based streetwear company started with a “clotted” selection of lifestyle brands that were unfamiliar to Chinese consumers. A year later, it launched its own line of products. The business took off and in 2006 it brought American rapper Kanye West to Hong Kong for his only stop in Asia. “We started out with an initiative to bridge between East and West, China and America,” says Chen.
Chen was such a bridge himself. He was born into a wealthy family in Vancouver, Canada, and moved to Hong Kong when he was 10. His father was the chairman of Hong Kong-listed Massive Resources International Corp. and was heavily involved in the Hong Kong entertainment industry.
Dressed in a blue “Inner Peace” plaid shirt from his fashion brand and baggy jeans, Chen recently spoke at a China-U.S. forum held by Global Students Development Association on entrepreneurship at New York University. Speaking to an academic audience was a different experience for the ex-playboy. “When I started Clot years ago, I said we’re made in China. Everyone was like: ‘That’s horrible.’” He didn’t expect to be labeled “the Chinese brand” and be tarnished by the poor reputation then of products made in China. But he’s clearly overcome that. He says that with Clot, he’s been doing something that’s made in China, created in China – everything’s from a Chinese perspective.
Clot was the first Hong Kong partner for sneakers of sportswear giant Nike, which also led to considerable clothing sales. “When I first go to speak to Nike, they were like: ‘You are the China team.’ “With a significant number of Nike shoes made in China, he said “you rely on our people to make half of your products.” Now, 10 years later, Clot is still designing shoes for Nike. It uses but does not rely on Chinese elements in the designs. Chen wants to make his “China team” a world-class creative company. “I have to be aware of everything I do, so if someone from an international level is looking at the products we are making, we can be proud to say that ‘yes. it’s made in China,’” he says, “A good product will sell itself.”
Clot boasts nine “fashion and lifestyle” stores, in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan, Chengdu and Changsha. It also has a pop-up store in Los Angeles, under the banner Juice and side businesses that include event planning and a design service. It’s collaborated with Levi’s, Converse, Adidas, Coach and Disney. Revenue last year is estimated at between $18 million and $20 million.
Chen says he gets inspiration mostly from contemporary art, but is open to all forms of art. During his recent stay in New York, he visited the Whitney Museum of Art for a show by one of his favorite artists, Alexander Calder. “Everything that we do in life is art; it’s an art form. It depends on whether we can recognize that or not.”
Chen’s favorite designer is Phoebe Philo, the current creative director of the designer label Céline and who is from the U.S. Chen brings his Céline canvas tote bag from the spring/summer 2017 women’s collection wherever he travels. “I don’t think in 2018, there’s a difference between women’s and men’s anymore,” says Chen. “In general, I feel like our world has come to a place where both sexes are equal; we can sample each other’s culture.”
While the global apparel market is slowing down, the Chinese apparel market saw growth of 11% in the past year. Chinese consumers spend more than double on clothes than what Americans spend, in terms of the fraction of their income. “It’s an exciting time,” he says. Early next year, Clot is planning to open a pop-up store in New York to “test the temperature.” “If it turns out well, a store will follow,” he says. “I’m always very cautious in trying not to be overconfident.”
Chen says he would much rather be the boss in the back making all the money, and have staff in the front doing the job. “Unfortunately, I’m still in the front,” making appearances and promoting the business.
He moved to Los Angeles after the 2007 media onslaught. “That’s the most regretful thing I’ve done in life,” he says, referring to the shooting and storage of the hundreds of X-rated photos and videos. He says he believed to have deleted them before turning over his laptop to the computer store. The technician was convicted in court and jailed for 8 months for stealing and distributing the photos.
For a time after the scandal, Chen says he was afraid of being in front of the camera. Throughout the dark years, the thoughts that ran through his head were filled with frustration. “God, why are you always doubting me? Why can’t you trust me? I swear to the sky, I have changed, I have changed my bad manners. God, how could you forgive me?”
Chen went back to Hong Kong and took part in the Hong Kong International Marathon for a charity cause in 2012. “But no one cared, all they want to see is the bad side of me. Everything happens for a reason and every story has two sides. I’ve learned that money is just a thing, and fame is fickle, popularity is nothing but mirage.” In fact, his popularity never really faded, he now has 1.7 million followers on Instagram and 27 million followers on Weibo.
He chooses to see the bright side, and the dawn has come. “Even if you are looking at the situations where nine things are bad and only one thing’s right, you can turn to a very positive thing,” he says, “My father told me if I sing pop songs [rather than hip-hop], dress certain ways and talk certain ways, I’d be a lot more rich. I’m already richer than most people. But money can’t buy happiness. Money can’t buy lifestyle. The lifestyle and happiness that I have are irreplaceable.”
Chen still lives in Los Angeles, with his partner, Qin Shupei, a Chinese supermodel who’s appeared in Victoria’s Secret shows, and their daughter, Alaia. “I can’t dream of a better situation, so I won’t change a thing,” Chen says.