This story is part of Image Issue 15, “Diaspora,” a fantastic voyage through the mecca of food, from Hollywood haunts to mall food courts to L.A. staples. Read the whole issue here.
“Not gonna lie, sometimes I struggle with how I want to look. Sometimes I feel like I’m trying too hard,” stylist Shaojun Chen says.
We’re sitting in a downtown warehouse filled with boxes of sunglasses — the future bricks-and-mortar of Bonnie Clyde, an eyewear brand owned by one of Chen’s friends, Jon Yuan.
“I’m still figuring it out, trying to find a good balance of what’s my intention behind this? Before, I didn’t know myself that well,” Chen adds. “But now I know more and more about myself … I just want to tell people through my styling that there’s no rule. If there’s a rule, you need to break it.”
When he was 20, Chen made a life shift. He’d been studying chemistry in China — where he was born and raised, between Shaanxi province and Zhenjiang — when he realized that he wanted to pursue something creative. He wasn’t sure what that something was yet. So he turned to California for answers, moving to L.A. in 2011 to study fashion design at Santa Monica College and then, briefly, at the Otis College of Art and Design.
He started off doing e-commerce styling at Nordstrom, which despite proving somewhat “boring,” gave him the opportunity to meet photographers and models and start conducting test shoots. One Chinese photographer in particular changed things for him: Jumbo Tsui. “He came to L.A. to work, and I reached out to him, and he said I can come and assist the stylists that he was working with,” Chen remembers. “That opened a lot of doors for me.”
Since 2018, Chen has been styling full time, and he has tried to prioritize working with editorial outlets based out of China, though the nature of the geopolitical relationship between China and the U.S. has made cross-national work more complicated, to say the least. Still, magazines like Grazia China and GQ China often reach out to him to do projects. And he’s styled a handful of Chinese and Chinese American celebrities like Daniel Wu and Jesse Leigh. You’ll also find musicians in Chen’s portfolio: Hana Vu, Aminé, Tame Impala.
For Chen, the journey to becoming a stylist has been about finding a sense of self. The way he sees it, to successfully style oneself and others, you have to understand who you are first.
Elisa Wouk Almino: Would you say that your upbringing and moving here has influenced the way you approach your work?
Shaojun Chen: I think it’s just the way of thinking. I can only speak for myself — just my upbringing. I was always told to be humble, not to be overly proud. I’m always open to ideas. I’m never closed. I’m always trying to hear better ways of thinking.
EWA: And what about the way you see style?
SC: Before I really got into the industry, I went through a phase of just following the trends, and kind of going through everything to figure out what I’m about. I just like to have fun. Fun is the most important thing. I feel the best work comes when I had fun, like the team had fun. If the atmosphere is too serious, then I just freeze.
EWA: I can tell, even just based on your Instagram, that you have a sense of humor in your work.
SC: Thank you! Definitely. Humor is important. I don’t know if it will sound weird, but I do not feel star-struck anymore, only if it’s a comedian. If I can meet Kristen Wiig or some other comedians… I would [gasps]…
EWA: Do you think this sense of play comes across in your choice of clothing?
SC: Yes. I always think to throw it off. I don’t want it to look perfect. I don’t want it to look like it’s supposed to be like that. I want to change something about it. Why not?
EWA: What’s one thing you really like to have fun with?
SC: Dress like a girl. I started exploring it last year. Because I also had issues with my own gender. You know, identity. I don’t really like labels. I also had problems with my feminine side, like femininity, growing up, because I was called different things. I didn’t think I cared about it that much until during quarantine. I was like, “I really am suppressing it.”
EWA: How would you describe your wardrobe in general?
SC: You’ll see a rainbow of colors. I don’t like things that are overly aggressive looking. I mean, I can get into that character, but most of the time I like to wear things that make me look friendly. But you’ll definitely look at me twice.
EWA: What’s a project you’re really proud of?
SC: A recent one was with Gaten Matarazzo, the kid in “Stranger Things.” Well, he’s not a kid anymore — he’s 20. That was for Odda magazine, Korea, a cover story. It was so fun. He was very open to explore things he’s never worn. When I put him in that sequin legging, he was like, “I love this.”
EWA: Do you feel like that’s your characteristic as a stylist, to push people’s limits a little bit and see where they’ll go?
SC: I don’t consider it to be pushing limits. I feel like, if I see them in that, if it makes sense to me, then it will make sense.
EWA: How do you determine whether you see it? Is it an energy thing in the person? What’s the process?
SC: I just consider the whole image. I think people’s egos get in the way. I think we need to understand what we’re here for: We’re here to create beautiful images.
EWA: You don’t like rules, but do you have a philosophy around how you like to style?
SC: I like to mix expensive things with cheap things. I don’t want everything to look loud. I think it’s almost like sending a message. You see me wearing these sequin shoes and this Target tank top — literally, a tank top every day. I don’t like wearing T-shirts. I just feel free. And these Dickies every day — it’s so dirty [laughs].
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