Zee has a brief encounter with Stephen Gan, the most influential Filipino in fashion
Visionaire, V Magazine, V Man and Harper’s Bazaar are style bibles to the most discriminating and most talented luminaries in fashion. And behind these four magazine titles is a Filipino named Stephen Gan.
Born to a Filipino-Chinese family, Stephen left the Philippines to study at Parsons in New York when he was 18. After a year, he dropped out and began his career as a photographer, and soon found himself working as an editor-writer-photographer-designer at Details magazine. After four years, the then 25-year-old left the magazine to start Visionaire in 1991, and in 1999, he launched New York’s avant garde V Magazine, a fashion and lifestyle title focused on a young, sophisticated, international audience.
He joined Harper’s Bazaar as Creative Director in 2001 and six months later, the Council of Fashion Designers of America presented him with the Creative Visionary Award, the first Filipino to receive such an honor.
His talent and creativity have grown beyond the magazine industry. Stephen has art directed exhibition books for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre, as well as photography books. He is also the director of advertising firm Dream Project, a creative powerhouse with clients such as Calvin Klein, Dior, Fendi, Shiseido, Olay Colour Europe, Tommy Hilfiger, D&G and Missoni.
I first saw Stephen in 2009 during New York Fashion Week, the first time I attended an international fashion event as a journalist. I had been told by local fashion insiders that Stephen is very difficult to approach, much more to interview. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get the chance to officially meet him until a year later, at the Hermés show during Paris Fashion Week. I was chatting with legendary editor and stylist Carine Roitfeld, (we met a week earlier in Milan during the Gucci after party), who asked me who designed my coat. When I mentioned a Filipino designer named Jan Garcia, she immediately blurted out, “So you’re Filipino? Stephan Gan is Filipino.” She called him over as he was making his way to his front row seat and I managed to introduce myself and have a brief chat, but I still was not able to nail an interview with him.
Another year later, this time in Milano, I saw Stephen entering the Ferragamo show venue and said hello. As we were exchanging pleasantries, I finally managed to mention my intent to interview him, and to my surprise he agreed, “We have ten minutes before the show. What do you want to ask?”
Melo Esguerra: You are probably the most influential Filipino in the world of fashion. Are you aware of this?
Stephen Gan: I don’t really think about it. I was born into a Chinese family in the Philippines, belonging to a second or third generation. I went to Xavier School and was taught in English, Chinese and Tagalog. I don’t know but I always felt like a bit of an outsider in Manila. You carry that feeling throughout your life and wherever I am, I just take it for granted that people look at me as a foreigner or an alien. I never tried to fit in. I just did my own thing.
ME: How did you get to where you are now?
SG: I just realized the other day that I have been in this business for 20 years, and yet there are people who still look at me and say, “There’s that new guy doing a new magazine,” but I’ve actually been doing it for quite some time.
I moved to New York when I was 18 to go to Parsons and dropped out after a year, so I started working in fashion very early and made friends along the way. I was working with Mario Testino 20 years ago, long before he became the Mario Testino that he is today. And he introduced me to a young French stylist who honestly didn’t talk to me at all the first time we worked together. I thought she was a snob but she only later admitted that she was just so shy. That’s Carine Roitfeld.
That’s what happens in life, you grow with people and you build relationships along the way as you live with passion. It doesn’t matter where you are from. I am from Manila, Mario Testino is from Peru and Carine Roitfeld is from France with Russian origins, and somehow we all get along.
ME: The fashion world is going gaga over China. Do you see this as an opportunity to go back to your Chinese roots?
SG: For me, no, it is not about going back to my roots. Let’s face it, a lot of people think Chinese influence in design is sticking chopsticks in a model’s hair while wearing a mao collar dress.
There’s a lot of other values in Asian influences other than the clichés that a lot of western designers resort to. A lot of people could be saying that we are looking at all these prints right now, and no one is saying that.
Even when I was a kid, my mom was already buying Kenzo dresses and he was at that time the king of prints. He was Japanese but his clothes didn’t look like Kimonos. They looked like Western concepts with a little bit of Eastern influence, and that was in his prints. When it is done by an Asian, it is always very subtle.
ME: Do you see the same observation in Filipino designers?
SG: I think the Filipinos are in a very precarious position. That could be seen as an advantage because we come from the most Western country in Asia. You and I are doing this interview in English. If I was being interviewed by a Chinese or Japanese reporter, we would need a translator. Filipinos always have that advantage. But I can’t see that anything truly native has come out of the Philippines in order to export to the rest of the world.
Like I said, I think you just have to sometimes forget where you’re from and just do your own thing. You can’t say I am doing a western style collection in the same way you can’t say I am doing a very Filipino collection.
You know, it is like music, a good song is a good song. Filipinos are brilliant musicians. I haven’t exactly followed all the music festivals since I was a kid but I remember the Filipinos would always win. I grew up with the generation that watched singers like Lea Salonga and that was it for me. I didn’t know anything more than that because I left but you know, when you think of her and her music, do you think of it as necessarily being Filipino? I don’t. It’s just that she has a good voice.
ME: Will there ever be Visionaire, V Magazine or V Man edition in the Philippines?
SG: I hope so, but I have to find a local partner or publisher. These days, it is so hard to work on a foreign edition if you don’t work with a publisher that you can really trust. One day.
ME: You know what I really want to do one day is to curate an exhibition about you in the Philippines.
SG: Oh I would love that. Let’s do that!
ME: Okay, that’s it. I guess we have to go to our seats now. The show is about to start. Thank you Stephen.
SG: Thank you Melo. See you again soon.
- by Melo Esguerra