Lucire
The global fashion magazine April 15, 2024 
Grace Han sign
Ian Wallman

Driven by her spirit, inspired by a memory

Fashion
Taiwanese-born British designer Grace Han’s journey has been a steadily paced, contemplative one, making careful moves on to the world stage and being inspired by her mother’s art. Jack Yan interviews her
From issue 48 of Lucire

 

 

Grace Han Grace Han Grace Han Grace Han
Above, from top: Gabriella Wilde, Grace Han, and Zoë Zimmer. The large Love Letter bag with top handle and finished in black. The small Love Letter backpack in red, both modelled and on its own.
 

Grace Han is one of the more intriguing accessories’ designers interviewed in Lucire. Hailing from Taiwan, her history is in many ways the typical one of a designer who studied fashion, honed her craft at other firms, and had a passion to realize her dream. It is atypical in having parents who had themselves been in the limelight, and a paternal grandfather with his rags-to-riches journey.

It’s clear the entrepreneurial spirit runs in Han, too, and the obvious question to those who might know of her family’s history is: could she have achieved so much without such a background? The answer is, unequivocally, yes, hence the use of a professional name that sees her establishing herself independently of her family. This is a label that didn’t start with an extravaganza, but one that took years to form, initially in her apartment in Taipei, where she worked with a pattern-cutter to realize her first designs. What she has inherited, namely her mother’s sense of and respect for artistry, is not something rooted in wealth, and in our interview, the one privilege afforded to Han was being able to see her grandfather’s art collection.

Han—born Grace Wong (王思涵)—is the daughter of Anita Wong (陳靜文), a well respected artist and calligrapher, who passed away from cancer in 2007. A charitable foundation and an award are named in her honour in Taiwan. Taking her English name and the second character of her Chinese name, the Grace Han brand came into being in 2011, and it is this name that she works under.

Anita Wong figures greatly in the Grace Han story. Han speaks of how Anita understood her passion and encouraged her to study fashion. Han’s father, a businessman, wanted her to get an economics degree, which she achieved, but from there she ventured to London to pursue her dream.

‘My artistic aspirations led me to delve into this field,’ she recalls. ‘I ventured to London to study fashion illustration, learning pattern cutting, figure drawing, and even delving into oil painting. It wasn’t until that moment when I encountered leather that I found the most suitable medium for my creativity. Every touch of leather sparks boundless inspiration in my mind. Through the process of kneading and shaping the leather, I became deeply immersed in the realm of leather craftsmanship, embarking on a journey as an intern in a leather workshop.’

The internship at an artisan leather workshop that Han began after she completed her studies, gave her the education she needed in the craft. ‘This experience not only equipped me with practical skills, but also ignited a passion for creating. Each practice session felt like an inspiration, revealing the infinite possibilities of creativity. When friends around me began to notice the uniqueness of my work, they suggested I launch my own brand, sparking the idea of creating something of my own.’

Back in Taiwan, Han describes her brand’s early days as transformational—and a prelude to taking it beyond Taiwan’s borders. ‘Countless nights witnessed the eruption of creativity and the sprouting of dreams. Each handcrafted leather piece became a tribute to art. However, from the beginning, my dream extended far beyond local confines—it aimed to spread the wings of the brand onto the international stage.’

To create each piece, Han visualizes how people in the future might use her handbags. It isn’t a utilitarian question as we first thought, but something that transcends that. ‘I hope that those who carry our bags can feel not only the visual appeal but also an attitude towards love and life. When I close my eyes and envision how people in the future will use my bags, I imagine that they are not just carrying a bag but also carrying a story, an expression of emotions. Once, a customer from Australia sent me a deeply touching letter. In the letter, he mentioned purchasing our Love Letter handbag as a memorial to his late wife. He described how, every day at home, he cherishes this bag as if seeing his beloved in thoughts day and night.

‘Such profound and touching feedback becomes the wellspring of inspiration for my continued creativity. These stories seem to be another interpretation of our bags, transcending the limits of time, passing down love and memories. In these moments, I deeply realize that design is not just a pursuit of form but also a transmission of emotions, an art that resonates with people.’

However, while Han mastered her creativity, entrepreneurship was an unknown, a journey that she had to undertake with ‘stability and diligence’. This was not an overnight success: she sampled different types of leather and hardware, trialling them, before realizing she had created something unique. This process took six to seven years, during which she had created a number of unique handmade pieces: ‘every stitch and button embodied a dedication to the art. This journey was a thoughtful and relentless process, a part of my continuous growth along the path of pursuing dreams. Each bag carries a story, a commitment, and a pursuit of beauty. This commitment and dedication have defined the art I love, allowing me to share this unique æsthetic with those who support us.’ With Anita Wong’s passing in June 2007, a mere five months after her cancer diagnosis, Han describes ‘a profound sense of loss and pain, an undeniable blow. In the indescribable grief, I felt an immense emptiness.’ But from this she felt empowered to carry out her mother’s hopes and dreams. ‘This separation also became the source of my determination, sparking the motivation to strive for excellence. Recalling the dreams my mother often shared, her desire to showcase her artwork in London, immersing people in her artistic world. This statement left a deep imprint on my soul, becoming a belief within me.’

London was also where her parents met, ‘the starting-point of my parents’ love story,’ as Han puts it. ‘Growing up, hearing the poignant tale of my parents meeting and falling in love in this city deeply impressed upon me the diversity of London’s culture and the profound richness of its art. For me, London is like a familiar, natural, and comfortable stage.’

 

The Grace Han design process is both freeing and disciplined. ‘Perhaps because of my unconventional background, my artistic style is whimsical and unrestricted by frameworks. I occasionally use unexpected materials, even the curtains at home become a source of inspiration for me, as if freely splashing on a canvas through the medium of leather,’ she explains. ‘I firmly believe that art should be free and unconstrained by any frameworks. Perhaps this artistic freedom stems from my pursuit of a whimsical approach to art. Simultaneously, the influence of my mother and my grandfather’s collection of art antiques has been profound, serving as valuable inspiration for my creativity. This not only influences my style but also serves as a precious guide on my artistic journey.’

The development of her Ballet Lesson series is exemplary both of her meticulous process and her mother’s presence. ‘Initially, I experimented with using organza to create the pleated effect, later realizing that this inspiration stemmed from my mother’s painting techniques. In her artwork, my mother often employed multiple lines to create a sense of depth, ultimately using a single line to balance the entire piece. This inspiration led me to incorporate a similar concept in bag design. Our Ballet Lesson series presents multiple lines, with a metallic line at the bottom to balance the overall appearance of the bag. This design inspiration also symbolizes the journey of individuals seeking internal balance at different stages, making it the most representative creation of our brand.’

continued below


The Ballet Lesson bag in different colourways.

 

There is a great deal of prototyping and testing after the concept, before customers even get their first glimpse at the design. ‘Before finalizing the production version, we undergo multiple rounds of prototype production, with each version representing the utmost pursuit of quality and detail. From the initial conceptualization to the subsequent refinements, we pay attention to the presentation of every element, aiming to seamlessly integrate design philosophy and practical value. This is not just a design journey but also a steadfast commitment to exceptional quality.

‘We rigorously test the performance of hardware accessories and carefully select premium materials for production. Our dedication to quality and artistry ensures that each piece is crafted with an artistic perspective, undergoing numerous efforts to achieve the standard of artwork. This commitment reflects our dedication to quality and artistry, serving as a profound embodiment of our brand’s uniqueness.’

 

Everything pointed to Han choosing London as the location of her flagship store, in Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge in 2019, not far from Harrods. ‘The opening of the Grace Han flagship store is an expression of my emotions, especially the Love Letter series, which draws inspiration from my parents’ story, highlighting the value of emotional inheritance within the family. Through Grace Han, I aspire to infuse these happy memories into the lives of each customer, continuing the legacy of emotional transmission.’

There is no flagship store back in Taiwan: London is it for now. It is a personal decision as well as a business one. Taiwan makes do with pop-up locations. ‘Only with thorough preparation can we bravely move forward and go even farther. Internationalization, for me, is not an overnight endeavour but a meticulous layout and careful planning. This sole physical store symbolizes the brand’s internationalization process and serves as the starting point for dreams.’

But the pandemic almost derailed Han’s plans, casting ‘a shadow over everything,’ she recalls. The lockdowns resulted in poor sales, harming the viability of her business. ‘I once contemplated giving up.’

However, events soon took place that pushed Han to carry on. After the lockdowns, the then-Duchess of Cambridge was seen carrying one of Han’s Love Letter handbags. ‘It was as if a ray of light illuminated my darkened spirit,’ she says.

‘The Love Letter series, symbolizing the purity and transmission of love, was initially designed to share love with others. However, behind this series lies a deeper meaning. Seeing the Duchess of Cambridge carrying this emblem of love seemed to inject confidence and perseverance back into my soul. Her shoulders bore not just a bag but also a symbol of love and determination. In that moment, I realized that the dreams I pursue and the products I create are not just for myself but also to convey the idea of love, connecting the bridges of people’s hearts.’ Things eventually became strong enough for Han to embark on a relaunch in 2023, with Gabriella Wilde and Zoë Zimmer among her guests, and the knowledge that, beyond the Princess of Wales, former Japanese First Lady Akie Abe and Carrie Johnson also had Grace Han handbags.

 

To help realize her dream, Han initially contracted a manufacturer in Italy, before finding the expertise—not to mention a smoother working process—in her home town of Changhua, in the middle of Taiwan, just south of Taichung. ‘[It is] where I aspire to establish the foundation of the brand, showcasing Grace Han’s unique dedication to craftsmanship, ‘she says. ‘With the establishment of the factory in Taiwan, we discovered the local youth’s passionate enthusiasm for leather craftsmanship. This not only made me proud but also inspired the confidence to nurture these young individuals. Their dedication allows us to independently control every detail of our products, ensuring the perfect blend of quality and creativity.’

It isn’t just young talent: there were two older masters who each carried five decades of knowledge at the factory. Han calls their encounters ‘a profound and heartwarming experience’. The connection goes far more deeply than a mere business relationship: ‘I firmly believe that when we wholeheartedly pursue a goal, we attract partners with similar interests and passion into our lives, much like how these masters have been guiding beacons for me. These two masters are not only my mentors but also indispensable companions on my entrepreneurial journey. They possess not only rich craftsmanship and professional knowledge, but also a steadfast commitment to excellence in their craft. This collaborative relationship goes beyond mere work; it is a spiritual resonance and connection.

‘The wisdom and attitude of the two masters have left a deep imprint on my heart, making me feel the common belief and goal in persistently pursuing excellence. This kind of relationship has brought warmth and support to my entrepreneurial journey, inspiring me to continually improve and strive for higher goals. They are crucial mentors in my career journey, and I feel honoured to walk alongside them.’

Future collections might see Han tap into her mother’s calligraphy, which she says profundly influences her. ‘Since childhood, my mother possessed a unique skill in calligraphy. She not only mastered the spiritual essence of various forms but also freely applied them in writing, breaking free from traditional constraints. With a purposeful stroke, she infused more vivid emotions into the written words. Her brushwork is both formal and expressive, carrying a powerful momentum.

‘While my mother painted on paper, I paint on leather, and this cross-medium approach inspires me deeply. My mother’s calligraphy influences my design philosophy, and I strive to incorporate her distinctive strokes into my leather creations, aiming to convey the rich emotions embedded in her calligraphy in every product. In the future, you might see series inspired by calligraphy, showcasing my mother’s calligraphic artistry and the perfect fusion of this unique writing style in leather art—a tribute to my mother.’

Jewellery might be next on the agenda. ‘Our jewellery will uphold the brand’s consistent design philosophy, seeking balance and visual perfection while emphasizing meticulous material selection and crafting processes. This expansion will provide us with more space to showcase our unique æsthetic insights and continue the pursuit of excellence across different product categories.’

Through her brand, Han has been able to realize one of her mother’s dreams literally. Han hangs her mother’s works at her London store, but things went one step further. Invited to participate in the AAL Asia Art Exhibition in London, she was able to exhibit her mother’s work complemented by her own.

This was her Wonderland art series which she introduced at the exhibition, as a tribute to her mother. ‘This series attempts to break the boundaries of time and space in art, allowing people to reconnect with the emotions tied to my mother in this sanctuary. It’s as if she exists in this secret realm, folding the distance between us and meeting her once again.’

She added that being in London ‘was not just an adventure for myself but also a continuation and realization of my mother’s dream.

‘This achievement is not only a milestone in entrepreneurship but also a commitment to my mother’s vision. Throughout my journey of striving, her memory has been a guiding light, a way of bidding a fond farewell to her with each step. Therefore, my accomplishments affirm not only myself, but also pay homage to my mother’s resilient spirit.’ •

 

 


Love Letter is the icon in Grace Han’s growing range.

 

Jack Yan is founder and publisher of Lucire.

 

 

 

Related articles hand-picked by our editors


Making luxury unique

Rendre le luxe unique
Luxury Creative takes luxury items and customizes them for clients with high-quality artwork. Lucire speaks with founder and artist Logan Loiselle about his work, his process, and his inspirations
Luxury Creative s’empare d’articles de luxe et les personnalise pour ses clients avec des œuvres d’art de haute qualité.
Lucire s’entretient avec le fondateur et artiste Logan Loiselle au sujet de son travail, de son processus et de ses inspirations
From the March 2023 issue of
Lucire KSA
Dans le numéro du mars 2023 de Lucire KSA

 


For the love of it

Based in Bologna, the Outlierman is a high-end luxury brand creating driving gloves, accessories and bags—all founded on a passion for classic cars. Jack Yan talks to co-founder Andrea Mazzuca
First published in the August 2020 issue of Lucire KSA

 


Realizing your dreams

How does a successful London-based architect change career and become a shoe designer? Jack Yan talks to Jori Papa, whose unique designs have been winning acclaim internationally
First published in the September 2020 issue of
Lucire KSA