Welcome to our newest editorial initiative, Who What Wear Spotlight, where we'll be using our editorial platform, social following, and ad inventory to turn the spotlight on small businesses that need our support now more than ever. Each week, we'll be highlighting a new fashion or beauty company. If you own a small brand and would like to be considered for the program, please apply here.
There are many inspirations behind the L.A. fashion brand Chelsea Mak—Chinatown, the late French monarchy, '80s nightclubs, femininity, casual-cool L.A. vibes—some so specific the brand could have fallen deep into a dichotomous mess. But Mak, the founder and designer of her eponymous brand, has sewn them all together just right. Such a confident vision comes from leading a life with great intention. After studying at Parsons in New York, Mak made her way to L.A., where she worked at small brands such as Band of Outsiders and Dutch LLC. More than 10 years in design roles gave her the perspective to finally go out on her own.
In 2018, she launched Chelsea Mak into a fashion brand that felt deeply personal. The clothes are made in Shanghai, where Mak grew up traveling with her mom on business trips. Her mom would peel away from work so the two of them could explore fabric shops and tailors, which has a lot to do with why so many of Mak's clothes are made with silks from Shanghai. From the intricate character she's created to describe who wears ChelMak (as she lovingly calls it) clothes to the intimate shows she hosts at her home in Los Angeles, Mak cares more about creating a community that understands and appreciates her clothing for what it is than making hundreds of sales to people who don't get it.
There's an ethereal quality to her designs: Ruffled necklines, silk taffetas, and flattering cuts that accentuate the most feminine parts of the body make her clothes feel at once timeless and of a bygone era. "It pays homage to the old world—like if Marie Antoinette and the little old lady in Chinatown with the plastic slippers were the same person," Mak says.
The new collection feels especially specific, though, with '80s shrugs, minimalist cuts, and color blocking. It recalls nightclub scenes, which is fitting since Mak chose Sofie Fatouretchi, the Austrian Iranian DJ, to be the model-muse of the new line. Fatouretchi was one of the original members of Boiler Room and embodies the successful, multifaceted female Mak typically seeks to feature in the brand's campaigns. The new collection launches today, and we have an exclusive sneak peek at the line before it goes live on the Chelsea Mak website. Be sure to check it out below, along with our interview with Mak.
I’m doing okay! It’s come to a point where it’s hard to know what to think or feel anymore. We’re collectively living through such a big shift, and it’s honestly so difficult to navigate, especially from a business standpoint. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I will be able to contribute to the new world we’re living in.
Tell us about yourself and your business.
I like to describe my collection as "lady clothes for cool girls"—as if Norma Kamali skipped cotillion to go to a punk show then had to get up and have dim sum with her godfather before reporting to work in her '80s power suit. The brand reflects an exaggerated fantasy lifestyle, culminating aesthetics, feelings, and nuances I pick up from art, music, film, people, and the internet. There are a lot of juxtaposing elements: high brow and low brow; laid-back and formal; L.A., where it’s designed; and China, where it’s produced by a tailor I’ve worked with for years. In this fantasy world, you should just casually be wearing an oversize silk taffeta blouse all the time, even if you’re just going to the market.
The business grew out of a need to express myself. As a creative, it can be emotionally paralyzing if you don’t have a way to "get it out." I never thought I wanted my own line, but after working in the fashion industry for 10-plus years and designing for others for eight of those, I got to a point where I couldn’t stop thinking about what my logo would look like if I had my own brand. I am grateful to have the support and experience to be able to do this.
How have social-distancing and stay-at-home orders affected your business? How have your priorities shifted?
I’ve always worked from home, so luckily not too much has changed there, but I miss opening my space up for studio visits, which I haven’t been able to do. So much of the brand is an extension of my home and lifestyle, so I really enjoy having customers over to shop and try things on—it’s a special experience on both ends.
My priorities have definitely shifted since the pandemic. The brand has grown a lot since I first launched in 2018, and it started to feel like things were moving really fast, and I couldn’t catch up. I always felt strapped for time and pressure to meet a market-week deadline or pump out new content. Slowing down has allowed me to get back in touch with the original ethos of the brand, which is creating clothing made to last generations, with thoughtful design and construction details that tie back to intricate and complex inspiration, content, and ideas. Also, since a lot of retail stores aren’t doing well or have cut back on budgets, I’m focusing a lot more of my energy on being direct-to-consumer and taking care to engage with my customers on a more personal level when I can.
Some people are finding joy in getting dressed and doing their beauty routine, even if they have nowhere to go. What do you think fashion and beauty can offer people right now? What has it done for you?
I think fashion and beauty can offer people a sense of identity, which can be helpful during this weird and confusing time. I try to dress with intention—put on a "look" every day, even if it’s loungy. Now more than ever, people are perfecting the art of casual. It’s fun to throw in a flair even if you’re the only one who can enjoy it. Right now, I’m wearing bright-yellow utility pants, and I noticed while I was doing the dishes, they matched my rubber household gloves, and that made me happy.
Speaking of fashion, how would you describe your working-from-home style?
"Pablo Picasso in his studio" is generally what I go for: A comfortable shirt, trousers, and flat shoes, and I always put on a pair of earrings.
Aside from fashion and beauty, what are some things that are currently bringing you comfort?
TikTok. It’s off-brand, but TikTok has been my quarantine guilty pleasure. It’s a nice break from the news and offers a much-needed comedic relief at times. I also haven’t missed a week doing Yogala’s Yoga Nidra guided meditation with Millie [Heur]. She ends meditation each week by taking you on a "journey," which is spiritually wonderful since we’re confined to our homes now.
What are two to three of your favorite brands you like to support and why?
I’m trying to support friends and fellow small businesses because I know how hard it is to have a business during this time. I try to buy pantry goods from my favorite restaurants like Woon or All Time and am currently living in my Emme Parsons Simone sandals. Another recent purchase was a pair of rave pants and a sweatshirt from Total Luxury Spa, whose graphics are some of the best I’ve seen lately.
What’s one fashion or beauty trend we shouldn’t sleep on and why?
This is more of a wellness trend, but mindfulness or any form of meditation. My friend and wellness coach, Ryan Willms, turned me on to an app called Waking Up With Sam Harris that offers one-month free of Mindful Meditations. If you have 10 minutes to spare each day (which you do!), I strongly recommend trying it out.