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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, January 25, 2001

Courtesy of Colleen Quen
Layers in this gown by Colleen Quen represent earth
with ridges that mimic the growth of lucky bamboo
in the background.


Fashion designer Colleen Quen
celebrates the Lunar New Year
with gowns inspired by fire, water,
earth, metal and wood

By Nadine Kam

A furniture store is an unlikely place to see a fashion exhibit, but designs by San Francisco-based designer Colleen Quen fit in well with C.S. Wo's furnishings of wood, metal and ceramics because she created her gowns with those earthy elements in mind.

From Sunday through Feb. 1, the Beretania Street store will host a Lunar New Year event celebrating the five elements -- fire, water, earth, metal and wood -- of Chinese cosmology and four seasons through art and apparel. Gowns by Quen will be shown with works by Hawaii photographer Linda Ching, who found inspiration in the Chinese novel "Dream of the Red Chamber."

Quen's work was initially to be shown in April or May in conjunction with a show by her husband, furniture designer Rick Lee. The couple had collaborated on "Elements" for a fall trade show, but this time around only her work will be shown.

Courtesy of Colleen Quen
The fluid drape of this sheer gown, valued at $3,500,
reflects the element of water.

"When she heard about our Chinese New Year event she wanted to come sooner," said Wendell Wo, vice president of C.S. Wo, who believes the industry's future is tied to fashion.

"The biggest challenge in the industry is that people don't change their furniture often, if at all. It's a low priority compared to clothes, cars and electronics, where marketers do a good job in getting people to update.

"When people decide to update, they'll stretch to buy at the next level, a better car or better clothes. But they still want the $499 sofa."

To combat La-Z-Boy syndrome, he said, "We're trying to keep up with fashion, borrow ideas and elements from what's happening in clothing."

What's happening is a return to ladylike elegance and interest in texture. Quen takes this to an extreme with her gowns, specifically created with brides, opera and symphony goers in mind.

"I'd never been to an opera before starting my business, but I'd often think of what I'd want to wear or see on women, what would make it striking," she said, while swearing her intention is not to upstage the performers. "The stage is where the glitter is; they get to have that part."

Rather than going for making an easy splash with embellishment, Quen focuses on shape, taking a sculptural approach to her work. With a computer science degree, as well as degrees from San Francisco's Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, she's able to balance the yin and yang of analysis and aesthetic.

"The engineering comes from puzzlement, how do you put together the structure?," she said. "The structure has to be strong or it will fall apart."

This was true when, as a competitive figure skater for eight years, she designed her own costumes of lightweight chiffon with heavy beading. "That's when I learned to use chiffon, always flowing, drapey, pretty.

"Dance and music inspire me when I design. Right now I'm studying the hula here in San Francisco, and I'm thinking of bringing Hawaiian elements into my next collection."

Quen, who is 38, grew up in San Francisco and after working in the industry for 13 years in her hometown, decided to strike out on her own, opening her salon at 142 Russ St. about two-and-a-half years ago. Clients pay $1,000 to $10,000 for her handmade gowns, which require 36 measurements, a la Paris couture houses, to ensure perfect fit.

The "Elements" display represents Quen's "most expressive art," meant more for display than to be worn. "That's what allows me to strive, to speak out as to what I feel as a designer."

It still surprises her to see those feelings matched by her husband of eight years, Rick Lee. "We live together, talk design 24 hours a day, but for our exhibition we wanted to work separately. I did my thing, he did his thing, and somehow when we put it together, it worked perfectly."

On view

Bullet What: "Five Elements: Fashion/Furniture Exhibition," with five couture designs by Colleen Quen and Linda Ching's "Dream of the Red Chamber" photo series
Bullet Place: C.S. Wo, 702 S. Beretania St.
Bullet Dates: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Feb. 1
Bullet Admission: Free
Bullet Call: 536-6304

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