There’s no missing Claudia Chan Shaw. I'm waiting in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel when a striking woman enters: elegant, confident and rocking a sharp, 20s-style bob like nobody else could. Dressed head to toe in black apart from a vibrant burst of red lipstick, she makes her way over to me.
The Hilton, she tells me, is where the Vivian Chan Shaw label — her mother’s eponymous brand, of which she is a business partner and co-designer — was born. She reminisces fondly on her childhood days of returning from school to the Royal Arcade which used to stand in place of the hotel, napping or doing homework while her mother launched a staple Australian label: “Strangely, I’ve been in fashion since I was 11, because it’s the family business! Women would come into the shop and I'd say, ‘oh, Mrs. So-and-So, you must try this on!’”
Although she developed a keen eye for fashion and design from a young age, it isn’t the only career in which she has worked and excelled. Chan Shaw has also hosted the ABC’s TV show Collectors, presented lectures on design around the world, and wrote her own book, Collectomania, while also exhibiting her own art, photography and more.
Although her talks on fashion and design have taken her everywhere from Havana, to New York and Shanghai; next month they’ll be a little closer to home. Chan Shaw will be leading a series of free lectures on fashion every Tuesday throughout September at Chatswood Chase, with topics ranging from jewellery and accessories to shoes and clothing.
In fact, fashion was never her deliberate path: “I didn't really intend to be in fashion, [but] I knew I'd be in design somewhere.” Chan Shaw originally studied visual communications and design at the Sydney College of the Arts, aiming towards a career in photography or film. But when her mother invited her to join her eponymous fashion label as a business partner after she finished her studies in 1986, she enthusiastically accepted.
“It wasn’t nepotism,” she assured me, smiling as she imitates her mother. “‘You work hard for this and you make it yours!’”
Chan Shaw did indeed work hard, contributing not only to the Vivian Chan Shaw label in creating beautiful, flowing, hand-loomed knit designs; but developing, as a multi-talented, multi-disciplinary artist. She’s been lucky enough, she admits, to be able to dabble in some of her original passions of photography and art. From 2016-2018 she was the curator of the Sydney Chinese New Year Festival, for which she created an installation of Tai Chi-practicing, rabbit-shaped lanterns; and she has just wrapped up a solo photography exhibition entitled Obscuriosity at the Art Atrium in Bondi.
“Just being around at the moment is a good time,” she tells me. “There's a lot of opportunity! And I’m at the age now where I can say - ‘I'd like to do this, or that, or concentrate on another area.’ I’m just in a very good place”.
But of all the wonderful opportunities that have come her way, it’s clear that Chan Shaw’s most treasured experiences are focused on her work with her mother. When she speaks of her, it’s with a certain warm pride that emanates love and admiration, shining through her eyes and radiating from her smile.
“She's still working at 84, it's incredible. She's a very stylish woman, a great role model, terrific mentor. She'll get around in over-the-knee boots and cool leather jackets and not look like a try-hard!”
Chan Shaw recounts the particular pride she has in the way her mother launched her label as a single mother of four, noting the particular difficulty for women to be independent in those days. She recounts how her mother stood up to the bank manager who initially denied her loan application, telling her she needed a male guarantor; and with a stubborn and self-assured determination, she persisted until she got what she wanted.
It’s clear as we talk that Vivian Chan Shaw’s influence as a strong female role model has also endowed her daughter with a deep sense of admiration for similarly strong and determined female figures throughout history. We talk at length about Coco Chanel, whose life and legacy is the focus of Chan Shaw’s first lecture at Chatswood: “She's powerful, she's feisty, she's a little cranky and she's clever. She seems to pick the zeitgeist, the mood - and that, I find fascinating. She comes out of a period where women are not particularly well-regarded and she's just doing things her own way.”
As well as focusing on Chanel’s influence on the fashion world, Chan Shaw is also excited to deep-dive into the realms of the industry and its history during her Chatswood lecture series: “I love delving into the stories behind things in fashion - it's all very well to say, you know, ‘this is a nice frock and these are the trends,’ but I think fashion is a lot deeper than and it's got a lot more to it. Everything has a wonderful origin.”
While she is a self-professed lover of the 1920s as far as fashion eras go, she is also simply fascinated by the cyclical nature of fashion and trends: the way it ebbs and flows as new technologies arise and we revisit old styles, improving and adapting them; making them our own. She nonchalantly draws on examples from anywhere throughout the last five or so centuries; casually and effortlessly dropping encyclopaedic facts in here and there like little droplets of knowledge.
“Every era, you have things that mirror what's happening in people's lives. [The Chatswood lecture series] is all about people's stories, and how fashion affects us, how it makes us feel. Why we wear certain things, why we're drawn to things, and why things are reborn.” She smiles, and her eyes sparkle with excitement and passion.
For more details on the Chatswood lecture series and to reserve your spot (tickets are free but booking is essential), go here: https://www.chatswoodchasesydney.com.au/whats-on/fashion-lecture-series/.