Foray into Fashion

Shirley and Celina Fang weave together the threads of their heritage.

By: Ilene Dube



photos by Mark Czajkowski

Lotusa Vice Presidents Shirley (left) and Celina Fang model jackets in the Silk Box clothing line.

Mist rises from the streams and waterfalls of the Yandang Mountains in China. Yandang—literally translated, the word means "wild goose and marsh"—has served as inspiration to scroll painters, poets, monks and textile designers.
   West Windsor resident Nancy Lee spends half the year in the small, rural village of Yandang, where she is surrounded by farmers and fishers. After earning a doctorate in molecular biology in the United States and running her own pharmaceutical startup, Interferon Sciences, in New Brunswick, Ms. Lee has returned to her ancestral roots. Without formal training in apparel, textiles and design, she founded the Silk Box Clothing Co. in 1991 after inheriting a garment factory from an aunt in Yandang.
   "My mother says you should try everything for 10 years," says her daughter, Shirley Fang, vice-president of Silk Box/Lotusa in West Windsor.
   Silk Box started with silk bomber jackets sold through Pearl River Trading Co., a large Chinese department store on Canal Street in New York’s Chinatown that sells everything from food to cultural products and apparel. After Ms. Lee purchased a textile mill in China, Pearl River began commissioning mandarin collar wedding dresses, selling about one a week.

"I am passionate about handcrafted embroidery, and brocade is a national treasure (in China)," says Ms. Fang.

   "Then, China started to open its markets and we were there at the right time," says Ms. Fang, who attended her first trade show at age 16. "The East Asian trend hit in 1996, when Nicole Kidman wore a Galliano chartreuse chinoiserie dress to the Oscars. We started off young and trendy, appealing to girls who needed prom dresses. We were the only ones with the fabrics."
   Today, Silk Box customers include Claudia Schiffer, Cyndi Lauper and Alicia Silverstone, and the clothing and home textiles are offered through Nordstrom, Marshall Field’s, Mark Shale, Anthropolgie, Contempo Casuals and many small boutiques.
   "I love the patterns and colors and that the fabric is silk," says Diana Fortier, who runs Be in Style on Chambers Street in Princeton. "The workmanship is excellent—and I’ve seen a lot." Ms. Fortier is a breast-cancer survivor and donates her salary to the American Cancer Society and other organizations involved in breast-cancer research. She also buys hats and scarves for women who have lost their hair to chemotherapy.
   "I try to cater to women who are looking for something a little different, packaged with quality and affordability," she says. "The Asian influence is very strong right now."
   Be in Style sells a silk/rayon brocade jean jacket for $196, and a similarly styled vest with a fringey trim at the yoke for $100. Also offered are 100-percent-silk mandarin jackets ($198 for a quilted style, $130 for a lighter style) and matching capri pants ($120). Details such as frog closures and tone-on-tone medallions give the designs added Asian appeal.
   "The quality, fashion and fit look good on a variety of women," says Ms. Fortier. The garments are popular as resort wear and evening wear but can be worn to the office or around town, as well. Be in Style sells Asian-style accessories beginning at $3, though not made by Silk Box; these include change purses, silk jewelry boxes, handbags and heart-shaped accessory boxes.
   When Ms. Lee first started Silk Box, it operated largely out of her home and was strictly family-run. But as it took off, outside sales reps were contracted, as well as freelance designers. With a staff of about 12, Silk Box operates out of offices on Everett Drive in West Windsor.
   "European designers were doing Asian couture. It’s about time someone Asian did an Asian-inspired collection," says Ms. Fang, 25, a graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School who majored in biochemistry at Brown and has taken graduate-level business classes at The Wharton School. "I’m passionate about handcrafted embroidery, and brocade is a national treasure (in China). Brocade is all woven, rather than printed. Our designers create templates on a 30-year-old computer that stores patterns on punch cards. The higher the silk content, the more vivid the patterns."
   Silk Box gets its fabrics from Hangzhou, the silk capital of China. While some women prefer cottons, knits and linens because they are easy to wear, Ms. Fang is enthusiastic about bringing a part of her heritage to the West. "We have had to modify existing styles to suit the market and adjust the sizes."
   When Silk Box first started, it produced clothing in sizes 2 to 12, but two years ago sizes 14 and 16 were added. "People stereotyped Asian clothing as smaller cut. The mentality was that Chinese women are smaller, and American sizes are more generous."
   Silk Box also manufactures clothing in toile, paisleys and Persian textiles. The textile designers use traditional Chinese symbols such as dragons and flowers representing the four seasons: orchid (spring), bamboo (summer), chrysanthemum (fall) and plum blossom (winter).
   The final stop of the design process is Ms. Lee, who will approve or modify the design. "Designing is redesigning," says Ms. Fang. "First-tier designs, no matter how gorgeous, have to be adjusted to sell. Designers are theoretical. We have to make it easily interpretable and marketable."
   About a year ago, Silk Box added a couture line of limited-edition fashions priced at $1,000 and up. "These are things you can’t wear every day," says Ms. Fang. They often include original hand embroidery. "They are like museum pieces—people will see it as works of art," she adds. The company is doing about 25 percent of its business in the couture line.
   Today’s Silk Box customer is no longer the young trendy woman, who tends to be too fickle; customers are often 30 and older, looking for something timeless and classic.
   "Our customers like color and are artistic, affluent and more fashion focused," says Ms. Fang.
   The typical Silk Box customer seeks quality and will not accept a thread out of place. Ms. Lee had to retrain her garment workers—fishers and farmers who seek to supplement their income off season—to focus on quality and artistry over quantity.
   Ms. Lee was born in China before the cultural revolution. Her parents were scholars, studying chemistry in India, and an aunt and uncle raised her. When China closed to the West, it was hard to get out, especially for those with Western connections; they were considered traitors, says Ms. Fang.
   But Ms. Lee’s relatives succeeded in getting her to the United States, and at the University of Wisconsin she met her future husband, Guang Fang, a Hong Kong native, through the Asian student network. It was the 1960s, and together they protested at the United Nations. Ultimately, Mr. Fang went on to serve as a translator for the U.N.
   Ms. Fang’s sister, Celina (pronounced Chuh-LEE-na), 23, a graduate of the Lawrenceville School and Rice University, where she studied architecture, also serves as vice president, working on graphics, preparing swatches for customers, and helping with media relations and trade shows.
   "It’s a big dream," says Shirley Fang. "We couldn’t have imagined we’d be doing this today. It’s nice to be able to continue the family tradition from mother to daughter."
Silk Box clothing can be purchased at Be In Style, 2 Chambers St., Princeton, (609) 924-3400, and at A La Mode, 600½ Bear Tavern Road, Ewing, (609) 883-5299. Silk Box on the Web: