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A WRITTEN PORTRAIT
Image Credit: @vivthemole on Instagram
As Viv Chen, “fashion creature,” mists her perfume, the air around her fizzes with the zest of sparkling champagne, teeming with fragrance. Indian Tuberose, Jasmine, rubberbands, coconut, sunscreen, and musk dance around her cobalt blue rubbery bubble clogs, black velvet cropped bangs, and perfume bottle that reads “HYSTERIA” by Mondo Mondo, a scent meant to evoke a vision:
“She looks out her window and watches the spinning jungle. Her tears suggest that she is either laughing or crying.”
"H Y S T E R I A"
The woman, whose shape forms in HYSTERIA's wisps, is independent and removed, observant, and vividly emotional. She mirrors Viv, who seems to possess many of the same qualities. Viv values time alone, eavesdropping on silky whispers while her eyes glint as she shifts her gaze to her murky pink wine; she is a wallflower, but not in the sense of being ostracized, rather she understands herself deeply and yearns to notice each swirling detail in the spinning jungle as the wild florals mingle with the freckles on her face. A wallflower is often deeply perceptive, a quality that lends itself to Viv’s writing work, and translates to her patience and decisiveness when it comes to shopping for sustainable fashion pieces.
This impression colors much of Viv’s PORTRAY-T, while her admiration for Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love paints the rest with the warmth of gold and red against dark silhouettes passing her wallflower-like form. Viv’s fashion and writing, like Wong Kar Wai’s films, creates an atmosphere that is intricately textured and resonant. In our interview with her, she talks slow fashion, nostalgia, and how her cultural identity affects her experience as a content creator.
Image Credit: @mondomondo on Instagram
First of all, thank you so much for this interview! I know you love sensory pieces and color theory, if you could describe your style in sensory terms how would you describe it?
My style is whimsical, playful and eclectic. Outfits that evoke a storybook character feeling without being too literal. I love creating sensory tension between pieces: a crisp cotton dress with a bulbous shoe, oily patent leather pants with a fleecy vest, a lustrous organza blouse with a dull swampy skirt. To me the most interesting outfits must have an element of “ugliness.” When it’s so ugly it’s pretty. I embrace the strange and grotesque.
How do you feel like your style translates to your interior design tastes?
My personal style is much more defined than my interior design tastes. I know what clothes I like and dislike, but I’m still figuring out how that translates to interiors. Furniture decisions are hard….you can’t change your mind about a couch as easily as a pair of pants. However, I do apply similar principles and thought processes to decorating my home. I like to create tension by mixing materials and shopping secondhand. In my living room I styled a reflective smoked glass coffee table (Craigslist find) with chrome cantilever chairs on a thick high pile rug. And I appreciate whimsical touches as well, like decorative ceramic pastries and pastel candleholders.
Image Credit: @vivthemole on Instagram
I know you’re a big supporter of the slow fashion movement and secondhand shopping. You’ve written on your Instagram that shopping secondhand is “full of disappointing gambles” but it’s worth it when you find the perfect unique piece. Can you tell me a little bit more about when you decided to shop secondhand and how your mentality has changed over time?
I started getting interested in shopping secondhand/vintage in high school. It was a way to shop unique pieces and experiment with my personal style on a limited student budget. My favorite places to browse in the East Bay were Crossroads, Mars Mercantile, and the Alameda Antiques Fair. I got a pair of oxfords for $40 at the antique fair and was so obsessed with them. This was also the heyday of Lookbook.nu and Tumblr so that was a big source of inspiration. When you do your research and know the value of certain designer pieces, it’s thrilling to find what you’re looking for at a bargain. I’ve seen some wild deals on secondhand platforms…Shushutong platforms for $70…a 2018 Miu Miu gingham jacket for $80.
Over time, I developed a stronger sense of personal style and know what I’m looking for. So these days I rarely shop “just to browse,” I’m more intentional. When I’m really excited about a designer or specific piece, I’ll set up alerts on all the online secondhand platforms. The secondhand market has exploded in the past decade and there’s so many platforms now - I use eBay and TheRealReal the most. Top on my wishlist right now are the Marni Pablo velcro mary janes.
"I love creating sensory tension between pieces: a crisp cotton dress with a bulbous shoe, oily patent leather pants with a fleecy vest, a lustrous organza blouse with a dull swampy skirt. To me the most interesting outfits must have an element of 'ugliness.'"
If you could choose two pieces from your closet that you think represent you the best, what would you choose?
Shoes are so symbolic for me, I almost see them as talismans. So I would chose two pairs of shoes:
Suzanne Rae green croc fur lined mules. If these shoes were a person, they would be a glamorous great-aunt figure with an indiscernible accent and lives in a Victorian house with a reptile room for her pet snakes.
Proenza Schouler lug sole loafers - which make me feel like Mia Thermopolis in her school uniform, traipsing around San Francisco.
You’ve said that you gravitate towards slightly theatrical accessories that make you feel like a character in a book or film. If you could be any character, who would you be?
Very hard to choose - but I’ll go with Maggie Cheung’s character in In The Mood For Love. She has a melancholic, tragic beauty that I admire. And I love the 1960s printed cheongsams she wears.
I genuinely think you’re such an amazing writer- you seem so intelligent and articulate. In your Polly Pocket Core article, you wrote that “people rediscovered childhood toys and games as a form of escapism during quarantine last year, and it’s not slowing down. We are nostalgic for the analog experience.” What else fed your nostalgia during the pandemic? What are some things you tend to feel most nostalgic over?
Thank you! It means a lot that you like my writing.
I didn’t really pick up major hobbies during quarantine, but I did get into puzzles again. Oh and I got a bike. I rode a bike again for the first time as an adult (since childhood). I’m so glad I did….I got a coffee cup holder for the handlebars and would bike to my local cafe to get an iced vanilla latte, then bike aimlessly around the neighborhood.
Like most people I am nostalgic for many parts of childhood. My siblings and I have a close relationship as adults - our sibling love is unconditional, we are the power of three. It’s us against the world. I’m lucky I got to grow up with them. So my childhood feels not just mine but ours, everything was experienced together. The three of us crammed in the backseat. Splitting everything into thirds. Even the moments that weren’t particularly memorable at the time, feels cinematic in hindsight:
Road trips. Driving in our family car, the silver Honda Odyssey that my parents bought for the auto sliding doors because it was “good for kids” - I miss that car. Printed MapQuest directions. Pinching our noses as we passed the cow farms. The smell of Cutie tangerine peels.
Stickers and Stationery. My prized sticker book, full of Sanrio stickers, neatly organized. I really believe that stickers were how I came to understand the concept of currency and money. I would sticker trade with other girls and it was like our playground economy. A puffy My Melody sticker was worth a lot. This obsession with stickers extended to stationery in general. I hoarded gel pens, mechanical pencils, erasers, diaries, notebooks, scrapbook supplies and cards. Ok - I’m also nostalgic for handwriting and penmanship. I hated Mavis Beacon typing tests. I loved learning cursive in third grade, writing giant cursive V’s in my notebook over and over again, trying to land on my “adult signature.”
I also have some nostalgia for my teenage years, even though they were angsty and self conscious. But that’s just a hallmark of being a teenager, right? I love YA genre television. Because I miss that teenage frame of mind where everything is SO heightened, SO intense, SO dramatic. Your feelings are big, and you feel them deeply.
" N O S T A L G I A "
I am nostalgic for many parts of childhood. My siblings and I have a close relationship as adults... We are the power of three...[I think of] the three of us crammed in the backseat. Splitting everything into thirds. Even the moments that weren’t particularly memorable at the time, feels cinematic in hindsight:
Driving in our family car, the silver Honda Odyssey that my parents bought for the auto sliding doors because it was “good for kids” - I miss that car. Printed MapQuest directions. Pinching our noses as we passed the cow farms. The smell of Cutie tangerine peels.
You also wrote in that article that dolls allow for a slice of a dream by proxy. This struck me because I always loved fashion but I didn’t grow up with a lot of money so I was obsessed with getting the designer Barbies- my favorite was a Juicy Couture Barbie with pink fluffy boots, high socks, and a pink and green branded scarf. That’s how I wish I could have dressed. Did you personally experience this when you were younger?
Definitely. It’s like - if you can’t have something in real life, you can still vicariously experience it through your dolls. And it extends beyond the material, kids (and adults) simulate situations, fantasies, ideas, through dolls or other inanimate objects. I think that’s normal. I would play with my doll’s outfits and hair all the time. I also shared a bedroom for most of my childhood so decorating my dollhouse was an outlet for expressing my dream interior design ideas.
I also love your piece, Welcome to the (Asian) Retro Future. In that you write, “I often wonder what it means for me, an Asian-American woman, to engage in aesthetics with Eurocentric origins.” This othering has been a huge topic specifically relative to social media’s focus on aesthetic movements. As a Content Creator, how have you conceptualized this?
Fashion with a capital F - the industry, the business, the institution - is Eurocentric and white dominated. I admire Asian and Asian American designers who subvert aesthetic power structures. Kim Shui comes to mind. Her SS22 collection upends the white American idea of the cowboy/the Marlboro man by presenting this unapologetic Asian-Americana femme persona, dressed in dragon brocade assless chaps and jade beaded body chains. Given the history of Western designers fetishizing Asian womanhood in fashion, she’s described her work as an Eastern gaze applied on Western aesthetics. I also love Sandy Liang, who is Cantonese American like me. She’s incorporated her Pawpaw in editorial shoots and sent out fashion show invites in red envelopes once. Stuff like that really makes my heart sing.
As a content creator, I like to incorporate elements of my racial and cultural identity, but it’s not the first thing I think about when I get dressed. I wear clothes that make me feel interesting and affirm my self-expression. I don’t need to be wearing a cheongsam to show that I value my culture. Alternatively if I’m wearing my Courreges jacket that doesn’t mean I am a Francophile. The fact that I am Asian-American, makes my style Asian-American.
KIM SHUI SS22
Other than fashion, what are some of your biggest passions?
I spend a lot of time thinking about food and cooking. I’m privileged to live in a neighborhood with access to vibrant seasonal produce, so food always becomes a topic of conversation, a way of marking the passage of time.
When will the early girl tomatoes be available? I can’t wait. It’s peak time for strawberries, make sure you get some. I’ve never tasted a melon that tasted so melon-y- try the Galia or the Summer Kiss. I went to the store today and there are no more mangoes so do you realize the one we ate yesterday is the last good one we’ll eat until next year. And we didn’t even know it. Do you realize we can’t force time? Beautiful things come and go.
It’s hard for me to develop a true bond with someone if we have incompatible palettes. Food is an anchor for my family and I always look forward to my parent’s home cooking. There are Cantonese dishes I just can’t make as well on my own even if I tried (which I admit I have not…because they’re so complex): oxtail stew, flavorful bone broths.
I also love swimming and being in water. Floating in a pool on a hot day and staring at the sky, zero thoughts. The sensory deprivation is calming and I think about how we are all submerged in womb fluid sacs before we enter the world. I feel reborn after a good swim.
If you could bottle three scents, what would they be and what do they remind you of?
Mohawk General Store in Los Angeles - it’s a mix of the fragrances in the store, the clothes themselves, and the delicious relief of air conditioning when it’s dry and hot outside. They carry Mondo Mondo fragrances (I wear “Hysteria”) and the scent descriptions are beautiful. It reminds me of the year I lived in LA right after college. I would go to this boutique to window shop and learn about independent designers. The clothes represented something aspirational, when you’re young and still have enough naivete to feel spellbound by the magic of beautiful clothes.
The smell of my hair after a fresh cut. I currently get my bob done by Jayne Matthews in Oakland - she’s extremely good at what she does. I couldn’t have visualized this bob and bang shape for myself but trusted her vision, and I’m glad I did. The products smell natural, clean and earthy, but it’s more than that. It’s also the feeling of being taken care of and the symbolism of cutting hair: a change, a rite of passage, a transformation.
Halloween. My birthday is very close to Halloween so I’ve always loved that time of year. It reminds me of being a kid and doing nothing in school the week before fall break - just watching spooky movies in class and rotting your teeth with sour dip candy. I love witchy shows like Charmed, the Addams Family, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It’s so campy. Honestly I get sad every year after Halloween passes.
To stay connected with Viv:
@vivthemole on Instagram
The Mole Hill on Substack
@vivthemole on TikTok
Do you have a favorite piece of advice you’ve ever been told or favorite saying?
Learning to genuinely enjoy your own company. As I’ve gotten older I’m more comfortable with doing things myself and think it’s really important to spend time getting to know yourself. To know who you are outside of the influence of other people. To know what opinions you hold. To dress for yourself.
One time after a fresh haircut, I passed by my favorite wine bar and spontaneously decided to stop in for a glass of rose and a strawberry parfait. It was overcast and drizzling. The wine was murky pink, the parfait was cherry chapstick red. The whole thing felt very Rococo. The server was kind and wore a navy Lucy & Yak jumpsuit, it looked very good on them. I really enjoyed sitting alone with my coat pulled tightly across my chest, eavesdropping on the conversations around me. Time alone is sacred.
How do you view yourself? Is it different from the way others tend to view you?
I’m not sure how others view me!
Personally I think I’m a private person - despite being “on social media.” Some people are great at articulating emotional vulnerability online but I’m more guarded about what I share. I’m also not telegenic. Long term I’d prefer a less exposed role in fashion than content creator, like creative consulting or writing. I have deep admiration for good fashion writers….not necessarily people who write for big publications but anyone who can write keenly and incisively about fashion. My friends would say I am a very observant person and I agree. In big groups I prefer observing people and situations from a distance vs. being the center of attention. I live for the little details. They are exquisite.
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