FASHION AS PERSONAL IDENTITY: Interview with Czech fashion icons, Eva Che and Tomáš Hoang Khain
Text by Matty Slutty
Eva Che, alias Cheva, and Tomáš Hoang Khai are prominent personalities of the Czech fashion scene that you can’t miss on the street or in the digital world of media. The wardrobes of Cheva and Tomáš combine designer pieces as well as pieces they’ve come across in second-hand and high street shops, which they often tweak themselves. When it comes to dressing up, they aren’t afraid of anything. Their outfits are connected through a similar visual language, expressing and communicating their own unique attitudes. In an interview with Matty Slutty, Cheva and Tomáš reveal more about their stances on the intertwined notions of fashion and identity.
It’s Wednesday evening after another rainy day. In a bit, I’ll be having an online in- terview; however, my internet connection refuses to cooperate. After a few unsuc- cessful attempts to connect, and the echoing repetition of “do we hear each other”, we are finally able to hear one another. Tomáš (one of the talents featured on the photos) is helping a friend with painting his wall in a new flat - and Eva (editorial art director), just came home from work.
THE DOUBLE TROUBLE RELATIONSHIP WITH GUCCI
I’ve noticed on your Instagram profiles that you have lots of pictures together - and it’s clear that you’re very close. How did you meet?
Eva: We are really good friends with Tomi. We met in Gucci, where we worked together. Tomáš: We met through a mutual friend. We only became partners in crime after a couple of months working together at Gucci.
So you both worked at Gucci. Aside from that, what do you do?
T: I worked at Gucci for nearly two years, up until May last year. For a while I was wonder- ing about what to do next. Initially I started assisting at a model agency. I helped with photography, styling individual photoshoots for lookbooks, and scouting new faces. A couple of months later I became fully employed at a Prague-based casting and talent agency, which has studios in London and Barcelona as well. It’s a bit diﬀerent to a regular modelling agency, but every day I get to learn new things, and what excites me the most about it is the versatility of the job. Once in a while I help out with a few styling projects, and I’m also working on a project of my own on the side.
E: I’ve been working for Gucci for over five years now, but last year I slowly entered the world of gastronomy. Working in a kitchen, and being able to host, brings me joy. I there- fore opened up a small, family-run business, where I’m in charge of the menu, interior de- sign, and the whole concept behind it, as well as the uniform. All of the restaurant’s ele- ments take inspiration from simple Chinese inns, as well as nightlife.
Do you have any other passions that you’d like to share?
T: One of my biggest passions is dancing, whether it’s at a party or at a professional level. From when I was 7 years old, until I was about 16, I devoted myself to competitive dancing disciplines; standard and Latin American dances. I spent my whole childhood on the dance floor, actually — whether it was training or competitions, and I achieved various placements both in the Czech Republic and abroad, which I am proud of. At the age of 16 I quit dancing, as school work became more demanding - and it was also quite a finan- cially diﬃcult sport to navigate. Up until today I miss competitive dancing, but luckily I discovered another dance discipline that excites me - vogue. Despite becoming interest- ed in vogue only about a year ago, I am fascinated by the environment of ballroom cul- ture, and its history. I am a member of the Prague kiki house, Ambitchous, a group of dancers, artists and ballroom enthusiasts, founded by the great dancer Michal Ninja.
THE BORDERS OF IDENTITY
What are your cultural roots? How would you describe your identity?
E: Thanks to my parents I have a Chinese origin, but I was born in Prague, and at the age of five, I moved to Kutná Hora with my parents. I identify as a Czech, but I do perceive that I possess certain qualities that I’ve probably acquired thanks to my Chinese roots. This is, for instance, the approach I have towards work.
T: I have Vietnamese roots - both my parents are Vietnamese. I was born in Germany and have been living in the Czech Republic ever since I was two years old. I spent my child- hood, and adolescence, in western Bohemia, and moved to Prague at the age of 19 to study at university. Even though I look 100% Asian, I grew up in Czechia and I feel like a Czech. I have the advantage of knowing Vietnamese culture, and speaking both Czech and Vietnamese, I understand both cultures and the diﬀerences between the two. Apart from my brother and my parents, the rest of my family lives in Vietnam. I love it there, just as much as I love Czech culture and Czechia as a country.
Have you encountered expressions of racism in the Czech Republic, based on your ethnic background?
E: Unfortunately, yes. Both my parents and I, who don’t speak Czech, have experienced many xenophobic incidents.
T: I haven’t really encountered racism, as such, if I put aside the few childish fights in pri- mary school, when a classmate would call me, “Chinese”, during a fight. So thank God, I have no experience with racism. I’d say I came across homophobia more often than racism. All it takes is a small hint of expression, such as a feminine body language, the "sissy runway bitch” walk, or perhaps an unusual way of dressing, which in my case, is quite common, and you can easily become the target of ridicule by individuals promoting toxic masculinity. It happened to me a number of times, that I went out happy with my outfit, and a random passerby couldn’t resist making a homophobic remark. I have also experienced, although less often, more aggressive verbal assaults. At first I didn’t react, but today I have enough courage to do so. I do feel that, as a society, we are making progress, and although we are still quite far behind, we are on our way to become more accepting of ethnic and sexual minorities and diversity, as is the case in more cosmopolitan cities, for instance London or Berlin. There’s still a few places around the world where the word, “gay”, is considered a taboo. So thank God for Prague.
If you were to choose a city to live in, which one would it be?
E: It’s best to live in a place where one learns how to live, and for me, that’s definitely Berlin! I found everything I love in Berlin. I’m a fan of electronic music, which inspires me in every aspect of my life. You must first do a survey of places, when you want to go out in Prague, and then plan your weekend accordingly. In Berlin you just go with the flow. The locals are open and no one judges you - everyone can express themselves however they like.
T: I love Prague, I see it as my home, but at the same time I am also excited by bigger and more versatile cities. I prefer European cities, and one of my favourites is Berlin. As a teenager I’d probably say New York, but growing up I realised how comfortable our life is, here in Europe. Overall I definitely prefer the European lifestyle. Berlin is fascinating, wild and liberal. You encounter lots of inspiring places - and people there are much more open.
If you love Berlin, how come you live in Prague?
E: I have a base here in Czechia. In Prague I’ve got work, and in Kutna Hora, I have my family. Considering my approach to life, to move away in search of fun, right, would mean forgetting about my career. Even though one can always find work, where they choose to do so, a career is something like a long marathon, and so I choose what I do carefully.
T: As I said, I love Prague, and at the same time, I have a job here as well as my best friends. Who knows though, it may as well be the case that I move to Berlin, or perhaps somewhere else in the future. I’m definitely keeping it open, because I have no concrete ties to Prague, apart from my job. Right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s prob- ably not the best idea to move somewhere abroad. I feel an emotional bond to Prague and I always love returning here. I think Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world!
CLOTHING IS A PART WHO I AM
You have lots of things in common but one in particular stands out - fashion. Why is this so, and how did it come about?
E: I always felt the need to feel good in what I choose to wear out, that’s all. Fashion is simply a part of who I am.
T: I think fashion not only has the ability to express the mood of a person, but also their personality, what the person’s like and what they believe in. For instance, I believe in gender neutrality and equality. As a high school student I didn’t have the courage to fully express my aesthetic through fashion. It was only when I came to Prague that I started to develop in that aspect of my life. I met various people with diﬀerent opinions on fashion, views on life and the world as a whole. This diversity of perspectives is shaping me as a person to this day. In terms of my personal development I owe a large part to Eva, who always gave me the courage, and confidence that what I was doing wasn’t wrong - and supported me throughout the development of my ideas.
In my opinion, fashion trends don’t exist anymore. We are overwhelmed by new col- lections and various designs by fashion designers, which essentially results in you being able to pick anything, and call it a trend. Do you agree with me?
E: Fashion trends were never important to me. Of course I do notice common trends, but having a personal style is always more important to me.
T: Yeah, I think so. Trends tend to constantly repeat themselves. Current collections draw inspiration from past ones. Due to the amount of collections being produced in today’s climate, everyone can individually choose what they perceive as a trend, just as you said. One doesn’t necessarily even need to search hard for trends of a given season. If you’re, even a tiny bit, interested in fashion, the online environment will literally overwhelm you with fashion imagery.
Amen! How would you define your style then?
E: I like eclecticism in fashion, so I often combine diﬀerent elements together to create a balance. Of course, my favourite brand and a great inspiration is Gucci, but I also love fashion designers, such as John Galliano and Maison Margiela.
T: I’d describe my style as a mix of everything. I love combining elements and breaking boundaries. I combine street style with more elegant elements, underground with com- mercial, masculine looks with feminine elements, vintage pieces from thrift shops with luxury pieces. We mustn’t forget about accessories either, as they add soul to the whole look. A huge inspiration of mine, as well as a matter of the heart, is the creative director for Gucci, Alessandro Michele. What fascinates me is his post-punk, romantic, maximal- ist, almost psychedelic style and aesthetic. I highly identify with his statement and pas- sion for freedom of expression. Similarly to Eva, I admire Galliano, Margiela and the work of Alexander McQueen from the 90s. For me, a lot depends on my mood, as well. I like big oversized jackets, padded shoulders, crazy accessories, 80s, 90s style vibes, but also the fashionably hated beginnings of the millennium.
What is your relationship with local authorial fashion? Do you wear it?
E: I do. I have a very close relationship with local designers and brands, as I follow their work every season throughout fashion week, or in their showrooms, where I’m always able to choose what to get.
T: I follow local fashion mostly through seeing shows at fashion week or online through social media. When it comes to local creatives, what excites me the most is original work from emerging designers and art university students.
What about the relationship between fashion and politics - what is your perspective on this? For Czech media, this is still, seemingly, a taboo topic. However, around the world, political events and personalities are being closely watched through the lens of fashion. Why do you think this is the case? Are Czech designers and stylists afraid to be connected to Czech politicians?
E: I don’t think that they are scared. A politician’s priority is their job, and it’s clear that when it comes to fashion, they don’t have much room to experiment. I don’t think com- paring this notion, from country to country, is eﬀective.
T: Fashion is one of the main communicative forms through which the designer, or the wearer, is able to express their stance on social or political topics. This is the case around the world, however, here, I do feel that fashion is still, very much, surface-based. Local designers produce their collections in accordance with the likes of a wider clientele, which makes it miss out on translating a deeper meaning or a statement. I just finished watching a great fashion show by Art School London for Autumn/Winter 2021, led by the creative director Eden Loweth. His current collection Ascension focuses on the trans community, and how they can be beautiful and powerful. It expresses that the community should have the same rights as any other. This is exactly the kind of attitude I feel we are missing here.
How come young people in their twenties can aﬀord to buy high-end brands? This is quite unique to the younger generation. Where do you buy clothing yourselves? Do you shop in high street brands?
E: Young people tend to think diﬀerently and be reckless when it comes to spending. When we’re young we all want to spend money on our appearance; the older generation used to behave this way as well. Buying clothes by expensive brands is nice, there’s a reason why their products are more pricey. When one wears high-end brands, they feel diﬀerently about themselves. When it comes to shopping in high street stores, of course I sometimes go in too and I don’t really see anything wrong with that.
T: I’d also be interested to know how young people can aﬀord expensive brands - that’s not my case. I think that the main reason is social media, into which world-wide brands tend to invest. A key part of this is also building a campaign around famous celebrities. One is constantly surrounded by this, and it inevitably influences them. My wardrobe mainly consists of pieces from thrift shops and vintage shops, acquired both locally and abroad. I love visiting these shops when I travel, it’s always on my to-do list. I then like to tailor, cut, and make great new things out of the pieces I find. I don’t support high street fashion chains, but I won’t lie and say I never shop there, even though I am aware of their impact on the environment. This is a topic that’s being increasingly discussed here, which is great!
What’s your favourite colour, and why is it black?
E: It’s the colour of my sense of humour! *laughs*
T: When I think about it, I don’t really have a favourite colour, or a colour which I don’t like. I like to wear any colour, which is clear from my hair - in the last six months I man- aged to bleach my hair from black to orange - and now it’s yellow/green :-D
And last but not least, what’s your favourite ice cream flavour?
E: Mango! Or wait…can I change that to banana flavour? Or wait, I know - it’s definitely basil!
T: I love the flavour of passion fruit, with every lick I teleport myself somewhere with sunshine and the sea.
See the Czech version of this article together with visual artworks in NOVY ZINE, issue 1.