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Famous San Francisco fashion designer brings math to her couture

Famous San Francisco fashion designer brings math to her couture


SAN FRANCISCO — When Colleen Quen revisits her fashion designs, it’s more than a reunion. It is a reconnection with the heart and the soul.

“It’s a part of me, I’m going to cry,” Quen said. “These rooms are an extension. Every inch of my energy is invested in them from my heart.”

Her emotion comes from years of making unique dresses in the style of French couture.

“I have about 180 pieces in stock and each one is different. They’re timeless,” Quen said. “If you take care of them, they become lasting heirlooms.”

From 1998 to 2013, Quen was one of San Francisco’s famous fashion designers who dressed the city’s elites, socialites and celebrities.

Quen’s most popular piece is the “Madam Butterfly” dress. She guesses she’s made four hundred custom variations for her clients over the years.

“That dress probably supported my business,” Quen said.

Colleen Quen
Fashion designer Colleen Quen in her signature creation.

Courtesy of Colleen Quen

Her signature piece is what she calls the “Empress’s Coat,” a flowing gold A-frame coat meant to resemble royalty. A picture of her wearing the coat from a magazine cover photo hangs on her wall.

“It’s my pride and joy and I thought of it as 24 karat gold and it’s a walking piece of jewelry,” Quen said. “I never wear my pieces, but when I put them on for the shoot, I feel like I’m in heaven.”

Quen studied fashion with the late Simone Sethna at the French Couture School in San Francisco, where she learned the art of what she affectionately calls “sacred geometry.”

“Sacred Geometry has this formula, this composition, but yet it is so beautiful because of the way the numbers are calculated,” Quen explained. “Art and math work together. It’s about designing for the human body where you can create a walking piece of art.”

Today, instead of shaping fabric, she is now shaping the next generation of fashion designers, passing on her sewing knowledge to a small group of students in her tiny studio.

“I want to share this because I feel honored to even have been allowed to learn this myself,” Quen said. “My teacher told me not to alter any of this, to honor French couture and to teach if you wish, but don’t alter anything I have taught you.”

Quen’s lessons begin with meticulous calculations and formulas that feel like engineering rather than art. One of his students, Lea Luellen, found out the hard way.

“I was never good at math until I met Colleen,” Luellen said. “She taught me how to use different parts of my brain to create.”

“I feel that’s my purpose in life, to learn what I can and master my work but to share because once you become a master you have to give back to the planet and the people who want to be inspired by it, ” said Quen.




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