As far as paths go, some follow a direction set by their parents while others are shaped by other societal norms and expectations. Rare are those that possess the courage, discipline and vision to forge their own path— especially when so far away from the touchstones of family, friends and culture. Beauty artist and director Jiefan Alan dared to.

Born in China, Jiefan’s sense of independence was nurtured from a young age. Sent to a boarding school in Shanghai at age ten, life was regimented. Days were filled with expectations and standardized tests. Jiefan excelled in his academics. With a deep love of literature, he set himself apart from the pack as a gifted communicator and writer. During that time, Shanghai was in the midst of an education reform and as a model student, Jiefan’s principle would dote upon him. From winning debates to poetry competitions, his path towards becoming a young politician was taking shape. But Jiefan dreamed of a very different type of life.

“When you grow up in a restricted environment your mind is always going to possibilities. I was always watching American TV…shows like The Good Wife—and I would think ‘I need some of that in my life!’ My mind was running wild with curiosity.”

During school lunch breaks Western music would pour out of the loudspeaker. The iconic voices of Celine Dion and Whitney Houston would fill the air. But there was one diva that spoke to Jiefan’s soul: Mariah Carey. Drawn to the lightness and sheer intricacy of her vocals, Mariah’s music became the soundtrack to the freedom he was seeking—and that extra motivation to learn English.

But let there be no mistake, Jiefan was not without local inspiration. Shanghai’s distinct culture, an unmistakable blend of European flair and influences set against Chinese aesthetics and traditions, made an indelible impression on Jiefan. Shanghai is a place where, in Jiefan’s words, “people pull up in a 500k Maserati to wait for 2 hours for a $3 crepe—before crossing the street to a 4-level Louis Vuitton flagship, to get their purse customized.” With a taste for the finest and an unquenchable desire for the newest, Shanghai is where luxury, hype culture, and craftsmanship intersect.

In particular, the Shanghainese women captured his imagination. Their attention to detail and pride in presenting themselves was the ideal foil to their openness and humour. These women epitomized style, glamor and elegance.

“They never do chores. Shanghainese women never do chores… There’s five hair salons in one area. They’re very style conscious and might even appear selfish but when it comes to real issues— they handle it and never misjudge a situation.”

In 2014, Jiefan realized his dream and headed to North America. As part of the Canadian Express Entry process, Jiefan enrolled as a full-time student in the Arts & Media program at the Toronto Metropolitan University (formally known as Ryerson). Alone in Toronto, he threw himself into the deep end, completing six different film and television internships with shows including Dragon’s Den and Suicide Squad. All the hype and allure around all things Sephora at the time of Jiefan’s last film placement, combined with a connection he made with a beauty blogger, propelled him in a new career direction. He began juggling networking, school and work. If Beyoncé has 24 hours in a day, it’s possible Jiefan has 25.

“During school, I would have a call time at 4 a.m. then go to class. And in the middle of class have to leave to head to a job. Afterwards, I would pack up my beauty suitcase and get on a bus to Markham, to do demos for a beauty line—with my broken English,” he recalls with amusement.

After almost a decade, Jiefan is now a sought-after artist. He’s not only fulfilled his dream of independence by making his own path, but also carved out a space in the industry. Known for his universal approach to beauty, citing Miuccia Prada as a big inspiration, Jiefan seeks to reimagine and reexamine beauty clichés. With a deep knowledge and passion for fragrance too, he relishes in both the luxury and play of his craft. Jiefan stays clear of shock value tactics or striving for a “done” look; for him, it’s about connecting with each subject. His exuberant personality and gracious social skills only rival his technical prowess—and truly honour his Shanghainese heritage.

“I don’t like makeup done perfectly. Maybe a bit unhinged. I want a face to still look like a face. What inspires me the most is the human behind the beauty. My work is quite emotional in that sense.”

Interview by Naeme El-Zein.

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