These are momentous times for fashion in China. The local industry – still in relative infancy – has enjoyed two decades of continuous growth since the first wave of homegrown designers debuted their works in the mid-90s.
Established international brands have taken the country and the wallets of its moneyed consumers to heart, so much so that’s it’s almost become cliched to comment on how important China has become for the global luxury sector. Yet fashion houses from across Europe and the US continue to arrive, opening new stores and re-staging runway shows as blockbuster spectacles in Beijing and Shanghai.
The country is now experiencing what is arguably the biggest accolade of all: the international art show treatment. At the beginning of May, the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York unveiled ‘China: Through the Looking Glass,’ an exhibition paying homage to the influence of Chinese culture on Western fashion.
A mix of music, film clips, photography and clothes, the collection not only fills the Costume Institute itself, but all of the museum’s specialist Chinese art galleries too.
The museum’s director, Thomas Campbell, has said that it might be the biggest show in the Met’s history. One explanation for its size is that it coincides with the centenary of the museum’s Asian art collection. Another, simpler reading would be that Chinese fashion has finally arrived.
“The perception of Chinese designers is shifting,” says Alice McInerney, a Beijing- based fashion journalist and consultant. “Now you can shop for Chinese fashion all over the world, in some of the most prestigious boutiques. Back in China, customers – while still attracted to international labels – are craving something unique and are much more open to local talent.”
So too are the international media. From the New York Times to the Guardian, the Chinese fashion industry is now a regular feature in English-language style sections. During last April’s Shanghai Fashion Week, a summit organized with the support of marketing giant Ogilvy was held in the palatial confines of the city’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The event attracted journalists, buyers and international fashion figures – including British fashion commentator Colin McDowell and Business of Fashion founder Imran Ahmed.
One of the forum’s participants Tasha Liu, who owns concept store Dong Liang Studio which exclusively stocks Chinese designers, explains: “China is finally getting the attention of the global arena. There used to be a distinction between East and West, but now we are all on a common platform. Local talents have been growing steadily for quite some time now – they have refined their design and technical skills. It’s time they get the recognition they deserve.”
It’s a view shared by Irish-born Gemma Williams, author of the ambitious Fashion China, an anthology featuring 41 of the country’s leading designers.
“‘Made in China’ had become so stereotyped,” she explains. “I want to highlight another view.”
The book includes both established and up-and-coming talents, revealing diversity in taste and aesthetics that range from cutting-edge and opulent to avant-garde and minimalist.
And let’s not forget the Met. The opening gala for the show – an extremely fashionable affair, as it is held and organized annually by American Vogue’s chief editor and queen of fashion and Anna Wintour – saw celebrities embrace the Chinese theme of the exhibition with gowns that tried to reference the country (sometimes with arguable results).
Rihanna wore a creation by Guo Pei, China’s first couturiere, while omnipresent Chinese actress-turned-American-import Fan Bingbing donned a gown by rising designer Christopher Bu. Dalian-born Huishan Zhang was even asked to create a Met-Ball themed collaboration with American retailer Barney’s New York. According to McInerney, “the fact that mega- celebs are wearing Chinese designers has turned Chinese fashion into a talking point.”
But can the buzz last?
Tasha Liu describes her position as cautiously optimistic: “China has no doubt left a mark on the industry’s radar. But independent designers have plenty of challenges to face, and not just here. Maintaining the level that’s expected of them is what’s going to determine their success – and critical acclaim – in the future.”
During a visit to Beijing in January(made to hype the Met show but also lure Chinese investors), Anna Wintour expressed similarly positive feelings: “I’m sure within the next generation, we’ll see the emergence of Chinese designers on a global scale,” she told the Wall Street Journal.
Those designers may not come directly from China, however. While first-tier cities are striving to keep pace with state establishments like the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (BIFT) or privately- owned schools such as Istituto Marangoni or Shanghai’s recently opened Condé Nast Center of Fashion&Design, wannabe dressmakers often fall for the lure of an international education.
Over the last five to 10 years, an increasing number of Chinese students have gone abroad to study fashion. In 2013, more than 50,000 Chinese went to the US to study art and design-related courses – that’s one-tenth of the total number of Chinese students in the States. That same year, 9,000 Chinese traveled to Britain for similar courses. Walk through Central St. Martins in London, and you’ll see hoards of Chinese creatives-in-the-making working on projects, exchanging notes and attending classes.
Talent looks outward, not inward. Given the sheer number of Chinese designers in foreign universities (and their growing participation in foreign fashion weeks) it is no surprise that the overseas-educated are having a significant input on the industry.
Masha Ma, who launched her eponymous label in Shanghai in 2008, is a case in point. A graduate of Central St. Martins, she was selected and shown at London Fashion Week, her collection subsequently purchased by a retail store in London. Ma also shows at Paris Fashion Week, where she’s become something of a fixture on the fashion circuit. Although she divides her time between Shanghai and Paris, it is the latter she calls home. “China is growing fast,” she says, “but it still has a lot to learn.”
Like Ma, many of China’s pre-eminent fashion designers began their careers abroad, including leading names such as Huishan Zhang, Yifang Wang, Haizhen Wang and Uma Wang. Many have won prizes, awards and competitions (or received help to showcase their collections) from overseas organizations such as the British Fashion Council. This year, out of 26 on the shortlist for the prestigious annual LVMH Prize for young designers, six were Chinese, though none were named amongst the award’s eight finalists.
As in many industries, the West has long decided what is and isn’t fitting of certain (read: its own) criteria, categorizations or typecasting. With Chinese fashion, the idea of defining what makes something intrinsically ‘Chinese’ can make its globalization a double-edged sword.
Take the Met show, for example. With a title reeking slightly of orientalism (though its reviews have, overall, been quite favorable) China: Through the Looking Glass risked being a cradle for mistranslations and simplified preaching, as it is a show of appropriation, rather than one celebrating another culture (its focus is on Western designers’ use of Chinese elements rather than on China’s fashion itself).
It’s also worth noting that although Wintour praised the Chinese industry asa whole during her recent trip to China, she also remarked that “nothing that could be called modern Chinese style has yet emerged.”
This assessment could refer to many things – the lack of a specific Chinese sensibility to fashion, perhaps, or of a ‘school of thought’ under which emerging designers gather. But what it might hint at (and what some have lamented) is the fact that there aren’t many Chinese designers who have a specifically ‘Chinese aesthetic’ – assuming this means a taste for Chinese themes revisited.
Known for collections that incorporate highly contrasted and conflicted styles, as well as totally different cultures, Xiamen- based designer Shanguan Zhe, who founded the label Sankuanz, suggests otherwise: “It’s hard for me to say that my designs have just a Chinese aesthetic or just an ‘international’ aesthetic.”
Attempting to pigeonhole Chinese design may not help it gain confidence, argues McInerney. “Most young designers want to be recognized on the world stage for their designs through shape, form [and] technique, not because they use overt ‘Chinese’ elements such as dragon motifs or gold and red embellishments.”
Liu agrees: “Designers like Sankuanz or Uma Wang are just so different from each other,” Liu points out. ”But their standards, their ambition, are on the same level. That’s what brings them together.”
“The main thing Chinese designers should worry about isn’t what makes their work ‘Chinese,’ but how to improve their production process,” she continues.
“The problem is the lack of resources and supplies – China is the world’s manufacturing center yet, somehow, it’s incapable of dealing with small-scale orders. And that affects young talents. The local industry should offer more support to ensure quality and help them flourish. Things will only go far then.”
First appeared in That's Shanghai and That's Beijing magazines, June 2015.