“Made in China”. Once upon a time, this was a designer house taboo. Authentic and fashionable luxury was never to be caught with this phrase printed on its labels. In the early days of fashion giants Alexander Wang, Philip Lim, or Jason Wu, cultural identity took a bit of a back seat to push forward vocational aspirations. It used to be that consumers bought into more Western brands to communicate status as well as for their perceived reliable quality.
Now that we’ve entered a Chinese new year, it seems a good time to reflect on how far China has come. First of all, no matter where you are in the world right now, it’s likely that there are signs up in celebration of the Lunar New Year. The country has become a much bigger topic of conversation; in terms of consumerism, definitely, but also in terms of culture. Yes, Chinese consumers make up over 30 percent of all luxury purchases. But it’s just as important to note that the Chinese also make up the majority of international students at Parsons, the most prestigious fashion college in New York. From being seen merely as a “copy-cat” country, China is home to the biggest digital companies, shopping malls, and even Starbucks. Every brand wants to appeal to this market because it’s the most advanced. (Take note, Dolce and Gabbana).
Building on the fashion scene left behind from the Alexander Wang days, a new generation of Chinese designers are outwardly celebrating their heritage and cultural identity. Chinese consumers now also have a much greater sense of confidence in what it means to be Chinese. There’s a stronger craving for homegrown creative talent and fashion. Popular fashion brands are now very much about individualism, diversity, and authenticity. The new fashion designers shaking up the global stage (or runways, rather) are unsurprisingly of Chinese heritage. These are the ones revaluing the phrase ‘Made in China’, taking pride in it, and showing that these words are actually a promise of authenticity, quality, and creativity. So for Chinese New Year, let’s celebrate the new wave of cultural individuality.
[Hero image credit: PMQ. Feature image credit: SCMP.]
It’s important to begin by saying that an authentic Chinese designer doesn’t have to mean their fashions are decorated with dragons and peonies. Xander Zhou is a case in point. The Beijing-based streetwear designer sent his male models down the runway with prosthetic pregnancy bumps during the SS19 New World Baby show. Few creatives are as future-facing and dismissive of trends as Zhou. His collection at the avant-garde SS19 show was a statement of his visions of a future in technology, an area in which China is a powerful leader. Zhou takes inspiration from his country’s modern movements and youth culture rather than its ancient history.
Liu Min’s story begins far away from the catwalks of New York. After getting a taste of fabric shopping and tailoring at home in Fuzhou, she went on to study Fashion Design in London, interned with Viktor & Rolf, then launched her own label in 2010. The balance of tradition and modernity provides the yin and yang to her brand’s style. Her interest in culottes, for example, is both a love for the smart casual essential and a nod to the silhouettes of Qing Dynasty personas. Blending artistic Chinoiserie with crisp modern tailoring, Liu caught the attention of Lane Crawford before appearing at Anna Wintour’s Met Gala in New York in 2014. Since then, she’s opened a flagship store in Shanghai and collaborated with international brands such as M.A.C and Birkenstock.
At her SS19 show during New York Fashion Week, Sandy Liang was serving up a visual feast of traditional Cantonese fare. A tribute to her father’s restaurant, Congee Village, Liang’s models posed next to fried rice, sautéed lotus root, and beef chow fun. Rice porridge had never looked so trendy. Liang is a distinctive New Yorker, but she doesn’t neglect her Chinese upbringing. Her fashions include apron skirts and fleece pullovers, which do a different job of showcasing authentic Chinese style than traditional qipao dresses do.
This Shanghai-based designer duo is a shoutout to Gen Z fashion behaviour. Liushu Lei and Yutong Jiang grasped at the power of internet “influencers” and primarily market their brand on Instagram and WeChat. Only launching in 2015, they’ve been bought by Lane Crawford and Dover Street Market, amongst others. The label focuses on modernising feminine features such as ruffles and bows so that they can be worn with a more urban and relaxed attitude. They’re spreading the message of embracing a unique identity without having to conform to the expectations that come with it.
Feng Chen Wang has carved out her own niche in technical outerwear and conceptual unisex clothing. She draws her style from personal life experiences. The latest collection, ‘One, Two, Three’, explores her upbringing with two siblings during China’s one child policy and recalls the precarious situations her mother would get into. Featured in publications including Vogue, GQ, and The New York Times, the new-generation designer is a unique voice for narrative-based fashion.
Finally, it’s only right that we end with the absolute OG of Chinese designers. Before Alexander Wang’s trio, there was the trinity of Anna Sui, Vera Wang, and Vivienne Tam. Tam was the only one to showcase her cultural heritage in her style. Born in Guangzhou and raised in Hong Kong, she moved to New York to advance her career in fashion (as was necessary in those days) and never abandoned her native identity. Reflecting her own life path, her East-meets-West fashion pieces are so important as cultural milestones that some have been permanently archived in the most prestigious museums, including the New York Met and London’s V&A.