By Francesca Fearon
In the eyes of most Western consumers, China is the place where most of their clothes are made, but not designed. But the mainland's own nascent fashion scene is growing, as can be seen by the latest edition of Shanghai Fashion Week happening right now, where native designers are not hard to spot.
A new English book, Fashion China, written by an Irish-born fashion curator Gemma Williams (available at Page One stores as well as on Amazon) is attempting to document the country's vibrant, albeit fledgling, fashion design industry.
The book is a showcase of the hottest design talent working in China today. In creating this anthology of 41 designers who are toiling hard to establish the reputation of "Designed in China", Williams is not only raising awareness to Chinese fashion in the West, but also inside the mainland, a market that hitherto has shown a preference for international brands. Nevertheless, books like this, the Chinese fashion media and enterprising boutiques like Brand New China and Dong Liang are helping us realise that there is a lot of talent on our own shores.
Fashion China, Williams says, was inspired by her growing awareness of the influx of Chinese into London's fashion colleges while she worked there: "It was this really interesting synergy which inspired me to start to look at modern Chinese designers, particularly on a developing level."
She has always had an interest in fashion from emerging nations, but "what really appealed to me was the opportunity to delve deeply into a relatively unknown area of fashion and bring it to everyone's attention".
What she discovered during her extensive tours across China to visit designers, was a group of young, talented and ambitious people who have founded labels that she says "seek to redefine the traditional connotations of what it means to be 'Made in China'."
The sheer breadth of the industry and the problems accessing it meant Williams had to draw on the local knowledge of four fashion experts: photographer Chen Man, stylist Lucia Liu, model Liu Wen and journalist Karchun Leung, editor-in-chief of Numero China.
Williams' final list includes designers that have fast-growing reputations in the West, such as Masha Ma, who shows at Paris Fashion Week, Uma Wang in Milan and Huishan Zhang, who maintains bases in London and Qingdao, and is passionate about reinventing the phrase "Made in China".
"It has become so stereotyped," he says, "I want to highlight another view."
As does Williams' book.
Rising stars in China include Chictopia, ffiXXed, Qiu Hao, Comme Moi designed by former model LV Yan and the more established JNBY. There are menswear designers Xander Zhou and Sankuanz who have presented their collection at London Collections; and fledgling designers such as Yifang Wan and Renli Su whose eponymous labels are only a couple years old and who split their time between London and China.
Their designs range from cutting edge to opulent couture (such as Laurence Xu who has presented two collections at the Paris Haute Couture shows) and avant-garde minimalism (notably Uma Wang and Ban Xiaoxue, who won the prestigious International Woolmark Prize for China in 2012). Given the country's diversity, Williams thought it was important to include as much variety as possible. Nevertheless, many came up through the European fashion system and returned home ready to express their talent.
Vega Zaishi Wang, who focuses on a tailored silhouette, was trained in London and launched her eponymous label in Beijing. She describes the fashion industry in China now as small, "but also undergoing big changes".
She adds: "Since 2008 China has opened up to the world. More and more Chinese designers who have overseas educational experience are returning to China to set up their own businesses."
Fashion China is presented in Q&A format, giving the designers an opportunity to voice their thoughts. One of the early problems facing the designers, says Christine Lau of Beijing-based Chictopia, was that there were no fashion buyers there when she launched her label five years ago. "No shops would carry indie designer products. My only option was to open my own shop. Production was another problem because, due to the small quantities of my products being produced, few factories would take on the work." Now she has a team of 15 working in her studio designing and making her collections.
Williams, who as an archivist and curator has worked with Alexander McQueen, ModeMuseum in Antwerp and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as in British academia, has researched this subject well. We learn not only about their training and aspirations but how the Chinese designers view their work in the context of the global fashion industry. The designers discuss their aesthetic and inspiration, the influence of Chinese culture and heritage on their design, the importance of independence and their opinion of Chinese design.
Masha Ma launched her label in 2008 in Shanghai and her innovative style is well known on the Paris catwalk. "Chinese innovation and quality have caught the eye of the fashion industry worldwide," she says. "While I'm glad to be one of the strong voices of Chinese design, my aesthetic extends beyond my Chinese identity."
Establishing an identity is a hurdle that all the designers face in an increasingly globalised contemporary fashion industry. "Chinese designers have the challenge of finding the design that truly belongs to China in the fashion world," says Xu.
"We have to redefine what Chinese fashion is about, and how it should be recognised in a global context," say Hong and James Chang, whose La Chambre Miniature label is based in Shanghai. "Is it a style representing the wealth of the nouveau riche or emerging middle class? Or maybe a style that represents traditional Chinese culture and its philosophy… Maybe the answer is somewhere in between."