“People in China are becoming braver.” So says photographer and blogger Roy Zhang, on the evolution of his country’s fashion sense. The rest of the world might still perceive China as largely conservative, but Zhang, who runs the Shanghai Express street style blog, has witnessed first-hand how Chinese cities are carving out their own aesthetic identities. “Shanghai is more delicate,” he says, while “Beijing is more crazy, more expressive.”
And as consumers become keener to express themselves sartorially, designer showrooms are also fostering a greater worldwide, year-round appeal, strengthening their wholesale business, according to BusinessOfFashion.com. “We can clearly see that brands and buyers are both maturing, which makes us especially happy,” says Showroom Shanghai co-founder Ian Lin.
“The next big development for fashion is not China’s economic story but Chinese creativity,” says, Raphael le Masne de Chermont, chairman of French-owned brand Shanghai Tang. “The next step is to position luxury Chinese fashion on the world stage.” One obstacle which design houses are currently in the process of overcoming is global reputation. Many people have historically associated Chinese goods with low production costs and subsequent poor quality, however social media PR Luo Yu claims that simply isn’t the case. “In terms of selling abroad, the market for Chinese design isn’t mature enough,” she concedes, “but let’s see what happens in a few years.”
So why now?
“Previously the Chinese have not cared about Chinese design,” says designer Wang Pei Yin, “but in the last few years, that generation of consumers has moved on.” There is also a wider talent pool in this industry than ever before; “In the past year, China has seen a lot of rising new designers”, he adds, which makes it harder to “establish yourself and emerge as a name.” It’s entirely possible that this increase in competition is pushing creators to come up with more innovative, boundary-pushing designs.
Not to mention the fact that there is an on-going struggle among well-known brands from Europe and the United States to find appropriate spokesmodels who will help them establish a sustainable presence in China, which may well have played a part in cultivating this free market of home grown originality. It could also be argued that this new generation of makers has sprung up in direct response to the appropriation of “oriental” imagery in Western trends.
Bespoke couture designer Grace Chen Yehuai, who founded her studio in 2009 and now dresses some of the most prominent women in China, adopts an East-meets-West mentality in her work, combining the luxury appeal of European brands with an authenticity that’s hard to find elsewhere in the world. “There are two perspectives when looking at Chinese culture,” she says. “From the Chinese themselves and from foreigners. I’m looking at this in a third way. If you look at designers such as Armani or Yves Saint Laurent, they use Chinese influence in their clothes, but you feel like it’s some kind of decoration or exotic embellishment. But domestic Chinese designers, we emphasise carrying on a tradition… it’s a big responsibility.”
Chen is just one example of the visible local talent that Angelica Cheung, editor of Vogue China, has seen flourish in recent years. “When I launched Vogue 10 years ago, we wanted to run a regular column devoted to Chinese designers,” she says. “It was hard to find designers good enough to be represented alongside international brands. Now there are too many.”
This creative growth has not gone unnoticed; the high priestess of Condé Nast herself, Anna Wintour, predicts great things from China in the near future, telling The Wall Street Journal: “I’m sure within the next generation, we’ll see the emergence of Chinese designers on a global scale.”