China finding its way in the fashion world

China contributes more than 500 billion yuan (S$100 billion) in luxury spending - nearly a third of the global market.
China contributes more than 500 billion yuan (S$100 billion) in luxury spending - nearly a third of the global market.PHOTO: REUTERS

French ruler of the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte, supposedly said: "Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world."

China has well and truly woken and the force of its commercial spending power is heavily felt in fashion.

The behemoth country contributes more than 500 billion yuan (S$100 billion) in luxury spending - nearly a third of the global market. Which begs the question: Why is the Chinese fashion scene still so weak?

GLOBALISATION AND ANGLO-CENTRICITY

A simple but sweeping answer is a Western cultural hegemony that persists even as China catches up with the United States and Europe.

The Chinese middle and upper class, who pursue a career in fashion, are able to afford training at top schools, such as London's Central Saint Martins and New York's Parsons School of Design, and hanker for a spot in these established institutions.

What that means is aesthetic and technical training rooted in Western principles, resulting in current generations of Chinese design talent focused on a fusion of East and West aesthetics.

It is useless, perhaps, to cling to a Platonic ideal of Chinese - or indeed Asian - dress rooted in tradition.

What works instead is a non-literal approach that embraces and celebrates Chinese tradition while realistically weaving in the ubiquity of the way people dress today.

RENDITIONS OF TRADITION

For the traditional, look no further than home-grown cheongsam queen Priscilla Shunmugam. Her Ong Shunmugam label has won praise among the local fashion set for its modern take on the traditional Chinese dress.

The Missing Piece is another local brand with a contemporary vision. The shapes are less classical, using a range of modern silhouettes - jumpsuits and baby-doll dresses, for example - fused with embellishments and prints that draw from the East.

The men have it even easier: Key styles like the Mao jacket and Tang suit have been deconstructed and co-opted by a host of fashion designers.

Shanghai Tang, an international mainstay of East-meets-West luxury fashion, has seasonal and permanent collections that comfortably straddle occasion and daily wear.

Everywhere else, you will find that Mandarin collars have entered the shirting mainstream and utility jackets echo both the aesthetic and philosophy of the Mao suit.

RIGHT STEPS

Less reverence and tradition from Asian designers, and more sensitivity and respect from the West, is likely the best way forward now.

Luxury fashion remains a eurocentric industry, except today, all brands have their sights firmly trained on Chinese money.

In chasing this customer's dollar, a more sensitive approach would work.

One such way is for luxury brands to work actively with Chinese opinion leaders and trendsetters - who almost certainly have a better feel of consumer sentiment and tastes on the ground.

Mr Bags, one of China's preeminent fashion bloggers, has so far collaborated with brands such as Montblanc, Tod's, Givenchy, Burberry and Chloe.

His most recent is a capsule collection of bags for French leather house Longchamp, reinterpreting its best-selling Le Pliage style with Year of the Pig motifs.

His previous project with Italian shoemaker Tod's saw him sell a head-spinning 3.24 million yuan worth of product in six minutes.

No wonder Mr Diego Della Valle, the owner of Tod's, wanted to "partner again and strengthen our valuable relationship".

For Chinese fashion designers, however, a freer range of expression would be ideal. Remember that when the Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto debuted their collections in Paris in the 1980s, their funereal aesthetic had little to no immediate ties to their ethnicities.

The same with the Antwerp Six, the gang of Belgian mavericks who upended international expectations - not of a specific, identifiable Belgian style, but by the impressive range of creativity, difference and talent among the six. It is only fair to take that approach with the Chinese too.

THE ONES TO WATCH

There are already promising Chinese talents who are working with this approach in mind, obliquely but subtly referencing their cultures.

Sean Suen, a Beijing-based designer, is now a regular on the men's schedule in Paris Fashion Week. His work is modern and considered, drawing from influences as diverse as art, film and architecture.

For Fall 2018, he drew from the 1987 Bernardo Bertolucci film The Last Emperor, itself an Italian auteur's interpretation of the story of Puyi, the final monarch in Chinese history.

Though Suen's designs do not explicitly espouse race, one can find suggestions of it in the languid silhouettes and shapes, and details such as prints that evoke Chinese silk jacquards.

Another such brand is Commission, a fledgling label based in New York. Though founded by designers of Korean and Vietnamese heritage, the aesthetic they tap is of women's office wear in the 1980s.

Theirs is an amalgamation of Asian experience during a decade in which Western style codes were assimilated, drawn from the fashion of their own mothers and twisted with contemporary sensuality. In other words, the clothes are invariably familiar yet avoid pastiche and nostalgia.

Perhaps China's fashion is not weak. It may be simply young and finding its own feet now as a modern nation and culture.

Like the country itself, its fashion is figuring out its place in the world. Give the oldest continuous civilisation some time. Just imagine the shock of finding out you are young again after more than 3,000 years of history.

• Gordon Ng is a freelance fashion writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2019, with the headline 'China finding its way in the fashion world'. Print Edition | Subscribe