Bridal fashion bounces back from the brink
One hot night last summer, sitting at the judges' table at a students' end-of-year show, Barney Cheng revealed that a tiny cloud was beginning to form on his horizon. Cheng is probably the most successful fashion designer Hong Kong has ever produced: the tai-tais love him, so do American stores and, apparently, no society wedding in the SAR is complete without the bride and at least 10 of her best friends wearing Cheng's creations.
That, for Cheng, was the problem. He had heard that the Year of the Rabbit, which starts next Tuesday, would be a 'blind' year - and Hong Kong couples usually think it unlucky to get hitched during those months.
The whole wedding industry subculture here, which embraces hotel caterers, florists, hairdressers and make-up artists, would certainly be plunged into even greater economic depression than is already the case, hence Cheng's gloom.
As it happens, and much to everyone's surprise, the Year of the Rabbit will not, after all, be a 'blind' year. The almanacs which pinpoint the year's auspicious days for a variety of activities were only published about a month ago; after due calculations, the renowned fung shui master Choi Pak-lai pronounced that next year contains a Spring - or Lovers' - Day (February 4, 2000, the final day of the lunar year, so it's a close-run thing) and therefore the world of Hong Kong nuptial fashion is saved.
The news may have come as a blow to all those brides who rushed to get married in these final weeks of the dying year but, naturally, the designers are discreetly relieved. Chinese women often appear in four separate outfits, sometimes five, during their weddings: that's a considerable amount of work for any designer to rely upon. Most of the designers say that they don't follow Chinese astrology but, as with any business, what matters are the beliefs your customers choose to follow. In this case, the customer is usually the mother of the bride, a woman who is likely to be more traditional about fung shui issues than her offspring.
'I had mothers coming in last year, saying the Year of the Rabbit was going to be the worst of the 12 animal years to get married,' says Charlotte Leung, who runs Brides & Gowns in Old Bailey Street. 'So we had a flurry of brides who said that they had to get married before it started.' 'A lot of people were talking about this and told me that business would be very bad,' agrees Mildred Chang, the managing director of La Sposa, a chain of wedding shops which clothes the wide swathe of Hong Kong brides who can't afford a Barney Cheng dress. 'The sales girls said that customers were hesitant, and I was worried. But now they're coming in, saying that they'd made a mistake, so, yes, I'm relieved.' What makes such a reversal particularly welcome, apart from the obvious commercial boost during a recession, is that the Year of the Rabbit straddles the millennium. 'People seem to see that as more of a reason to get married,' says Ms Leung. 'I've tried to figure out why. It's not blatant, it's not people saying 'let's get married because it's the millennium', it's more that they're thinking about life decisions. And what's interesting is that this is happening at a time when, statistically, the number of weddings is getting smaller.' The millennium effect, of course, has gripped the West where an interest in the movements of the heavens is already percolating down to the fashion world. The French luxury house Hermes has declared 1999 the Year of the Zodiac, and two canny British astrologers, Pat Harris and Ruth Clydesdale, have just opened up an 'astro fashion consultancy' to advise clients on colours, styles and accessories which are compatible with birth charts. (The service costs GBP20, about HK$250, and you can ring them in London on 0171 233 6594 for wardrobe advice.) As for Cheng, he's now more optimistic about the 1999 wedding scene than he was last summer. On the other hand, as everyone is forced to admit, this year's brides are a far more budget-conscious lot than their blushing sisters of previous years. La Sposa reports that women are spending about 40 per cent less than two years ago, and that cost awareness cuts right across society.
'Before, people wouldn't blink at $60,000 but now they start freaking out if it's more than $40,000,' says Cheng. 'And they don't choose so many outfits. I had a bride recently, and instead of doing all those dresses - wedding, evening, going-away - I just did one gown. But we did it in gold because she said she was getting married in an exotic location at sunset. The idea was that it would change colour as the sun turned red and everyone would be so flabbergasted that it would be memorable. We're always trying to improve on nature, with uplift and things like that, but nowadays we work with nature.' This is not to say that there will be an angora line coming out of his workshop in honour of the coming leporine year. 'Please!' cries a pained Cheng. 'I hate it! I just did three angora sweaters and it stuck to everything in the office. But we're doing these cutesy cashmere sweaters with rabbits on them and a hop-hop-hop line, like you see in cartoons, in bugle beads.' Animal lovers will find them appealing (if expensive - they will probably retail at about US$600 [about HK$4,640] in his US outlets at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus). Heaven forbid, however, that anyone should buy rabbit fur to mark the new year. The rabbit isn't just blind: it's dead. That really is inauspicious.