Made in China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 September, 2008, 12:00am

We have heard enough about China's great cultural leap to know it's almost as high and strong as its economic one, with the country's creative minds pushing the boundaries in fields such as art, film and architecture. And on the fashion stage the scene is no different.

But it is a scene that not too long ago was being played out with little applause as designers in Hong Kong and the mainland struggled to gain recognition for their work.

Time has moved the mindset of the Asian consumer, in particular fashion-savvy Chinese ones, to the next level. Where there had been a demand for the latest monogrammed 'it' item by European designers, there was now a new interest for something unique and as yet undiscovered. As such, the focus seemed to shift away from the west and back towards the great emerging power, China.

'The global market is opening up more and more to Chinese designers, and in America the interest has reached such heights that it's almost an advantage being Asian and Chinese,' says Joyce Hu, marketing director of Shanghai Tang. And because we've always taken a cue from the west, that interest has now spilled over here.

Rather than casting our eyes away from home ground and trying to distance ourselves from our identity, we're realising there's so much to be proud of within our own culture. This sentiment is obvious to a brand such as Shanghai Tang which, from its inception 14 years ago, has always been seen as a novelty souvenir shop for the Hong Kong tourist market. A mere three years ago, Hong Kong and mainland customers only made up 20 per cent of its consumer base. It has now doubled.

Joseph Li, Shanghai Tang's chief designer for womenswear, is a personification of this trend. In a world where most young men sport a short-cropped, spiked-up, waxy hair-do, Li, with his hair gelled down and parted heavily to the side, reminds me of the men from China's golden 1960s era. His ensemble is simple, western - a short-sleeved buttoned shirt tucked into khakis - but this distinctive hairstyle is a clear illustration of our experimentation with our heritage.

'It's like art,' Li says. 'It took time for people to understand where Chinese designers were coming from, and for the designers themselves to become more developed and refined in their designs. Japan is a good example. Ten, maybe 20 years ago, they were where we are now. But today, as much as they laud the renowned luxury brands, they totally embrace their own designers.' The key now, says Li, is education.

'There is a stereotype that things made in China are cheap. This has to stop before we can really move forward,' says Alison Mary Ching Yeung, the designer behind luxury accessories brand, Mary Ching, in Shanghai. 'We have so much talent growing here and there's such great workmanship available,' she says, evident from the fact that many luxury fashion houses are having their products manufactured in China.

Unfortunately, this is a fact overlooked by many Chinese consumers, whom Cheung calls 'aspirational'. 'They ignore the fact that it's been made in China because all they see is the brand name. They've just found this great purchasing power and to start off, they only want to buy big name brands - status symbols. They want a designer label that is recognised. As they become more educated, they're then hit with a second wind, and this is what's currently blowing over the Asian market, particularly among the Chinese. They've become more sophisticated in their taste, and their focus is shifting away from mass recognition towards individuality.'

And in their search for individuality, patriotism has arisen. However, many foreign designers have already used China as an influence in their collections, among them Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford and Giorgio Armani in this year's winter collection. This may raise some concern for local Chinese designers, as simply injecting a twist or western touch to traditional Chinese garb may not be enough for the discerning buyer.

Li and Cheung found their answer lay in creating curiosity. 'People want to be able to walk into a room and have others ask them where they got what they're wearing,' says Li. 'They used to get pride from having people know they have the most sought-after item. Their satisfaction now has graduated to a division between that, and the ability to show off something unique. It's a silent boast of their extensive fashion knowledge - discovering something great that the rest of the world hasn't.'

Cheung finds humour is also a great way to pique this curiosity. 'I took a classic British penny loafer and turned it into a Mao loafer. It's different and you know it'll attract interest,' she says.

However, despite their Chinese accents, the Shanghai Tang and Mary Ching collections are predominantly more western-influenced. Would the consumer feel the same about designs that tipped the balance in the other direction?

'Yes they will,' says Annie Lin, the designer behind the homegrown Hong Kong brand, Anniewho. 'When I launched my fashion line four years ago, I was really surprised at the interest it received from the locals.'

The Anniewho collections are distinctively Chinese. The tweaks are subtle - a roomier silhouette or a different fabric, but that's why people seek it out, she says.

'People have become more proud of who they are and where they come from, and want to show that in what they wear,' says Li.

'The traditional clothes could have been too formal or restrictive, and by making some of the adjustments, I've made these garments more accessible without taking too much of the original heritage away from it.'

'But the qi pao [cheongsam] cannot define us any more,' says Cheung. As I watched the Australian contingent march out wearing the qi pao during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, I understood what she meant - while you knew it was their way of showing respect to the host nation, it was too cliched.

The onus is now on the designer to use the wonderful techniques passed down in our culture, and translate it to something modern and contemporary that will then redefine Chinese designs beyond the qi pao.

'It's an exciting time for Chinese designers right now,' says Cheung. 'The consumer has become more sophisticated, more educated, more nationalistic. It's a unique position to be in and we can grow faster than a brand in any other part of the world.'