Quietly confident

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 December, 2010, 12:00am

Shanghai-based fashion designer Qiu Hao is often hailed as one of the most avant-garde on the mainland. But other than his clean-shaven scalp, there doesn't seem anything too radical about his appearance.

He doesn't drink coffee or alcohol, and avoids parties as much as possible. He doesn't have an army of assistants and publicists or a celebrity entourage. He is alone in the studio, as usual, for this interview.

But when you get this softly spoken man started about the plight of the modern designer in China, Qiu rants passionately as he airs his frustrations.

'Being a designer in China, I need to worry about everything. It's easy to get press, but if I'm not ready, going to the Paris fashion week will do more harm than good.' Qiu says very few manufacturers on the mainland are willing to produce what he requires, which is why he employs a three-person manufacturing team to work on his Qiu Hao line.

'I ask for products that are high in quality and low in quantity, so nobody wants to do it. It doesn't make sense to them ... When I have ideas I have to beg the factories to produce for me. They don't want my project, they'd rather take orders to export clothes to Europe - making one million shirts when they only make one dollar for each shirt.

'So if I go to Paris and can't deliver products on time, nobody is going to place orders again.'

Also, fashion week back home is more of an entertainment event than a business highlight, the 32-year-old says. 'The front rows are taken up by government officials when it should be a stage for designers to meet the press and buyers. Designers here are like entertainers. It's pointless.'

The designer has been dressing women in his concept-driven styles for a decade. Last month he opened his third stand-alone store, One By One, in Shanghai's prestigious Xintiandi shopping district, alongside other Chinese fashion boutiques such as Ma Ke's Exception, Wang Yiyang's Zuczug and Gao Xing's Even Penniless.

Qiu's curriculum vitae reads like many a promising designer's - after gaining a degree at London's Central Saint Martins he did his internship at Alexander McQueen then debuted his own line.

Qiu is something of a golden boy in the major fashion media - his works are featured in Chinese Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and the online publication WWD, but the designer seems camera-shy.

In his studio, a soundtrack of traditional Chinese music is playing. Adorning the walls are black-and-white magazine clippings and a vest he cut out from a python skin. Black, white and beige are the dominant colours on the racks of clothes scattered around the space.

'I like these colours because they are simple,' says Qiu, wearing a white distressed shirt, dark rolled-up jeans and well-worn biker boots. 'They are not my own design. I rarely make clothes for myself.'

His low-key manner seems very much in sync with his design philosophy. 'Chinese aesthetics are subtle. You can't simply visualise it with stereotypical symbols,' the designer says. 'People are no longer satisfied with the notion that Chinese modern design is all about bright colour combinations, phoenixes and dragons.'

His latest autumn-winter collection is built around a series of structured cape coats and shearling dresses inspired by women's clothing from the Song dynasty (AD960-AD1279). The models are made up with white powder painted on their foreheads, down the nose and on the chin.

'This is exactly how women used to look back then. It's a pity this has been forgotten as time has passed,' he says.

Qiu usually heads to the historical archives before developing a collection. Photography, paintings and texts detailing how ancient Chinese lived and dressed are his major sources of inspiration.

'I want to develop my identity as a modern Chinese designer. I don't want to rub 'Chinese' in your face, but I can't escape from it either, it's in my blood. I hope people see beyond the superficial eventually,' he says.

'I design for women who dress not to impress anyone but themselves. They don't want to be labelled or pigeon-holed.'

His approach has evidently worked: he launched his casual wear brand Neither Nor in 2001 during his second year as an interior design student at Suzhou University and, within the year, his clothes were being sold at department stores in nine major mainland cities. (Dissatisfied with the way they operated, he later pulled the label and limited sales to his own outlets.) 'When I design, I don't think of a target audience. I'd rather be true to myself and the like-minded will come along,' Qiu says.

His minimalism with a focus on fine cutting, high-quality fabrics and edgy silhouettes soon attracted a following and encouraged him to experiment on designs rarely seen in the mainland market, which is dominated by mass-market clothing and imported luxury brands.

After graduating from Suzhou University, he opened a showroom-cum-multi-label boutique called One By One on Chang Le Road, one of the hippest streets in the heart of Shanghai - nestling among a string of boutiques by other local independent designers. This place, Qiu says, is 'a free stage to showcase whatever I want'.

He then decided to hone his skills at Central Saint Martins. When he came back from London, in 2006, he created Qiu Hao, a high-fashion label, and opened three shops on Chang Le Road.

'The brand really built up my confidence, and when I was younger I thought nothing was impossible,' Qiu says.

He has been hit by recent setbacks: he was forced to close one of his stores in the face of soaring rent and rumours that properties in the area were to be demolished to make way for the construction of a subway line.

Qiu, who was one of the earliest independent designers to open on Chang Le Road, says the rent has almost tripled within four years. In 2006 he paid 8,000 yuan (HK$9,300) per month for his 322-sq-ft space; now the rent has hit 32,000 yuan.

The rising rent is partly because of frequently changing tenants, and the neighbourhood being billed as a 'creative hub' to attract tourists.

'Some tycoon's heir bid for the space to open a boutique without thinking about it. They soon realised business wasn't a simple game and quit,' Qiu says. 'It's put a lot more pressure on people who are serious about business here.' But he still has his studio, tucked away in an alley on Wei Hai Lu. Although it is within a 10-minute walk from the Four Seasons Hotel and the busy Nan Jing Road shopping area, you are likely to lose your way in this tiny residential block of no more than a dozen shabby-looking buildings.

The lively buzz of its residents feels almost surreal - it is home to independent designers, painters, photographers and galleries.

'I hope this area won't be labelled as some kind of 'artsy' block,' Qiu says.

He hopes to commercialise his brand although he is cautious about bringing in investors.

'I'm looking for the right money at the right time,' Qiu says. 'I don't want to be a rich tai-tai's personal tailor or a cash cow.' He prefers to stay free from investors' influences.

'My publicist friends complain about me being so quiet, you know sometimes I just enjoy researching patterns and focusing on my designs.' Qiu recalls how a fellow designer once bitterly mocked him as being a peacock that cherishes its feathers too much. He retorts: 'Well, if an eagle doesn't cherish his feathers, it will die.'

One By One, Shop 237, Xintiandi Style, 245 Ma Dang Road, Shanghai, tel: 021 3312627