A fresh spin on tradition

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am


'I don't like things that always stay the same. I think it's in every designer's blood to break the rules and create something new,' says Vivienne Tam Yin-yok. 'When I was a child, I found that the window displays in shopping malls never changed and I hated it. '

Wearing a little black dress which features feminine embroidery bib details from her autumn-winter collection, Tam has been in the industry for almost 20 years. She says her secret to keeping ahead of the curve is to embrace change.

In line with this season's opera themed collection, she has launched a series of 'Opera Girl' accessories - including leather iPad 2 cases, iPhone 4 cases, bags and T-shirts - in Hong Kong stores this month.

She was also recently approached by the Tourism Board to design a collection of wine bottles for the November Food and Wine Expo in West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade. Tam says it took her by surprise because wine isn't really her thing - she's been a teetotaller for years.

'I don't drink, but you don't have to be a wine connoisseur to dress up the bottles. I used the graphics to represent the wines' aroma, taste, texture and year,' she says. The collection of five bottles bears Tam's signature emblems, including the panda, Chinese opera mask and dragon.

Tam, who studied fashion at Hong Kong Polytechnic University before heading to New York, reckons things are much easier for Chinese designers these days. 'When I started, I had to call potential buyers non-stop and they'd ask me if I was trying to sell them cheap T-shirts because they thought there were no Chinese designers - only manufacturers.'

Putting on her debut show in 1993 at her own expense was a key moment for the then novice designer.

'It seemed like a mission impossible,' she recalls. 'I worried I wouldn't have enough money or clothes to pull it off; it was all so new to me. But afterwards, I felt invincible.'

Tam has been taking on new challenges ever since. 'I've always been motivated to do things I never thought I'd be able to accomplish,' she says.

In her Mao collection, she incorporated silk prints of Mao Zedong by artist Zhang Hongtu onto T-shirts, and modernised the cheongsam. They became so influential after their launch in 1995 that some pieces were collected by museums in the United States and Europe, including London's Victoria and Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

From her early themes through to her spring-summer 2012 collection that draws inspiration from Zen gardens, Tam has been consistent in the deconstruction and contemporary reinterpretation of traditional Chinese aesthetics.

'Growing up in Hong Kong, I feel that I don't know that much about my own culture. For my generation, instead of our own roots, people looked up to Western culture and fashion,' she says. 'For me, design is a vehicle to understand Chinese culture.'

'I'm often amazed by the beautiful embroideries and crochets, and Chinese opera costume. I think about how to make them more modern. Inspiration should not be forced; these things come from within,' she says.

Whenever she's in town, the designer visits the fabric shops in Sham Shui Po and antique shops on Hollywood Road.

'I'm constantly inspired by the patterns, trims and texture,' she says.

Her new Opera Girl series, featuring a cartoon character in traditional Kun-opera costume, was inspired by her childhood passion.

'I wanted to create something that appeals to the younger generation; then I remembered when I was about 10 years old, I loved Chinese opera so much that I'd make my own shuixiu (literally, 'water sleeves' - white silk sleeves attached to Chinese opera costumes). It hit me just like that,' she says.

Having practised yoga since the 1990s, Tam said it was a dream come true for her to launch a yoga line. She teamed up with mainland sportswear brand Li Ning to create a line of yoga wear and accessories.

During New York Fashion Week in September, she showcased the collection at a live yoga session in the Lincoln Centre. The line will be available in stores in February.

'Designing sportswear was different for me: I had to consider not just the look but also the functionality. I've been practising yoga for years but I couldn't find clothes that were fashionable enough. That's why I've designed lots of styles in a rainbow of colours,' she says.

Noting how Oriental chic has been sweeping the global runway, Tam has high hopes for young, up-and-coming talent. 'It's not just their Asian surnames that matter; they have to be talented. China has opened up and designers are appreciating more through their creativity,' she says. 'It's important to be original and designers have to be really keen about it.

'I wasn't thinking about developing a brand when I first started,' she adds. 'I was simply doing what I loved - making clothes. The rest came together naturally.'