Chinese fashion talent a bright spot amid luxury gloom

Uma Wang designs exclusive capsule for Lane Crawford’s China Collective initiative

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 February, 2016, 4:00am

We might be in the throes of a luxury retail slump, but one fashion sector showing promise is the rising talent within Greater China. With names such as Masha Ma, Helen Lee and Uma Wang becoming regular and familiar fixtures, even in international circles, customer interest in home-grown Chinese designers is intensifying.

Lane Crawford has long recognised that one of its biggest points of difference, being based in Hong Kong, is its proximity to the growing new wave of Chinese talent. So this season, it is putting designer fashion labels such as Uma Wang, Ms Min, Jiiin and Xu Zhi China at the forefront in its latest “China Collective” initiative, just debuted on Wednesday.

Many Chinese designers are now confident in tapping elements of their heritage, but updated and twisted for an ultra-modern take – and for many it seems, fabrics come to the fore of their designs.

Chong Yu’s designs for his label Jinnnn, for example, has reconstructed elements of Western urban fashion with woven patterns inspired by China’s Miao ethnic minority. The result is an inspired, progressive label with a bad girl edge.

Ms Min founder Liu Min updates the Chinese aesthetic with clean lines, traditional tailoring and luxurious fabrics. “As women, we are constantly searching for balance,” she says. Her collection alludes to Chinese influences in belted silks and satins. Occasional pops of bright hues and contrasting graphic print give the clothes a youthful vibe.

Shanghai-based Uma Wang did an exclusive capsule range of eight pieces just for the retailer, with prices ranging from HK$4,500 to HK$10,200.

“When Lane Crawford approached me, we were so busy, but we really wanted to try our best to do something with them,” she says.

We’re having tea at a cafe adjoining her Fuxing Lu store in Shanghai’s French Concession, and Wang is explaining how the craft of “xiao shu min zhu” ethnic minority tribes, some from my hometown of Guizhou, became an inspiration when creating these indigo-coloured pieces.

Her signature loose, fluid shapes feature but this capsule is far less dramatic and more commercial than her usual womenswear pieces, see the easy to wear cotton and cashmere separates. These capsule pieces can be layered and keep that signature textural mishmash of her line – an interesting silk, linen and elastic blend is particularly noteworthy. A voluminous striped suit, and floral print coat directly link to Wang’s mainline collection.

“My philosophy is normally to take inspiration from different places,” Wang adds, “from the collections you see some influences from Chinese tribes, like the indigo dye, but the flower print is actually from renaissance-era Italy.”

Fabrics and materials are “everything” for this label, says Wang, and always the starting point of any collection, before any decisions on mood, muse or shape are made. She develops all her own fabrics with Italian mills. And it’s this early relationship with Italian suppliers, factories and PRs that led to a regular slot at Milan fashion week, starting four years ago.

“We are really lucky with the Italians – with all these business contacts we were working with, that opened a lot of doors for us…it was quite easy for us to get the exposure.”

Thus, Uma Wang was one of the first Chinese designer labels to get out prolifically into the global market. Her brand is certainly niche, but has managed to establish a network that includes stockists in Europe, Russia, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, UEA, Australia and the US as well as China – making her perhaps the most widely (in terms of countries) distributed Chinese designer label around.

Wang has witnessed a recent shift in her native fashion market with more people experimenting with home-grown brands instead of just big luxury.

“Many of our customers before would only buy big brands, but afterwards they move to us… that change, I think that’s why so many young Chinese designers are happy to come back, because now the market is here.”

That’s all very good news for Wang and other designers in this China Collective, who have all developed distinctive styles that might have had less success in China five or 10 years ago. Hoping to capitalise on the growing clout of Chinese aesthetics, these designers are offering a fresh take on the possibilities of Chinese design.

Zhejiang-born Jin’s mix of traditional techniques and rock’n’roll edge for example is highly contemporary and confident. This season, it’s innovative woven lattices, denims and deconstructed shirtdresses. “For me, design is the same as music. It’s a universal language – it’s boundless,” he says.

Then there’s Xuzhi Chen, of London-based label Xu Zhi China, a Central Saint Martin’s alumni who worked under J.W. Anderson and Craig Green before starting his own label. His elegant spring summer 2016 pieces feature textural thick yarns fashioned to highly sophisticated painterly swirls around wearable dresses, tops and skirts.

But it’s not entirely all Chinese designers that take inspiration from the country. Included in this season’s China Collective is By Walid, founded by Iraqi designer Walid Al Damirji, who handpicks and upcycles antique fabrics such as 1920s linens, 18th-century embroideries and 100-year-old prints that “have gone through the tunnel of history”. He refashions them into modern, sleek shapes, sometimes in patchwork for pieces with a unique, rich and texture-heavy aesthetic. This season, he’s been included in this Chinese set at Lane Crawford for his clever use of antique Chinese fabrics (geometric prints and florals in deep colours) on coats and jackets.