Sew far, sew good
Laurence Xu's elegant embroideries referencing Chinese dynasties were a hit at Paris Fashion Week
It was a rare sight: two Chinese ladies bent over a wooden frame embroidering richly hued motifs onto black silk in the French fashion capital. Close by two men worked on a giant loom, the da hua lou, used for making the extraordinarily intricate Nanjing silk brocade once reserved only for the Imperial family.
These artisans set the stage for Laurence Xu, the first mainland Chinese designer to show at haute couture week in Paris last month. Xu is renowned for his work in Chinese costume dramas and on the red carpet. He has dressed stars such as Zhang Jingchu and Zhou Yun.
A replica of the eye-catching yellow dragon gown he designed for Fan Bingbing's appearance at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 is now in London's Victoria & Albert Museum. His opulent, vividly coloured dresses seamlessly meld Western silhouettes with Chinese symbolism and craftsmanship.
On the catwalk an off-the-shoulder dress with puffed hem featuring dragon embroidery had a vague 1950s feel. More contemporary was a black lace and yellow silk jumpsuit with blue cloud embroideries and a dip-dyed fringed mini dress.
There was also a regal purple duchess satin robe covered in cherry blossom embroidery and a long gold sheath that exploded into black ostrich feathers below the thigh. The show closed with Taiwanese actress Pace Wu modelling a pearl beaded gown.
Xu is proud of his heritage, and his extravagant designs reflect 4,000 years of Chinese history: his embroideries are inspired by ancient paintings and imperial costumes and he uses a number of techniques dating back to the Ming and Yuan dynasties to create them with care and finesse. The Paris couture world had not seen anything like this before and was mesmerised by the collection and artisans.
Fifty years ago haute couture was a closed shop of Parisian fashion houses like Chanel, Christian Dior, Ungaro, Balmain and Jacques Fath, who had to adhere to strict criteria for the right to put the word haute in front of couture.
However, as some houses have closed down, the French haute couture association - the Chambre Syndicale - has relaxed some of its rules and reinvigorated Paris as a more democratic and international showcase for luxury fashion. Armani, Valentino, Versace and Elie Saab are now official members and each season there is room on the "off" schedule for newcomers.
This season was Xu's chance and after the show, thrilled by the reaction and still brimming with energy, he said: "I am already pondering over what to present next season."
It was Fan Bingbing's Cannes dress based on the dragon robe (jifu) that brought Xu to the attention of the fashion powers.
"They were really excited about the Chinese embroidery and followed my work for a year in the build-up to the presentation. When they saw the collection they couldn't believe the quality of the workmanship," says Xu. "In Europe, they have lace and embroidery, but in China we have even more skills."
Didier Grumbach, president of the chambre, calls Xu "extremely committed and passionate". Most designers spend a couple of months on their couture collections. But Xu took 10 months to create the 22 outfits in his show. "Sometimes I would have 20 people working on one piece," he admits, "and some embroideries were so intricate they required two people to produce just one inch per day."
There are 40 people working in his studio in Beijing and everything is produced in-house. After the demise of imperial rule many of the weaving and embroidery skills could have been lost, but in the hands of designers like Xu - who is training a new generation - the crafts are flourishing once more.
Born in Shandong in 1974, Xu studied at Tsinghua University and graduated from the Central Academy of Craft Art where his talent quickly came to the notice of moviemakers. A director asked him to design the costumes for his film Huayao Bride in Shangrila starring Zhang Jingchu. This led to more commissions from contemporary, period and martial arts films, such as Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster, Switch, Sophie's Revenge, The Road and Perfect Baby.
Xu has a passion for traditional arts and handicrafts. His mother was a Peking opera singer and as a child he was mesmerised by her costumes.
"I loved Chinese opera when I was a child and I would dance like the dancers. In fact, I wanted to dance but my parents said no. So I drew the girls on stage, I would draw whatever I saw. I suppose it was a way of expressing myself. I was born to be a designer, it feels like my destiny."
Among the many people who made the trip from Beijing to see his Paris debut was university friend Leaf Zhao. She describes her old chum as very calm. "He is also kind and generous to his friends, so much so that he made my wedding dress."
She recently married professional basketball player Yan Yufeng. She remembers: "It took five people one month to make and it was absolutely beautiful."