China’s answer to Project Runway has fashion designers and TV viewers fascinated
CCTV show Fashion Master is a grander, and more patriotic, version of the US reality show, and as the final show airs this Saturday, we go behind the scenes of the competition that has attracted up to 20 million viewers an episode
Fashion shows are not entirely new to Chinese television – but there has never been anything remotely as slick, professionally produced and well-funded as Fashion Master.
The programme, which airs at prime time on Saturday nights on China Central Television (CCTV), showcases the work of 32 local designers – some at the start-up stage, others already established – and invites them to produce a mini-collection based on a specific Chinese cultural theme.
An extra element of reality-show spice is added with the knockout format, where the ultimate winner receives a bonus of 200,000 yuan (US$31,000). The financial incentive ensures that the looks of elation at winning a round – and dejection at losing – are genuine.
All the participants benefit in that they receive constructive criticism – and a few brickbats – from the panel of seasoned judges who have included Derek Lam, Vivienne Tam, Guo Pei and, arguably, the highest-profile designer of all, Taiwanese-American Jason Wu, who is a big favourite of former American First Lady Michelle Obama.
The chief judge of Fashion Master is Angelica Cheung, editorial director of Vogue China, the country’s most influential lifestyle title. Another stalwart on the four-person panel is cultural-expert academic Li Bo, whose garrulous enthusiasm reflects his delight at being asked to appear on a prime-time show.
Provisional figures indicate that each episode has attracted up to 20 million viewers, most of them watching on television sets, rather than digitally.
For the benefit of older viewers living in the sticks, each episode has a segment more in keeping with conventional Chinese television spectaculars: singers, dancers and, in one case, a designer’s grandmother belting out a tune karaoke-style.
But for the most part, Fashion Master is a cut above the fare normally found on terrestrial television at peak viewing times. It’s an attempt to appraise, and appreciate, the work of often-unheralded Chinese designers who have reached, or are approaching, international standards of quality and innovation.
“China is gaining influence worldwide, with some Chinese elements seen more and more on the international stage of fashion,” says producer Zou Lin, who has made numerous culturally themed shows in the past, and felt the time was right to focus on fashion.
“With Fashion Master, we want to provide the most professional competition in China to designers, including designers worldwide, who will be inspired by the great treasures of Chinese culture, embrace Chinese and Asian elements and make them the vanguard of global fashion.
“Fashion Master will also help the rebirth of Chinese traditional crafts in the modern age, inspiring collaboration among designers worldwide and, more importantly, an international stage where Asian culture can have its own voice.”
In practise, the show’s tasks proved to be challenging for the designers, particularly in deciding just how literally to interpret themes such as ink painting, auspicious patterns, Chinese food and the Forbidden City. Too little and they ran the risk of being dismissed as not Chinese enough; too much and they could end up with gaudy garments that border on tourist tat.
One designer spotlighted by the show has been treading that fine line carefully and successfully since returning from studying in the United Kingdom to focus on heritage-inspired contemporary clothing. Kate Han Wen, an early favourite of chief judge Cheung, originally had to be coaxed to appear on the show and overcome her natural reluctance to be in front of the camera.
She ended up putting together collections that interpreted the show’s briefs masterfully and wowed the judges. Her brand Mukzin, co-founded with husband George Feng Guang four years ago, was already riffing on the East meets West theme, combining elements she learned working for iconic label Vivienne Westwood with Chinese motifs and fabrics.
“I would describe my style as a quirky modern Asian mix with street style,” says Dalian-born Han. “Working at Vivienne Westwood taught me that creativity has no rules. When I studied in the UK, I was excited about traditional Chinese culture and intangible heritage, so I started to read many culture-relative books.
“I moved back to Hangzhou, and here you can be in touch every day with the Asian lifestyle but in a hi-tech city context. It’s dramatic, but reality. That kind of experiences encouraged me to do this brand.
“I didn’t want to do the show as I was preparing for my next show in Paris. I turned down the producers several times but what changed my mind was when they said, ‘Would you like to influence more young Chinese to get interested in Chinese culture and would you like to get the comments of your design from the most authoritative people such as Angelica Cheung?’”
The reaction to the JD.com-sponsored show was positive, and high ratings mean a second season is likely to be commissioned. Invited guests such as Wu, who was involved in an earlier, more rudimentary, television fashion show, were impressed by what they saw.
“I think it has come a very long way,” Wu says. “The production values have become more elevated and the contestants are a lot more professional. It shows the kind of progress China has enjoyed in the last few years – everything has been elevated in such a short period of time.
“When I was growing up, and as a young designer, the standard of beauty was always that of the West. It is not until now that I see a lot of Chinese pride not just Asian pride, Chinese pride, a real concerted effort to say who are we and we have history why haven’t we taken advantage of that and what does that look like in the modern day.”