How the meeting of Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama shone a light on the emergence of Chinese fashion

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 October, 2015, 4:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 October, 2015, 4:12pm

The official US tour of Chinese President Xi Jinping last month drew worldwide coverage for obvious political reasons.

But there were many others who followed for the fashion - specifically those of the first ladies of China and the US. So much, in fact, that the meeting between Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama was dubbed in some cynical circles as a fashion face-off.

Neither disappointed. At an official state dinner held at the White House, Obama wore a stunning black gown by Vera Wang, while Peng choose a deep jewel-toned sapphire blue dress embellished with sparkling beads.

Chinese names, many American-born children of immigrants, were accepted early in the multicultural New York creative scene

At a state luncheon earlier in the day, Jill Biden, wife of US Vice-President Joe Biden, wore an autumn-winter 2015 dress by Vivienne Tam that sported a bold graphic black and white chinoiserie pattern. Tam, meanwhile, wore one of her own designs in a pretty pastels - a high-collared dress constructed with lace, mesh and Chinese painting prints. Peng eschewed any obvious Chinese motifs and went with a pale-pink skirt suit and brooch in the style she favours the most: cut with pure, well-defined lines in smart, stiff, satiny fabric.

That the Americans are playing up the Chinese fashion connection isn't surprising - many of the biggest New York design names, including Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, Vivienne Tam and Vera Wang, are Chinese American.

In fact, the US fashion industry, centred in New York, is a symbolic microcosm of the Chinese American cultural success story. The US welcomed Chinese chic decades ago, long before today's fascination with the East.

Chinese names, many American-born children of immigrants, were accepted early in the multicultural New York creative scene, long before the more conservative Paris and Milan were trying to tempt Asian designers onto their catwalks.

The relaxed, progressive and diverse attitude of New York has paid off, with plenty of Chinese and Asian Americans at the core of the city's surging fashion industry.

Tam once told me that it was her New York genesis that made her career possible. She had to leave Hong Kong for the Big Apple to sell her playful Chinese-inspired fashions.

It has been one big mutual love fest ever since for Tam and many young aspiring Chinese designers still flowing into the city. Now, if only politics were that easy.