Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Fang Yang bucks fast-fashion trend with long-lasting clothes

Chinese ready-to-wear designer is doing her bit for style longevity with fashion made to last and that doesn’t cost the earth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 April, 2016, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 April, 2016, 2:18pm

China’s apparel sector remains defined by mass, rapid manufacturing. And while some luxury labels are moving towards faster fashion, a handful of independent Chinese designers are bucking the trend by championing long-lasting fashion that is stylistically more timeless; their focus is on craft rather than being slaves to fast-fashion trends.

Many couturiers obviously do this, but few can afford their wares. Ready-to-wear designers such as Shanghai-based Uma Wang and Fang Yang have, though, taken slow fashion to heart.

Wang, who we interviewed weeks ago, has always insisted that her designs have a lasting appeal, and focuses on quality, long-lasting fabrics from Italy.

“It’s a global trend,” says Fang of the move towards more sustainable models. “More people are awakening to the fact that we need to protect our natural resources. Going full speed means exhaustion. We don’t need that many clothes, we need clothes that last and that you can still wear after a few seasons.”

We’re talking to the chic Shanghai designer in her workshop and studio, the headquarters for her By Fang ready-to-wear line and her Atelier By Fang custom line. The soon-to-be mother of two very much looks every bit the cool and collected designer, wearing a slick of red lipstick, slim black cigarette pants and a black and white, geometric-print, silk jacket.

“My style is more low-key with a bit of a twist but never massively extravagant, more classically elegant,” she says.

“You get tired of these terms ‘elegant’ and ‘timeless’; they’re really overused,” she concedes, “but [these qualities] are essential for women. If you do it right you will last.”

Of course Fang wants to expand her brand but she wants to do it organically - “growing step by step,” as she calls it, perhaps opening a stand-alone boutique. If she had the capital and opportunity to suddenly open 20 stores in China at once, she wouldn’t.

“Just imagine how much time would I lose on controlling other things rather than creativity and design [which are the most important things]. Your energy has to be divided. It all takes time.”

She started the label in Paris after studying fashion design at the city’s Esmod fashion school and immersing herself in Paris’ contemporary art world. In 2009, she formed Vernissage by Fang with a very simple proposition in mind.

“I would go to these vernissage openings in Paris and became close friends with a lot of great contemporary artists, galleries, critics and collectors – and for the women, they all had one concern: what to wear to these events.”

Fang started dressing these women with designs that were dressy but not too outrageous, elegant but edgy enough for an arts crowd. She later moved back to Shanghai, where she met her French husband, Gregoire Caillol, who is now her managing director. With good timing - the market for Chinese designs was just beginning to boom - in 2013 Fang rebranded (cutting Vernissage out of the label’s title) because “it was the right time to put my Chinese identity up front”. As part of the shake-up, she launched her Atelier by Fang line for her custom clients.

“I try to do things with content,” she says. “I don’t only focus on visual attraction but try to do things with depth or cultural influence.”

Thus it was that the ancient art of origami, a long-time passion of hers, became the central component of her designs. Her grandmother, who made handicrafts and origami when she was a child, was a big influence. Now the technique inspires signature plays with volume, architecture and graphic lines.

“You have to have very good quality fabrics, manufacturers, for clothes to be timeless,” Fang says as she shows sumptuous swathes of woven print in iridiscent peacock hues, bought in Paris.

It can seem like an uphill struggle championing slow fashion in a country known for speediness, but designers such as Fang are finding more and more converts. Her clothing has a classic quality, albeit with twists to keep things fresh.

In the workrooms next door, a team of full-time seamstresses and pattern cutters are busy making alterations to autumn/winter 2016 ready-to-wear samples and custom outfits for private clients. With more customers turning to Chinese designers for made-to-measure outfits, business is good. Fang’s sales are split roughly 50-50 between the ready-to-wear and custom lines.

“The clients are also tired of just following the big trends and luxury brands. They have come to the point where all their friends in their circle are wearing the same things, so they are really ready to try new things,” she says.

If there’s one thing she learned from being in that Parisian art crowd, it’s that you need to keep surprising, and avoid being too repetitive. Her clients are mostly aged 35 to 50 - a wealthy and socially influential set who get what she is trying to do. As they have grown up a bit in the past three to four years, so has Fang. There’s a freshness and elegance to her clothes, with their long, lean silhouettes updated with contemporary interpretations of folded fabrics.

“I’m really confident now. What I’m doing is not for youngsters, it’s for real women,” she says.

So has she ever rejected clients when they didn’t see eye to eye? “Yes,” she says, “I think I have a bottom line. It should have a mutual understanding and basic respect.”

Yang knows that in Chinese fashion, where people are “going for fast money and fame”, she is an exception. “The thing is,” she asks, “how long will fast last? The retail business here is not as strong as before.”

There’s the prospect that a wobbly economy might force people into committing to a less throwaway culture. Alongside this fashion tastes have also matured in China. Consumers here might quickly grow tired of quantity over quality – which would mean a boost for independent Chinese labels like hers.

“Once you find your identity you won’t be spending money on things you throw away after one season,” argues Yang, “It’s truly my approach and philosophy. As I get older, I am clearer about my direction. I think life experience is the key, how much you’ve been through. Time teaches you everything.”