Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Hong Kong fashion label Narrative Made champions Asian craftsmanship

Western fashion labels have long played up their craftsmanship. Now emerging designers in Asia are taking inspiration from traditional crafts and harnessing the skills of the artisans who make them

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 April, 2016, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 April, 2016, 12:30pm

Western fashion labels have traded on their craftsmanship for years. Now the work of artisans in Asia is being championed by a new generation of fashion designers – people like Hong Kong’s Sharon de Lyster, founder of the womenswear label Narrative Made.

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“I want to give Asian craft a voice. I feel there is a general interest in [the region] and while it may be an old conversation, it’s still interesting to see what heritage we have,” she says.

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Born and raised in Hong Kong, de Lyster studied at London’s Central Saint Martin’s before enrolling at the Hong Kong Polytechnic. After she graduated, she became a designer for Hong Kong-based fashion label Anteprima. Craftsmanship and culture have interested her since she began her career.

After a few years with Anteprima she joined trend forecasting company WGSN as a consultant. The role took her to rural parts of Asia, where she met indigenous peoples and discovered their crafts.

“I started to look at data and saw all the issues surrounding fashion’s current supply chain, from pollution and waste to [paying a] fair wage. I couldn’t detach myself from that. I knew it would continue but I wanted to make myself useful and create a positive impact somehow,” she says. “Doing my own label was always in the back of my mind, so this, combined with my interest in heritage, crafts and tribal cultures, led me to conceive Narrative Made.”

Using her personal connections and the resources of social enterprises such as Living Blue in Bangladesh, de Lyster began to identify crafts from villages in China and India that would complement her vision for Narrative Made.

“There’s a lot out there, especially if you are looking for crafts with ethical and sustainable qualities. For me it was about creating a social impact and keeping these communities making their crafts. I would go into the villages, learn their crafts and understand which ones specialise in what. There is such a strong meaning behind each one, as many times these fabrics tell a story. You have to respect that,” she says.

For her debut autumn/winter 2017 collection she decided to focus on two regions, Rangpur in northern Bangladesh and Guizhou in southwestern China. In Rangpur she discovered dheu, or wave, quilting, known for its unique ripple pattern – achieved by hand-stitching layers of khadi fabric. Produced entirely by women, many of whom work from home, it takes up to two months to create a square big enough to be made into an oversized scarf. The region’s indigo dyeing techniques also caught de Lyster’s attention thanks to their funky patterns and the use of sustainable methods integrated into the agricultural cycle.

In Guizhou she connected with the Miao tribe, the women of which are highly skilled in techniques such as hand pleating, weaving and smocking. Their eye-catching blackwork embroidery features a cross-stitch technique using black thread against a white background.

Discovering the fabrics was just the start; modernising them for a fashion-savvy audience came next.

“When I first started I was picturing a crossover between kung fu and a modern woman. I wanted a stronger, more classic silhouette that was not too feminine and relaxed. I want people to be able to wear Narative Made in the city, but the clothes need to have a strong cultural voice. There is a touch of ethnic but it’s not in your face,” de Lyster says.

For now the label is available exclusively online through Narrative Made’s website, which also features a range of videos about each craft. Considering that everything is handmade, prices are reasonable and range between US$100 and US$300.

De Lyster’s first collection offers a range of styles: the shapes are minimal and include button-down shirts, skirts, open jackets, oversized maxi coats, blanket scarves and cropped culottes in a muted palette of black, blue and white with splashes of orange.

A pleated skirt made by Miao tribeswomen is cut into a flattering A-line shape, with gold buttons down the side for a chic look. Other separates are covered in abstract blue shibori-dyed patterns made by hand stitching the fabric first. A white scarf featuring dheu quilting is trimmed with a black silk fringe for a modern look that brings to mind Proenza Schouler’s fashions.

One of de Lyster’s favourite pieces is an elegant lantern dress with slits, side-fastening buttons and trims made from upcycled vintage Japanese ikat fabric, that also doubles as a coat. She has tried to use only sustainable or upcycled fabrics and natural dyes (they account for 80 per cent of the line).

The future will bring more challenges for de Lyster; the label’s supply chain and quality control are just two areas that she hopes to perfect, while exploring more Indian crafts next season.

“I know it will continue to be a challenge, but what we are doing is quite new, so hopefully it will catch people’s attention. Eventually we can start experimenting more.”

She adds: “[Narrative Made] is a fashion brand that does not move fast or cash in on a trend. The message is about slower-made fashion that you keep forever and wear across seasons. I want to spread this message and create a consumer that treasures something made by hand.”