Vivienne Tam on how hometown Hong Kong cityscape inspired her latest fashion collection
Designer says she sought to capture Hong Kong’s vibrancy and its ‘kaleidoscope of colours, patterns and neons’ in autumn-winter collection that features city’s skyline, a red taxi and a Cathay plane
A colourful, mesmerising flurry of neon lights and a Hong Kong skyline, pawn shop signs, red taxis and vintage Cathay Pacific plane motifs greeted fans of Vivienne Tam watching the New York catwalk debut of her autumn-winter 2017 collection.
Moments earlier, paparazzi and crowds had been shooed away from heiress Paris Hilton and American first daughter Tiffany Trump, sitting in the front row for show along with actress Abigail Breslin, model Petra Nemcova and Asian stars Tao Hong and Sayo Aksaka.
Hong Kong’s most recognised mainstream fashion designer usually takes on some element of Chinese culture in her collections, but for this season Tam dedicated her line to the city’s vibrant nightlife and cityscape.
In a collection named “City of Lights”, Tam created an ode to the city where she grew up from the age of three – featuring the skyscrapers, Chinese signage popular in Kowloon, Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, and looks inspired by Hong Kong’s relentless energy.
“I was just thinking about how every time I enter the city, the first thing I see are all these lights – a kaleidoscope of colours, patterns, neons and LED lighting. I mean, Hong Kong really never sleeps,” Tam says when we meet at her headquarters in New York’s Fashion District, in the middle of Manhattan, following the collection’s debut.
Tam, who splits her time between New York and Hong Kong, wanted to give the city some positive global exposure during a high-profile week in February that began a month of fashion shows that would end in Paris.
“It’s a perfect time to put Hong Kong on the world stage here in New York Fashion Week,” says Tam, explaining that the timing was partly to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover this year.
“I grew up there, I was educated at Hong Kong Polytechnic, a lot of my family are still there and I have a lot of amazing friends there,” she says. “For me, it was really lovely after the show to have all these show reports from international media talking about the electrifying energy of Hong Kong because of my show.”
Tam’s interpretation of Hong Kong includes prints, patterns and digital manipulation of city sights. She sent models out in colourful, textured jacquard bomber jackets, frantic patchwork dresses, ruched faux leather leggings and asymmetric plissé skirts.
“Hong Kong has so much texture in the place and people, so I translated this into the collection,” she says. ““I loved printing on velvet. There’s this luxurious feeling. It’s very different, there is a luminescence and depth to the colours and tone.”
It was the use of metallic threads, lurex knits, sequins and colours that brought the light and liveliness of the Hong Kong night onto the body. Fabrics were rich and, at times, had 3D effects, such as those printed velvets and shiny laces.
Like so many designers lately, Tam took on big ’80s-inspired shoulders on jackets and dresses as a key silhouette. “I was actually influenced by the golden era of Chinese pop music and pop stars like Teresa Teng, who had this very bright and ultra glamorous ’80s style back then,” she adds, pointing to a multicoloured explosion of sequins on a cocktail dress.
Tam wanted to capture the hard, urban environment, too, and balanced the extreme femininity of some outfits with masculine plaid tailoring and suiting that gives a nod not only to the concrete jungle but also the city’s roots as an Asian financial centre.
“When I was working on all the prints and embroideries, it all became too bright, so I’d pare them down with all the menswear-inspired fabrics like the tweeds, plaids and stripes – I like that kind of tension.”
Hong Kong street motifs and icons (including red taxis and vintage Cathay planes) made into appliqués and patches appear on casual sweatshirts and accessories. There’s also a deconstructed cheongsam to add to this colourful mosaic of Hong Kong references.
Tam has maintained a strong following in Hong Kong, along with an equally big fan base in the US, where she established her brand more than two decades ago. Hilton has been a long-time fan and Jill Biden wore a Vivienne Tam dress to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, during their US state visit in late 2015.
In recent years, Tam has been spending more time in Hong Kong and China. There’s been a constant stream of collaborations (with Ferrero Rocher, Hotel Icon and Art HK among others), and she has made a concerted effort to reconnect with her roots and tap the potential for her brand’s expansion in China.
When in Hong Kong, Tam stays at an apartment in Wan Chai, and checks out the night markets of Mong Kok and Jordan, and the Sham Shui Po fabric market.
“Every time I’m in Hong Kong I visit Sham Shui Po. A lot of my fabric research and my sampling facilities are here, so even though I moved away a long time ago, I still feel that the city is a big inspiration,” she says.
Her favourite spots also include Hong Kong’s many temples – Tam has a keen interest in Buddhism, culture and teh arts. She frequents Sheung Wan’s Hollywood Road and Cat Street. Occasionally she visits Cheung Chau and Lantau for the nature and the island life.
“I still go to all these places all the time,” she says with a laugh. “I find it all very inspiring. You know, I’ve said it before, but with New York and Hong Kong, there’s truly a similar energy – there’s always something going on, the tall skyscrapers, the business of both Times Squares, and all those screens and colours. They’re both so cosmopolitan.”