What’s new in Xiamen, southern China’s unlikely fashion hub, as more designers flee city stress and join creative class on coast
With rent, pollution and population density soaring in big Chinese cities, a growing number of designers have made the move to the burgeoning fashion centre on China’s southern coast
“I was fed up of life in Beijing; all the pollution, the crowds. I wanted to be by the seaside,” says Chinese fashion designer Vega Zaishi Wang. In September 2016 she relocated her design studio from the capital to the southern Chinese coastal city of Xiamen.
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After seven years, the punishing pace of life in Beijing had taken its toll. “It’s too big. It was a great place to be, in terms of my brand, but it was so stressful. There was too much noise, too many things going on,” she says. Now settled in Xiamen in her four-storey studio that backs onto the beach, the designer’s quality of life has improved immeasurably. “I love it here,” she says. “The place has a bit of a holiday feel [to it]. I can’t complain that I have any depression now.”
A post shared by Vega Zaishi Wang (@vegazaishiwang) on Jul 20, 2017 at 9:15pm PDT
Vega is one of a growing number of cutting-edge designers who have forgone the fast-paced fashion capitals of Beijing and Shanghai in favour of the island city in Fujian province.
The group, which includes Deepmoss’ Dido Liu, Wan Yifang, Ms Min’s Liu Min and Sankuanz founder Shangguan Zhe, was referred to as the “Xiamen Gang” in a New York Times article in 2013. The label – intended, initially, as a means to compare Xiamen’s fashion designers to the Antwerp Six (a group of influential Belgian designers from the ’80s) – has since created a bit of a buzz. But why Xiamen? And are they really a “gang”?
Once known as Amoy, Xiamen has had a long and colourful history as a trading port. It also has excellent transport and infrastructure. In look and feel it is not dissimilar to Taiwan, across the Formosa Strait. Sitting on the coast between Hong Kong and Shanghai (both are less than two hours away by plane), the city has about 4.5 million residents, making it more manageable than the sprawling metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai (21.5 million and 24 million respectively).
A post shared by Vega Zaishi Wang (@vegazaishiwang) on Jan 22, 2017 at 7:19am PST
Rent, sampling and labour are cheaper than in the big cities, and the manufacturing centres of Shenzhen and Guangdong are conveniently close by. However, it is Xiamen’s pleasant climate, colonial architecture and low levels of pollution that are the real drawcards. The city regularly ranks in the top 10 best Chinese cities to live in: Accenture, a professional services company, pegged Xiamen fourth in its review of the most liveable and prosperous cities in the country, while another such company, PwC, placed Xiamen eighth in its 2016 round-up of Chinese Cities of Opportunity.
“Xiamen has a unique pace of life that allows me to set aside the always intense design world and slow down, think deeply and focus well. It’s all about finding the balance,” says Liu Min, a finalist for the LVMH Prize, a global annual award for young fashion designers, finalist and founder of the elegant, sophisticated Xiamen-based womenswear label Ms Min.
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The London College of Fashion graduate grew up in nearby Fuzhou. After graduation and a stint working at Victor & Rolf in Amsterdam, she moved to Xiamen. The label she started in 2010 (and initially ran from her Xiamen home on e-commerce site Taobao) now shows at London Fashion Week and has more than 50 stockists in six countries, of which 40 per cent are outside China.
A post shared by Ms MIN (@msmin_official) on Jul 20, 2017 at 8:01pm PDT
Today, Min employs 100 people in a 2,000 square metre studio space in an industrial area of the city. However, the majority of Xiamen’s designers are grouped together at the Longshan Cultural Creative Park, a government initiative to offer affordable studio space to designers and artists. Central Saint Martins graduate Dido Liu runs her label Deepmoss from there, alongside Xiamen-born Shangguan Zhe who founded menswear label Sankuanz in 2008.
Known for his offbeat aesthetic, Zhe, who studied visual communications and advertising at Xiamen University, has presented collections at men’s fashion weeks in London and Paris. He was also named an LVMH Prize finalist in 2015. In addition to his label, Zhe last year opened the multibrand fashion boutique Akipelago, which mainly stocks products by Chinese designers.
“There are a lot of young people based here, doing all sorts of creative production and design, not just working in fashion,” Vega says. “It’s a close-knit community. And thanks to the size of the city, it’s very easy for us [creatives] to collaborate, to talk and to have fun.”
Testament to this flourishing creative class is the growing mass of boutique hotels, hipster cafes, bookstores and galleries popping up. A Xiamen fashion week launched in 2015 and there are whispers of a major London fashion school opening an outpost in the city within the year.
Xiamen’s burgeoning fashion scene is evident, but to group the subversive streetwear of Sankuanz, the romantic aesthetic of Deepmoss, Vega Zaishi Wang’s experimental silhouettes and the refined luxury of Ms Min under the single umbrella of a “Xiamen Gang,” is to oversimplify. As Jiang Youpo, marketing manager at Ms Min points out; “it undermines each designer’s unique personality. Would people call Simone Rocha, Christopher Kane and Jonathan Anderson the “London Gang” just because they all launched around the same period?”
A post shared by SANKUANZ OFFICIAL PAGE (@sankuanz_official) on Jan 23, 2017 at 11:33am PST
While collective titles may be unhelpful, there’s certainly something in the sea air breeding fashion ingenuity in Xiamen. For Wang, it’s simple: “Fashion is about making things beautiful, and I don’t think it’s possible to make beautiful things when you’re as stressed as I was in Beijing. If you’re enjoying your life and you have a happy mind, creativity comes.”