Guru fires young guns

Mabel Sieh

Vivienne Tam is helping budding Hong Kong designs take their first steps in the fashion world

Mabel Sieh |

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Vivienne Tam is flanked by Clement Mak Kai-hang, left, and Chui Tsz-ching, right and the three other students that created the best five T-shirts.
Vivienne Tam's self-named label is worn by millions of people around the world, from Hong Kong to New York to London. Now the renowned designer is helping budding Hong Kong designers to follow in her footsteps.

Born in Canton province at a turbulence time, less than a decade after the 1949 Chinese Revolution, her parents fled to Hong Kong, leaving her with her grandparents until she could join them here, aged three.

Growing up in the British colony gave Tam first-hand experience of how the East and the West mesh. After graduating with a fashion degree from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, she left Asia to explore New York's fashion scene.

In 1994, she made her debut catwalk fashion show and stunned her Western contemporaries. Chinese culture is deeply rooted in Tam's heart; today, her designs are known for incorporating iconic or mysterious Eastern images, such as Mao Zedong and the Buddha.

"Everyone looks to the West, but my roots are in Chinese culture; I love everything Chinese, especially arts and history," says Tam. "My designs are like beautiful bridges between the East and West."

Her work has been recognised by and featured in the archives at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

But despite her current success, it was not easy for Tam to establish herself as a designer, especially at the beginning. "When I started in New York, people kept telling me that I would not succeed with a brand of Chinese [themes].

"Yet I had faith in my own design concept. To achieve your dream, you must believe in yourself and have passion in what you're doing."

This self-belief has inspired a group of students at HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, in Kowloon. As an international adviser at the school, Tam flew in to speak to more than 30students for a Tee Design Project in June. The students were asked to create original designs using a comic character, Tian Tian Xiang Shang (literally meaning, "make progress every day"), created by Danny Yung, art director of a local non-profit art organisation Zuni Icosahedron.

Tam chose the five best designs to be printed on T-shirts and sold in her shops in early October. The five winning students visited Tam at her Hong Kong office to discuss the practicalities of making their T-shirt designs become a reality.

Chui Tsz-ching and Clement Mak Kai-hang were among the winners. "When I met Vivienne, I was encouraged by her persistence. She hung onto her dream and didn't give up," says Tsz-ching, 19, who loves fashion and enjoys making her own clothes and accessories. Her design was inspired by Chinese paper-cutting folk art and Hong Kong's fireworks.

"I'm not a confident person. But having my design printed and sold in Vivienne's shops makes me feel so good about myself. She has made me want to do better in life." Clement, 18, says Tam taught her the importance of research. "She told us every designer needs to gather information and observe in detail; this will help to enrich our designs."

Clement chose to create a simple design with the cartoon character on a white background.

"I like simple. When Vivienne told me she liked my design, I felt so happy. I know that I will succeed if I work hard," he says.

All proceeds from the sale of the students' T-shirts will be donated to the school for educational purposes.

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