An Archaelogy of Chinese Fashion

 – by Martin Cho

The ‘looks’ of China have political strings attached – a mood board filled with political agenda and personalities. The concept of fashion disappeared during the rule of Mao’s Communist government; clothes only served to reinforce a political ideology about conformity and uniformity. The Mao suit and comrade cape, symbols of Communism, are at once universally recognizable and scorned – saved exclusively for the hipster subset or Azzedine Alaïa. Plain, cotton peasant garb in drab grey, blue and beige suffused the palette and mood of the nation. The only discernable accent – red - typified by the Red Guards and their jaunty red scarves was a color about political allegiance than a playful sartorial wink. Graphics, if any, appeared in the form of propaganda slogans.

Deng Xiaoping’s ‘open door policy’ and economic reforms created an environment in which people were eager to make up for the ten lost years of the Cultural Revolution. Attitudes first relaxed in dress: colors, patterns and accessories emblazoned with English words like “happy” and “beautiful” replaced the old propaganda slogans. All that appeared foreign was now deemed modern and fashionable.
 The 80s saw unprecedented experimentation in dress, flowering into the first wave of fashion designers. However, the effort was crude in taste and stunk of Western imitations. The birth of the first Chinese fashion magazine in Beijing in 1979 fed a population enamored with dressing and rising consumerism. However, taste level remained unsophisticated and clumsily un-chic.

Enter the monogram fever of the 90s, when label-dressing became a national aspiration, especially in the emerging middle class, which kowtowed indiscriminately  to the prestige and status of international luxury labels. Chinese youth especially borrowed heavily from Japanese street fashion.
In response to a long legacy of repression, cult worship of foreign labels and superficial co-opting of international (sub)cultures, new independent young designers emerge with strong personal convictions to establish a distinctly homespun point of view – one which seamlessly mines history and traditions while remaining internationally relevant. Many of China’s new designers were educated outside of China and have worked internationally, bringing more diverse, cultured and sophisticated perspectives to a nascent market hungry for definition. As you will see, made-in-China doesn’t always mean  an over-exuberance of colors and dragons, nor over-decorated, mother-of-the-bride Qipao permutations. Following are four Chinese designers who each strike a successful balance of East and West, both ushering Chinese fashion into the age of post-post-modernism: A look at Wang Yi Yang’s designs evokes humorous social observations of everyday Chinese life. His label, Cha Gong (named after the thermos carried around ubiquitously by the older generation), plays with traditional societal roles with street-smart flavors: a padded jacket ensemble in metallic oversized polka dots takes its inspiration from the silhouette of a hunch-back street garbage collector; mid-century drab peasant garbs are reproportioned in leather; Scottish kilts are rendered in the distinctive, red, white and blue plait of Chinese plastic shopping bags; Chinese characters function as prints on jackets and T-shirts.  

Hailed as one of China most promising and avant-garde designers, Qiu Hao is the winner of 2008’s Australian Woolmark Prize, the same award won by luminaries like YSL and Karl Lagerfeld at their start. According to the designer, “All Chinese designs don’t have to be about bright colours and dragons… A subtle, Chinese philosophy underlies everything we do.” That translates into razor-sharp tailoring and fluid deconstruction, each collection is offset by an element of softness: a curve, a texture, a physical motion. The strict palette of six colours (white, black, beige, gold, silver and blue) brings forth his impeccable craftsmanship. 

A conceptualist at heart, Ma Ke’s ethereal yet earthy clothes conjure to mind the sober, sculptural and post-modern aesthetic of early Yohji Yamamoto. Her designs, however, are purely Chinese: she champions traditional weaving, dying and embroidery technique indigenous to various Chinese ethnic groups for all her collections. She is also celebrated for her use of recycled materials and environmentally friendly fabrics. Her ready-to-wear label, Exception de mixmind, has won her critical acclaims in and around Asia; Wu Yong, her haute couture collection, has twice been recognized and shown during Paris Haute Couture.

Zhang Da’s style and colors can appear simple at first glance, but his experiment with form often creates imaginative pieces. For instance, his “flat” collection consists of pieces that can be laid flat completely on display, yet ingeniously spring to life in sculptural, geometric form when worn on the body. Sober monochrome forms gave his clothes a decidedly quiet, sculptural quality. Meanwhile his own label, ParallelWalk is gaining a cult following.

The prognosis for “Made in China, once an instant kiss of death for high-end fashion, is now ecstatically positive.   ◊

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