Met’s China: through the Looking Glass aims to show how Chinese culture has influenced Western fashion. Obviously MET deserves a big applause– at least from the Chinese audience, for their promoting the Chinese culture. In the fashion discourse most people think Chinese fashion (not only Chinese) have received lots of influences from the West, MET’s exhibition proves that in history Chinese culture also impacted European fashion.
Nevertheless the exhibition has its limitation. First the Chinese ‘culture’ is just a set of stereotype Chinese symbols – calligraphy, dragon and phoenix, peony, blue and white porcelain, and Buddha (regardless of whether Buddha really represents the Chinese culture), the Mandarin collar etc. The techniques of manifesting these Chinese symbols are also monotonous – embroidery and prints. For the designs that were made before 1980s, I understand that Western designers’ perceptions about Chinese ‘culture’ could only be those stereotype symbols, since even though China was supposed to be a ‘modern’ country by 1980s it was still largely bounded by the political ideology and life in China then was essentially very conservative. The isolated and undeveloped communication channels between China and the West prior to 1980s limited the Westerners’ understanding of Chinese culture. Frankly speaking, Chinese designers in 1980s and 1990s also adopted largely the Chinese traditional symbols and twisted with their understanding of Western culture. Some of their designs were actually better than some of the pieces presented at MET.
Unfortunately, Western designers’ understanding of Chinese culture after 1980s did not progress much. I’m not sure if this is the fault of Chinese or Westerners. No matter if it is Galliano, Tom Ford or McQueen, their understandings of the Chinese ‘culture’ were still limited to the several stereotype symbols. What disappointed me most are the selected Chinese designers’ pieces. Generally speaking I like Vivienne Tam’s recent collections. They show a good balance of her personal signature, Chinese culture and marketability. However I’m never comfortable with the ‘Mao’ collection which brought her to fame in NYC in 1980s. I’m not a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member and Mao passed away a few years after I was born. So I don’t know how bad or good he is. But seems to me that a designer tried to attract the public attention by distorting the portrait of an old man who has passed away many years ago is very superficial and grandstanding. It is like as long as you curse CCP or if you say in China people do not have liberty and freedom, you will be given the sympathy and may even get Nobel. Sometimes I’m still surprised to see while the Internet has made the world so small, there are still so many misconceptions between the East and the West.
The other two selected Chinese designers are Laurence and Guo Pei. I’ve never personally met these two designers. I guess, they were selected because their designs cope with the general impression of Chinese culture. – Dragons, China porcelain, mandarin collar… But I have to say their designs do not necessarily represent the contemporary Chinese design. Laurence’s designs always look ostentatious but very so so in craftsmanship. He became successful mainly because of his dragon robe designed for the film star Fan Binbin. Guo Pei has been doing fashion design for nearly 30 years – a very respectful designer in China. But her design is more for extravagant theatrical performance rather than daily life. There are many other Chinese designers who design ‘contemporary’ Chinese fashion (not in the form of stereotype symbols) and operate much larger successful businesses.
Met Gala mainly showcases Western designers’ works that are influenced by Chinese culture. Here I am going to supplement their selection by the designs of the first generation of fashion designers after China’s Reform in early 1980s. I will introduce more in the coming months!
Shanghai designer Ye Hong’s (叶红) 1990s design. Ye Hong was selected as the first five “High Fashion Designers” in Shanghai (I remember the others include Liu Xiaogang and Liu Shanhua) in early 1990s. Most of these five designers are professors from Donghua University (DHU). This is one of the Chinese features. In the West, most designers become famous desginers through working for famous brands or etablishing their own collections in the market . In China around the 1980s/1990s, fashion designers became “famous” through fahion design contest, or presenting extravagant fashion show. Then the local Fashion Association, which was mainly composed by fashion design professors in schools would nominate and select “famous’ designers. This system of selection invoked lots of debates at that time because it was criticized for being out of contact with the industry – designers who were selected only knew how to do shows but were not familiar with the consumers market. But now looking back, without this “man-made” famous designer selection system, China’s fashion design would not have developed so fast within such a short time span and would not have had designers who can rival with international designers today. Back to 1980s /90s, the whole textile and clothing industry was lagging behind, and consumers’ taste was not up to the level of consuming designers’ brands. This “man-made” designer selection system propelled Chinese fashion design to develop faster rather than letting it begin only after the industry was ripe and market was awakening. This is why in the later period of 1990s, with the booming market, the second-generation designers could develop really fast. They were able to gain experiences from the pioneering first-generation designers. Without the pioneering spirit of these early designers, Chinese fashion design could not have been like this today. It is a pity that youngsters today no longer remember or even care about these real pioneers even though they were only a few decades away.
Shanghai designer Zhao Yufeng (赵玉峰), Champion of the 1995 “China Cup” Fashion Design Contest(中华杯). As said above, early fashion designers in China were actually selected through fashion contest.
Early designs by designer Wu Haiyan (吴海燕). Wu Haiyan is a name known to everybody in China’s fashion and textile industry. What is extremely rare is that starting from winning the champion for 1993 Brother Cup China International Youth Designer Contest (兄弟杯), she has been in fashion for over 25 years. Most of designers of her generation have vanished without a trace. I always believe that diligence is bound to be rewarded. Nobody can achieve success without efforts. Especially for early Chinese fashion designers right after China’s reform and opening, “diligence” “resilience to hardships” “earthiness” are among the shared characters of this generation. I always believe that clothing tells you much about personality. You can tell one’s personality from the clothing that he or she makes. Pompous people will make pompous designs. Down-to-earth people will make very practical designs.
1990s and early 20th century designs by Wang Xinyuan (王新元). In the 1990s, there are 3 big names everyone working in clothing industry must know – Zhang Zhaoda (张肇达), Wang Xinyuan (王新元) and Wu Haiyan (吴海燕). Wang Xinyuan used to be a very influential and well-known figure in China’s fashion industry. He also used to be very commercially successful. It’s only because of the copying tradition in China at that time (copying was more prevalent in 1990s than today) and the absence of a professional team that his brand was not sustained. One looming factor for this generation of designers to be successful, besides their personal talent and diligence, is the opening policy at that time. No country, no home. Without a proper market, even the best brands and designers could not be sustained.
A design from Liu Yang (刘洋) in 1990. I personally think it a miracle that China had this kind of design back in the 1990. Only Liu Yang who had a non-mainstream way of thinking could make this kind of design. In the late 1980s, Liu Yang already had long and curly hair. At that time, men who had curly long hair in China were regarded generally as “bad”. Even worse, people at that time would hardly accept that a man love tailoring and wearing fashionable (“outrageous” in their definition) clothes. Time is the best judge. In the 1990s, Liu Yang became a very famous designer and was a big name in fashion design in Guangdong province.