CHINESE FASHION DESIGNERS
Chinese designers have traditionally been known for aping Western fashions. But some new designers are quite exciting and have energized the Chinese and international fashion scenes. Jessica Dawdy wrote in Culture Trip: The label ‘Made in China‘ has long held unfortunate associations with mass-produced and low-quality products and clothing. However, China’s innovative, young designers are aiming to change this perception. Although Chinese shoppers are traditionally known for focusing on Western brands, a new generation of talented designers is gradually gaining attention not only at home, but in the international fashion scene. [Source: Jessica Dawdy, Culture Trip, February 2, 2017]
Shanghai Fashion Week is usually held in March and April and last for up to 13 days. Bohan Qiu wrote in the South China Morning Post: The event “is never short on creativity. Year on year, the event attracts the best talent in the industry – from highly successful commercial brands to emerging fashion designers in China and around the world. [Source: Bohan Qiu, South China Morning Post, April 14, 2019]
Describing China Fashion Week Haze Fan of Reuters wrote: “Haute couture mixing traditional Chinese touches and styles from more than 1,000 years ago with Western designs opened China Fashion Week, as the world's fastest-growing market for luxury products catches the eyes of more designers. Models showed off a wide range of long gowns in bright colours, some featuring traditional Chinese embroidery and replicas of attire from the Tang Dynasty, AD 618 to AD 907. Potential consumers, present at the show, said they were impressed. "Every single gown presented tonight is surprisingly gorgeous," said Li Fengteng, a 28-year-old company manager. "They combine the traditional Chinese cheong-sam design and Western fashion elements." [Source: Haze Fan, Reuters October 27, 2011]
Popular Chinese Designers in the 1990s and 2000s
Augustine Tse of Cashmere House is a designer known for his cashmere jogging suits, hooded sweaters, bathrobes, baby clothes and even bikinis. Sales topped $100 million in 2005 and his name was mentioned in the film “Friends with Money”. Tse’s doubled-faced men’s cashmere jackets sell for $2,200, half the price of similar Italian varieties. Among the satisfied customer are Madonna who bought Tse clothes for her baby and Steven Spielberg who gave cashmere jogging suits as gifts to his friends.
Chen Yifei is an internationally recognized artist whose realistic portraits have sold for more than $200,000. He opened up a successful chain of clothing shops, Layefe, in 1998 and had 162 outlets in 35 cities in early 2001. He has ambitions of becoming an internationally-recognized name like Tommy Hilfiger. Advertisements for Unforgettable Menswear shows a Chinese businessman toasting his white counterpart with Chardonnay. Ads for Tiger and Achievement suits feature successful oil executives in three-piece suits.
Shanghai-based Wang Yoyang is regarded as one of China’s most avant guard designers. Canton-born and Hong-Kong-raised fashion designer Vivienne Tam opened up a very successful shop in Soho in New York in 1997. Fashion designer Han Feng was born in Nanjing during the Cultural Revolution. Labels to watch include White Collar, Ominalo, Finsum, Fangyong and Ren Ping.
Hong-Kong-based David Tang, the founder of Shanghai Tang, is one of China’s best known fashion designers. Mandarin-collar shirts and cheongsam dresses sold under his label sell well in boutiques in New York and Paris — everywhere it seems but China. The Shenzhen-based designer Ying Fang runs the Farina-Z brand. She told the International Herald Tribune, “My designs are rooted in Chinese values and traditions, but that does not mean old. Everything is fashionable and up-to-date with current trends.”
NE TIGER is China's oldest luxury brand. "The haute couture industry in China is developing vigorously without any signs of slowing down. This is above my expectation," said Zhang Zhifeng, who founded the brand 19 years ago. "I thought my haute couture would live only with a small group of people, but now it is expanding very quickly. Consumers have become increasingly fond of Chinese traditional culture." [Source: Haze Fan, Reuters October 27, 2011]
Zhang said he wanted the Spring/Summer 2012 collection "Tang, Jing" to highlight Tang culture for the 500-strong audience at the show on Wednesday, the start of the 10-day Fashion Week, which NE TIGER has opened for the last decade. "I was so inspired when I listened to some historians telling stories of the Tang Dynasty. It was so prosperous that in many ways, it still has influence on Chinese society even today," he added.
Some gowns featured designs from traditional Chinese paintings, while others had flaring, bouffant skirts. Zhang's workshop is located in the heart of Beijing, the Chinese capital, where his 11-person international team dedicates itself to the creation of personalised designs.
A customised, hand-made gown usually costs about 30,000 yuan, with the price going even higher depending on the amount of human labour involved, such as embroidering elaborate designs. One garment can take up to three months. But despite the prices, Zhang said NE TIGER has seen a boom in purchases from both domestic and overseas clients in recent years. The brand has eight boutiques around the world.
New-York-Associated Chinese Fashion Designers
Vivienne Tam is a fashion designer based in New York City. She was born in Guangzhou, China, and moved to Hong Kong at the age of three. She attended the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Tam's fashion brand is named after her and is inspired by Chinese culture, design and modern fashion; East meets West. The theme of her first collection was EAST WIND CODE. Her shops can be found in most major cities around the world. She authored China Chic, a book on Chinese style meeting Western style. She has worked with Hewlett Packard on a special Vivienne Tam range of designer netbook computers, such as a version of the HP Mini 1000 and the HP Mini 210. Tam also appeared on Stardoll.com where she has her own suite and brand name. She has also designed dresses for the characters in the Animax movie LaMB. [Source: Wikipedia]
Zhou Rui graduated from Tsinghua Academy of Fine Arts and Parsons in New York City. After she graduated, Denni Hu wrote in Vogue, she “ founded her eponymous brand Rui in 2018. The brand is known for its signature stretchy, thin fabric, which reveals as much as it conceals. The clothes recall the work of American artist Senga Nengudi, known for using nylon stockings in her sculptures to depict the elasticity of the body. [Source: Denni Hu, Vogue, April 14, 2021]
Shuting Qiu founded her brand in 2018 after graduating from the Royal College of Art in Antwerp. A student under course leader designer Walter Van Beirendonck, she wanted to design for “Virginia Woolf-esque” independent, creative women, such as Russian artist Natalia Goncharova. Her work has a dreamlike quality, while the designs are full of colour.
Bohan Qiu wrote in the South China Morning Post: Shuting Qiu has already garnered celebrity fans. Among them is the Taiwanese singer, Jolin Tsai, who wore her designs on the cover of her latest album, “Ugly Beauty”. Having studied directly under renowned Belgian fashion design wizard, Walter Van Beirendonck, Shuting truly embodies the spirit of Antwerp Six – a group of fashion designers and academy graduates from 1980-81, whose distinct, radical creations in the 1980s established Antwerp’s reputation for fashion design. [Source: Bohan Qiu, South China Morning Post, April 14, 2019]
“For her 2019 autumn/winter collection – presented at New York Fashion Week in September rather than at Shanghai Fashion Week – she reimagined herself as a writer, rather than a designer, distilling her love and worship of English author Virginia Woolf and influences from a recent trip to Mumbai, in India, into a series of beautiful designs. Her choice of rich colours of India and the textures of beaded embroidery were quirkily mixed with English masculine tailoring, including tartan fabrics combined with rich floral prints, to
Caroline Hu is a Chinese fashion designer based in New York. She “was regarded as a rising star of the fashion industry in the late 2010s. She won the inaugural Business of Fashion China Prize during Shanghai Fashion Week in 2019. “Her latest fashion collection at Shanghai Fashion Week was inspired by the painting Woman Reading by French artist Henri Matisse. It certainly exudes a breathtaking romanticism in every creation, and genuinely impressed everyone who had a closer look. Each dress was made by hand, with skills and crafts as impressive and complex as a haute couture creation. In only a few looks, she was able to merge more than 20 different fabrics, ranging from rich velour, silk, chiffon and lace to create exquisite textures like that of an Impressionist painting. Her designs feel new and very much against the grain in a world where today’s streetwear fashions reign.
Paris-Based Chinese Fashion Designers
Yiqing Yin, Jessica Dawdy wrote in Culture Trip, first presented her collection at the Hyères International Festival in 2010 and launched her label the following year. Born in China and raised in Paris, her label is carried in stores like 10 Corso Como in Milan and Joyce in China and Hong Kong. Ying is a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the French Federation of Haute Couture and Ready-to-Wear), which means she’s allowed to show her collections during Paris Couture Week. She was named the Creative Director of French brand Léonard in 2014. Her pieces are known for their feminine cuts and shapes, which are designed to reinforce women’s silhouettes subtly, almost like a second skin. [Source: Jessica Dawdy, Culture Trip, February 2, 2017]
Masha Ma is known for her feminine designs, which incorporate industrial and futuristic influences. Born in Beijing, the designer received an MA in womenswear from Central Saint Martin’s in London and launched her eponymous label in 2008. Ma presents her collections at Paris Fashion Week, splitting her time between Paris and Shanghai. In 2013, she was selected for the CDFA/Vogue Fashion Fund China Exchange Program and spent two weeks in New York learning about the American fashion industry. Some of her known fans include Lady Gaga and Naomi Campbell.
Yang Li was born in Beijing and raised in Perth, Australia. “She dropped out of Central Saint Martin’s in London to work for Raf Simons. Li launched his label in 2011, which includes men’s and women’s clothing as well as shoes. Now based in Paris, Li’s collections are stocked by shops ranging from L’Eclaireur to Dover Street Market. His designs are modern and subversive, often incorporating edgy punk-inspired details like side slits and tab closures.
London-Based and -Trained Chinese Fashion Designers
Uma Wang launched her brand in London in 2005. Jessica Dawdy wrote in Culture Trip: Before that she “studied fashion design at Central Saint Martin’s in London and worked as an in-house designer for a number of Chinese labels. Wang’s designs often mix-and-match different fabrics and textures, with hand-knitted dresses and cardigans among her signature pieces. She has been named one of Vogue Italia’s up-and-coming designers to watch, and her collections have been shown in London, Paris, and Milan. Wang’s designs are stocked in boutiques across Europe, as well as Shanghai. [Source: Jessica Dawdy, Culture Trip, February 2, 2017]
Liu Min , typically known as Ms Min, graduated with a BA in Womenswear from the London College of Fashion in 2007. She worked in the design department at Viktor & Rolf and as an Assistant Designer for Ports before launching her own line in 2010. In contrast to many other Chinese fashion designers who base themselves in Europe, Ms. Min works out of the city of Xiamen. Her brand is carried by the Chinese department store Lane Crawford and her collections have been shown at London Fashion Week. Her pieces are romantic and contemporary, designed for women who are polished, yet bold.
Huishan Zhang launched his label in 2010. Since then, his pieces have been archived by the Victoria & Albert Museum in addition to being stocked at Browns in the UK and Barney’s in the United States. Born in Qingdao, China, Zhang spent time in Paris and New Zealand before moving to London to study at Central Saint Martin’s. While still in school, he was chosen to work at the Dior haute couture atelier, and he later went on to earn the Dorchester Collective Fashion Prize in 2013. His designs are influenced by his connection to both the East and the West, blending his Chinese heritage with contemporary styles.
China-Based Chinese Fashion Designers
Christine Lau , Jessica Dawdy wrote in Culture Trip, “is the designer behind Chictopia, one of China’s most popular homegrown fashion labels. Born in Beijing and raised in Hong Kong, Lau studied textile design at Central Saint Martin’s before reinventing herself as a designer. Founded in 2009, Chictopia is known for its whimsical prints and retro inspiration, with pieces that are quirky, yet classically feminine. Her fans include numerous Asian celebrities, such as Baihe Bai, Fan Bingbing, and Joe Chen. Lau’s brand is carried by Lane Crawford in China, and in 2014 Lau began collaborating with TUMI on a line of travel accessories. [Source: Jessica Dawdy, Culture Trip, February 2, 2017]
Ryan Lo was born in Hong Kong and educated in London, is known for his bold, youthful designs. Lo taught himself to knit using YouTube tutorials, and his designs exude a playful, DIY element. Sponsored by TopShop’s Newgen, the designer draws inspiration from pop culture and the concept of girlishness. Despite their distinct whimsy, his collections are also modern and sophisticated. His pieces are elaborate and feminine, incorporating everything from ruffles and chiffon to sequins and embroidery. [Source: Jessica Dawdy, Culture Trip, February 2, 2017]
Ban Xiao Xue was the winner of the Woolmark Award in China in 2012 and launched his own label the same year. Xue studied at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, and served as the principal designer for the Chinese womenswear brand Exception from 2007 to 2012. His collection, which has been showcased at Shanghai Fashion Week, is inspired by nature. He aims to recreate the structures, textures, and colors of the natural world with his contemporary designs.
Qiu Hao launched his first ready-to-wear-line in 2001, a line that continues to sell in nine department stores around China. Born in Taicang, China, he opened ONEBYONE Boutique in Shanghai with his partner QiaoQiao in 2004, before enrolling in the MA in Fashion Womenswear program at Central Saint Martin’s in London. After graduating, Hao returned to Shanghai to launch his eponymous label. His 2008 collection was presented at the Palais de Tokyo during Couture Fashion Week 2008 and was awarded the Woolmark Prize. His collections often incorporate sharp tailoring, strong silhouettes, and unexpected fabrics.
Mei Chen is a Fujian-born designer who launched her fashion brand, Märchen, in Shanghai in 2015. Bohan Qiu wrote in the South China Morning Post: she "is a woman whose effervescence will naturally make you feel happy. She’s humorous and energetic and emits an aura of reserved positivity that is contagious. These character traits are also reflected in her latest collection presented at Shanghai Fashion Week. This season, she displayed creations in vintage colours, inspired by the US hippie culture of the 1960s, but with strong, modern oriental influences, in a collection she described as “Post Hippie Ism”. She said she wanted to try to explore the raison d’être for today’s youngsters, who often struggle to define themselves in the modern world. [Source: Bohan Qiu, South China Morning Post, April 14, 2019]
Ma Ke, Designer for Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan
Peng Liyuan is the wife of Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Jacqueline Kennedy had dressmaker Oleg Cassini. Michelle Obama has Jason Wu and a whole coterie of up-and-coming designers. China’s new first lady, Peng Liyuan? She has Ma Ke. For years, Ma has been one of China’s most successful and cutting-edge fashion designers, but also one of its most reclusive. She has served as a personal designer for Peng since 2003 — a time when Peng, a singer, was far more famous in China than her husband, Xi Jinping, who was then just a provincial party head who would later become president. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, March 20, 2014 */]
Chen Jie wrote in the China Daily: “Although known in China's fashion industry for the past two decades, Ma became a household name overnight after President Xi Jinping's wife, Peng Liyuan, wore clothes designed by Ma during Xi's first state visit to Russia in March 2013. After media reports suggested that Ma may have designed Peng's clothes, people started to look for Ma online. Websites showed that the designer had an association with Exception, a Guangzhou-based brand that she and her former husband created. A few days later, Ma publicly acknowledged that she was indeed behind the first lady's look, but also clarified that she had left Exception in 2006 and had since taken a different direction.” [Source: Chen Jie, China Daily, September 26, 2014]
Wan wrote: “In a rare interview with Western media, the reclusive designer declined to identify or talk about specific outfits she has made for Peng, calling it through an assistant “a sensitive topic,” but she confirmed that she has tailored for Peng. Ma refused to meet in person or even to send a picture of herself, but agreed to answer written questions by e-mail. The reticence is in many ways understandable. For decades, coverage of China’s Communist Party leaders has been tightly controlled and their families considered off-limits for news media. But the reluctance of Peng’s designer to step into the limelight seems to go beyond the usual caution of censors. In one of her only in-depth interviews in 2013 with a state-controlled newspaper, Ma played down the curiosity about her as Peng’s designer. As she put it, “If you eat a tasty egg, why would you want to see the hen?” */
Ma Ke and EXCEPTION
Ma Ke was born in 1971. Chen Jie wrote in the China Daily: “In 1988, Ma left her hometown, Changchun in northeastern Jilin province, to study design at the Suzhou Silk Institute in eastern Jiangsu province. After graduation in 1992, Ma joined a fashion company in Guangzhou in southern China's Guangdong province. After three years, she felt it was "a disaster for a designer to work in a company that only pursued profit". [Source: Chen Jie, China Daily, September 26, 2014 ]
Ma’s design career began with a ready-to-wear label, EXCEPTION de MixMind, which she launched with Mao Jihong, then her husband, in 1996. At that time couple who shared a love of design and the rock band The Ramones. Mao took care of marketing and branding while Ma focused on designing. Their aesthetic combined small touches of traditional Chinese elements with modern style. Exception was one of China's first independent fashion labels. It produced simple yet attractive women's ready-to-wear clothes and secured a number of loyal high-end customers, including Peng. And they built it into one of China’s premier high-fashion brands. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, March 20, 2014 */ ]
Ma and Mao later divorced. While her husband continues running the lucrative EXCEPTION brand, Ma split off in 2006 to found one of China’s few experimental haute-couture boutiques. She moved to Zhuhai, another city in Guangdong. Mao is now the chief executive of Exception. Exception has grown into a big company, driven by Mao's ambition. It has expanded to become a high-end brand with nearly 100 stores and retail counters in China. */
Ma Ke and Peng Liyuan
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Ma and Peng first met after a concert by Peng in the southern city of Guangzhou, where Ma is based. A reporter interviewing Peng at the time mentioned that she knew Ma. According to Ma, Peng had been wearing Ma’s clothes for years and requested an introduction.In an e-mail interview, Ma described Peng’s current style as “neat, simple, elegant but with a strong presence.” But she insisted that Peng isn’t as concerned with presenting a “first lady” style as she is with presenting an image of a modern Chinese woman who is “independent-minded, affectionate and full of strength.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, March 20, 2014 */]
Chen Jie wrote in the China Daily In 2001, when Peng, then a popular singer, was performing in Guangzhou, Ma was introduced to her by a TV reporter. Ma designed the dress for Peng's performance at the 2002 China Central Television Spring Festival Gala, the popular annual TV show. When Peng asked Ma to design a dress for her first state visit, she agreed without hesitation. "I believe if the first lady dresses in a simple but elegant way and presents unique Chinese traditions, people of the country would follow the style," she says. [Source: Chen Jie, China Daily, September 26, 2014]
Wan wrote: “Ma is said to have been responsible for several of Peng’s ensembles during her first state visits abroad during the past year — fashion events that set the Internet in China ablaze and established Peng as a fashion icon. Among the outfits widely attributed to Ma: a sophisticated-but-business-like black, double-breasted belted coat and handbag; and a white silk, Mandarin-collared suit, with a scarf adding a splash of turquoise. */
“The fashionable looks were cited by Vanity Fair, which added Peng to its “International Best-Dressed” list, even as the magazine gave Michelle Obama the snub. Through an assistant, Ma said that her studio provides Peng with many design options but doesn’t know which ones Peng will wear or when. As with all designers, she said, the final call always belongs to the client.” */
Ma Ke’s Rustic, Philosophical Approach to Fashion
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “When Ma talks about her work these days, she sounds more like a philosopher than a fashion designer. “What attracts me most is traveling to the remote mountainous areas of China, where farmers still live the traditional lifestyle, getting up at sunrise, sleeping after sundown,” she said. “Their lives are almost insulated from fashion. They own just a few pieces of old clothes that they keep sewing up and wearing. The clothes passed down by their ancestors are valued as family heirlooms. Every piece of old clothing has a story.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, March 20, 2014 */]
Her goal, Ma says, is not luxury but suitability. She named her studio Wuyong, which means “useless” in Chinese. The name, she explains, comes from wanting to make things that may be perceived by the wider society as utterly useless useful once more. “Spending days in the countryside has made me feel like I found my root and core essence as a human being,” she said. “These are things which will never change deep inside people’s heart, no matter to what degree the science, technology and economy have been developed.” */
Chen Jie wrote in the China Daily: “The more Ma traveled through China's countryside, she says, the more she realized that traditional craftsmanship was dying in the villages and that she could help revive the heritage through alternative fashion. "The fashion industry pushes people to change their wardrobes every season. Actually, we don't need to. I can wear a comfortable piece for five, six or even 10 years. When I was young, my mother would wear my grandmother's clothes and my mother passed hers to me. It still happens in villages," Ma says. [Source: Chen Jie, China Daily, September 26, 2014]
Ma Ke’s Studios and Workshops
After breaking off from Exception Ma set up her studio and workshop in Zhuhai, a city in Guangdong. Chen Jie wrote in the China Daily: “Ma rented a private garden that had once belonged to Tang Shaoyi (1862-1938), the first premier of the Republic of China. She turned it into a workshop and recruited some 20 rural craftsmen to spin cotton, weave and dye the clothing on machines that were used a century ago. "Everything in nature is useful. There are many things that people consider useless and throw away, but they are in fact useful. It's dangerous to use up all of nature's resources and not recycle them," she says.[Source: Chen Jie, China Daily, September 26, 2014]
William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, ““At her new studio, everything is handmade. She uses natural materials and natural dye. She sticks to neutral, earthy colors. Her workers employ traditional clothing manufacturing techniques — spinning, weaving and even working on looms. The resulting garments appear simple, with a softly rough-hewn look. “Massive industrial products have squeezed the craftsmanship to the edge of existence,” Ma said. “If we cannot find feelings and spiritual values in the material, to me, it is ‘dead material.’ [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, March 20, 2014 */]
“The idea of offering people an eco-friendly lifestyle came to her last year after she was invited to visit the 77 Creative Industry Park in Beijing. She decided to step outside the comfort of her Zhuhai workshop and move beyond clothes. Following months of preparation, Ma opened her new workshop at the same industry park in Beijing, where she displays clothes and household goods that are all made from natural material. Her vision helps rural artisans too. "I will not sell clothes in big shopping malls," Ma says.
Ma Ke’s Unusual Fashion Shows
Ma’s stripped-down, unpretentious natural aesthetic has won her recognition abroad. Wan wrote in in the Washington Post: “When she was invited to show at Paris Fashion Week in 2007, she shocked the crowd by having her models (smeared in mud colors) stand on pedestals instead of strutting down a catwalk. The audience, instead, was invited to walk around the models. Elle magazine called the show “brilliant” and “a highlight of the season.” Didier Grumpach, then-chairman of the Federation Francaise de la Couture, a respected figure in world fashion, personally visited Ma in Zhuhai and invited her to present at the Paris Fashion Week. In 2008, at her Paris Haute Couture Week showing, models performed tai chi to Mongolian music. */
Describing a Ma Ke's show in Beijing in 2014. Chen Jie wrote in the China Daily: The organizers insisted on a dress code, though, but it read: "Please dress in a casual and comfortable way - no tight skirts or high-heels." The fashion show was held at a factory-turned-creative space behind Beijing's National Art Museum on a Mid-Autumn Festival evening, and I wore my jeans and sandals. As soon as I arrived, I knew why high-heels were barred. We climbed up a set of steep steel steps that led us to the roof of a building, where we were served fruit in handmade bowls, traditional desserts wrapped in leaves and homemade rice liquor. [Source: Chen Jie, China Daily, September 26, 2014 ]
“Then we walked to the roof of a neighboring building, where guests sat on grass cushions on the floor to watch the show. That is why the advisory against tight skirts was issued. There was no fancy lighting either, with a big full moon hanging in the dark sky serving as the perfect backdrop. A woman was seated by an old wooden machine, spinning cotton, while another wove clothes at a distance.
“An ensemble of some 30 people aged between 6 and 70, including several from different continents, was gathered for the show. They all dressed in basic single-color handmade clothes and moved slowly from one end of the rooftop to another. Unlike usual fashion shows that blast recorded music on speakers, this instead had one folk singer from the Katatipul tribe, members of which live in southeastern Taiwan. The city's neon lights were visible from where I was seated, but in a way I was lost in the quiet evening that Ma had created.”
Image Sources: University of Washington except men's clothing, Columbia University; Imperial clothing, Toranhouse, Mao-era posters, Landberger, and Western fashions, Perrechon.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2021