HANGZHOU, China — In Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, released in 2000, the main character played by Maggie Cheng wears more than 20 different qipao. These close-fitting dresses with a high neck emphasize her fragile beauty and convey an unforgettable sense of melancholic elegance and sentimental reserve. The qipao’s restrained grace certainly contributes to the overall aesthetic of the movie and may have, incidentally, played a part in restoring China’s pride in its own fashion history.
Ten years later in Hangzhou, Tamsoon, a premium Chinese fashion brand, has built a successful business around the qipao. Head designer Qiu Xiaojing aimed to rejuvenate a dress that originated in 1920s Shanghai and was made fashionable by socialites and other women of the upper classes. Of course, Qiu Xiaojing is not the only designer to find inspiration in China’s fashion heritage, but Tamsoon is probably one of the country’s first premium labels to update this tradition for middle class consumers.
Before this, new interpretations of China’s fashion history were the domain of couturiers to government officials and modest street tailors, while outside of China, street markets across the globe displayed a caricature of Chinese style in the form of low-priced slippers and polyester négligées.
Aversion to Chinese Goods
For many years, fashion brands designed in China were unappealing to Chinese consumers. In China, most people still equate high prices with high quality and cheap products tend to push consumers away. As status remains an essential driver of consumer behaviour, the country’s affluent consumers, as well those aspiring to join their ranks, prefer well-known, expensive international fashion brands, which they believe reflect their social superiority.
According to a 2012 report by Bain & Company, a consulting firm, the most popular fashion brands among Chinese consumers were Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci. The pull of foreign brands is even stronger when it comes to purchasing gifts. Many Chinese say they could never buy a Chinese brand to honour a friend or client because of the loss of “face” this would bring them. Indeed, a packaging design agency we spoke with reported having to stick a conspicous “imported” label on boxes of fine China sent as gift to Chinese government officials.
This general aversion to Chinese brands explains why over the past few decades, most of China’s premium womenswear labels have tried to mimic French, Italian, Spanish, American, Japanese or Korean brands. They have borrowed their names, copied their styles and lifted their logos. Some even pretended that they were collaborating with obscure fashion studios in Milan or Paris, which probably never existed but helped to justify premium prices in the eyes of Chinese consumers.
The fascination for fashion items designed outside of China was also reinforced by government injunctions to catch up with international standards and forget the past. Thus, the aesthetic tastes of the younger generation of Chinese people began with a blank page. Not only did the Cultural Revolution erase most of China’s historical references, but the rapid economic growth of recent years wiped away many of the remaining vestiges of indigenous culture and ancient traditions.
Bye, bye tigers and dragons! China’s middle and upper class consumers have adopted sunglasses, curled hair, high heels, knee socks and skinny jeans. As Raphael Le Masne de Chermont says in a recent interview with BoF, the ethnic and nostalgic style of Shanghai Tang may seduce Westerners, but has “faced resistance from Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese.”
Rediscovering Chinese Heritage
In the last three years, things have begun to change, however. On the one hand, Chinese consumers increasingly connect luxury goods with the concept of craftsmanship and the cultural heritage of specific countries: Italy for high-end footwear and Switzerland for watches, for example. As a result, some have also started to perceive the luxury potential of Chinese crafts. In a recent luxury survey conducted by KPMG, a professional services firm, 33 percent of affluent consumers in China said they would prefer to buy products that reflect Chinese culture. At the same time, the Chinese government has been actively supporting cultural initiatives to reinforce and promote the country’s indigenous culture in the face of “Western imperialism.”
Both factors have played a role in transforming how Chinese consumers perceive their own culture, opening new aesthetic opportunities for a wide range of fashion labels, from couture houses to premium brands.
Guo Pei, whose collections include elaborate hand-sculpted qipao, was the first Chinese couturier to receive official haute couture designation from France’s Chambre Syndicale. The designer also makes intensive use of traditional Chinese embroidery to embellish her extravagant ceremonial dresses, which sell to the highest political, media and social circles in China. Pei employs more than 300 people in the Hebei Province, two hours from Beijing, where she has created a kind of embroidery camp enrolling and training employees on traditional Chinese embroidery techniques as well as Indian, French, Spanish and Southeast Asian savoir-faire.
The Spring/Summer 2014 collection from Huishan Zhang, a cutting-edge Chinese-born, London-based ready-to-wear designer, was inspired by an intriguing blend of ancient Chinese poetry and mathematics, as well as Man Ray’s photographs and Madeleine Vionnet’s sculptural couture. Tellingly, his trademark piece is the qipao, also known as the cheongsam. "The cheongsam dress is a recurring piece in my collections. I think it embodies everything that is sexy and feminine about the Chinese culture and tradition,” he says.
Meanwhile, in the premium market, Tamsoon’s qipao combine traditional Chinese elements such as embroidery and knots with innovations in fabric, patterns and cut. While mixing tradition and modernity is a basic impulse in international fashion, the approach is relatively new to China and indicates that both designers and consumers are progressively gaining confidence in the value of brands with links to Chinese craft and heritage.
Genevieve Flaven is CEO of Style-Vision Asia, a trend agency based in Shanghai.