SHANGHAI, China — Last month, across Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul, more than 200 Asian brands invested in staging a catwalk show. Yet most designers showing at Asia’s three most important fashion capitals are not recognised outside of their respective national markets. Even the most talented among them can remain unknown to all but a handful of international fashion leaders. The upshot of this is a small fraternity of Asian designers, which represent some of the best-kept secrets in the global fashion market.
Facetasm, Matohu and Ujoh are three of the rising-star labels that have shown during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo in recent years; Chinese designers such as Feng Chen Wang, Nicole Zhang and Boundless by Zhang Da have enlivened Shanghai’s Fashion Week roster; while, in South Korea, Push Button, J. Koo and K-pop inspired brands like Kye continue to make Seoul Fashion Week an increasingly tempting destination. However, these brands’ relative obscurity is hard to square with the rise of other Asian-born designers who have gained fame outside of the region.
Previously, Asian designers who built international renown, such as Uma Wang, Chitose Abe of Sacai or Jacky Lee of J. JS Lee, chose the tried and tested route of showing in Paris, Milan, London or New York. However, as show schedules in the West get more and more crowded, and more Asian designers than ever before return home after studying abroad at some of the world’s top fashion schools, fashion weeks in Asia are increasingly popular platforms that many now choose.
So why aren’t more of Asia’s designers making a splash internationally?
Political tensions weigh on inter-Asian collaboration
This season, a lack of communication and coordination between the organisers and affiliated bodies of Asia’s big three fashion weeks resulted in overlapping fashion weeks in Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul, making it impossible for international press and buyers to attend all three of those fashion weeks. Lv Xiao Lei, vice secretary-general of Shanghai Fashion Week Organisation was unavailable for comment, but media reports at the time suggested that she was unaware of the scheduling conflict prior to the onset of fashion week.
Industry veterans say one possible cause for this scheduling muddle is the strain organisers are under due to pressure from their respective governments. Historical grievances, political friction and a climate of mutual suspicion persist among the leaders of Japan, China and South Korea. Indeed, the three countries had suspended trilateral talks for a three year period, due to an escalation of tensions in the region, only to resume their annual summit this year. “I cannot deny the fact that political issues between our country and [neighbouring] countries… has affected the relationship between fashion weeks,” concedes Lea Seong, governor of the Council of Fashion Designers of Korea.
Akiko Shinoda, director of international affairs at the Japan Fashion Week Organisation agrees. “I would like to communicate and collaborate more with China and South Korea, [but] government to government relations are sensitive at the moment,” she says, noting that the Japanese government has recently encouraged fashion sector partnerships with South East Asian countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam instead. However, that is not to say that the Asian fashion weeks are not open to negotiation. “We are at the stage of compromising with each other — just like Western countries' [fashion weeks] did a few years ago. It’s more of a healthy competition,” says Seong.
Another issue facing the emerging designers that are trying to build international brands from Asia, is the inadequate professional infrastructure of the fashion weeks. “I think Seoul Fashion Week needs to develop a better showroom system,” says Hyunmin Kim, the manager of the Samsung Fashion and Design Fund, which bestows financial support to up-and-coming South Korean fashion designers. “Designers are missing out on key business opportunities [so] many talented designers like D.Gnak, Cy Choi and Kye operate their wholesale business from showrooms in New York, London, Milan and Paris, and use Seoul Fashion Week for marketing rather than business purposes.
Tasha Liu, co-founder of the Chinese concept store Dong Liang, believes that international buyers may only have room for a singular, fifth fashion week destination after the New York, London, Milan and Paris cycle. “Even though I don’t have such a need myself, Dong Liang is multi-brand store focusing on Chinese designers, I see other buyers who were so busy during this past October. My friend Lorenzo Hadar [owner of the H. Lorenzo boutique in Los Angeles] loves Asian design but he was so hectic shuttling between Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo that he had to miss our [store’s] show,” Liu explains.
Merging Asia’s disparate fashion weeks into a single continental showcase has been suggested as a future solution. “One option is to hold a pan-Asia Fashion Week together right after Paris Fashion Week, rotating the host city every year,” explains Kim. Bom Lee, editor-in-chief of Dazed & Confused Korea agrees that a single Northeast-Asian fashion week may not be as impractical as others consider it to be.
Celebrity and tourist driven marketing
Julia Kang, the editor-in-chief of Elle Korea, observes that a lot of PR investment by Asian fashion weeks is celebrity-driven, sometimes distracting organisers from serving fashion industry professionals. “Bangkok Fashion Week is good [though] as far as I know, they’re more professional about organising the fashion week at an international [standard],” she says.Inhae Yeo, a Korean fashion journalist and a director of communications agency Oikonomos believes, “You need to invest in a strategy and work towards results. The strategy and focus behind [Seoul] fashion week needs to be shifted from being a touristic attraction.”
“I’ve noticed an emphasis on inviting international “fashionistas” with large amounts of Instagram followers [to Tokyo Fashion Week]. This can reach a large audience but is that the right demographic to be targeting?” asks Dan Bailey of the Japanese fashion blog Tokyo Dandy. “Each [Asian fashion week] is focused on its own domestic businesses,” he continues, suggesting that Asian fashion weeks are in need of a pivot toward the global market.
Stopping the talent exodus
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Asia’s fashion weeks is the exodus of talent, which includes many of its most prominent designers. Whether they are Koreans like Juun J, Wooyoung Mi and Cy Choi; Chinese designers like Sankuanz, Xiao Li and Masha Ma, or Japanese labels like Undercover and Anrealage, many of Asia’s biggest names show in Europe. Mademoiselle Yulia, a Japanese street style star and DJ, popular on the Asian fashion circuit, believes including some of Asia’s “legendary designer brands” in local fashion weeks, could raise their prestige and entice global industry players.
While it is unlikely that a major name such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons or Yohji Yamamoto would ever abandon the catwalks of Paris for Tokyo permanently, as Yeo points out, “Remember how London [Collections: Men] was able to bring back some of its powerful names like Burberry, Vivienne Westwood Red Label and Paul Smith, all whilst working to identify and support its emerging talents?”
Kang, for one, is confident in the potential of Asian fashion weeks. “If all these Asian fashion weeks can align themselves better, then they could have remarkable power over the international fashion industry. Asia would then be one of the biggest consumers and the biggest manufacturers of fashion at the same time.”