SHANGHAI, China - While most Chinese are still focused on buying into the prestige and status of international luxury brands, there are emerging local alternatives for those who want something more individual. Bubbling design and fashion scenes in and around Shanghai’s Taikang Lu and JinXian Lu offer a little bit of niche, homespun design to offset the ubiquity, even in China, of Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton.
In the new Shanghai, emerging fashion designers seek inspiration from home or abroad, create garments that range from the culturally literal to the conceptually commercial, and target mass and class and everything in between. All the same, they share the same business challenges as their counterparts in other established and emerging design centres, from London and New York to Mumbai and Buenos Aires.
Qiu Hao is widely regarded as one of China’s most influential and avant-garde emerging fashion designers. His focus on conceptually-driven design is very much in tune with his training at Central St Martins in London. Desconstructed fashion, underpinned by the development of innovative fabrics are his subtle signature. His minimalist retail space on the Jinxian Lu reminds me of a recent trip to Antwerp and Qiu openly acknowledges a deep respect for Martin Margiela. Of course, this all begs the question: what makes your designs Chinese?
“All Chinese designs don’t have to be about bright colours and dragons,” Qiu tells me softly, with a passionate spark in his eye. “The Wall Street Journal asked us the very same question last night,” adds Martin, Qiu's well-spoken business partner. “A subtle, Chinese philosophy underlies everything we do.”
Qiu smiles as he wraps himself in a wool coat from his first collection, designed to resemble an airplane blanket and shaded in faded hues of green inspired by the blurred colours below his frequent flights between Shanghai and London. He acknowledges that these first designs were perhaps a bit too hard-edged for the local market, which favours a more feminine touch.
Taking on the feedback, he softened his subsequent collections without violating his underlying design principles and still offering something special. Stretching the fabric of a spider-webbed black wool dress, Qiu notes its softness and shape on the female form.
If Qiu is the kind of new age designer of the world who lives wherever he wants and looks wherever he likes for inspiration, Helen Lee (Li Hongyan in Chinese) has her eyes firmly focused on China’s past, present and future, believing therein lies a deep well of inspiration and fashion stories that have yet to be told.
Lee received her fashion training in China at a joint-program conceived by Shanghai’s Dong Hua University and LaSalle College in Montreal. Upon graduation, she spent three years honing her eye for quality and finishing in Japan when she decided it was time to return to her hometown and create her own label.
With a partner, she co-founded Insh, an accessibly-priced collection which draws upon Communist-era colours, traditions and uniforms that are transformed into designs for a modern Chinese way of life. At first, these designs were more appealing to the expat fashion and design set who have descended on China in recent years, but now locals are also buying into her ideas and vision for Chinese fashion's future.
Helen has also been developing a collection with a higher-end positioning, using advanced manufacturing techniques and luxury fabrics to create designs for the true fashion maven. The Li Hongyan collection delivers this in artfully embellished garments with not a hint of Chinese kitsch.
But, like young designers all over the world, Helen and Qiu say that running a small fashion business in China is no piece of cake. They face the same manufacturing, financing and distribution challenges found elsewhere. "When I first started, it was so hard," Helen tells me. "But I have kept working and working and it is still hard, but things are getting better."
For his part, Qiu notes the difficulty of operating a small business in a market that is accustomed to working in huge volumes. To combat this, he operates his own manufacturing lab with 13 employees and is slowly beginning to scale up in order to begin selling his collections abroad.
Helen has one additional challenge on her hands in the form of the powerful Chinese government. They are dramatically increasing the rent on her studio in trendy Tianking Lu, effectively forcing her out of the district where she was one of the first to arrive. But this Helen is no shrinking violet. Of the thirty-three graduates in her year of the Dong Hua-LaSalle programme, Helen is the only one who is still designing clothing. The powerful Chinese government will have a tough fight on their hands before they can push her out.
Speaking of the government, I’m not sure whether the censors caught wind of my travel to China when I applied for my visa, but I have discovered that The Business of Fashion is inaccessible in China. It’s too bad because I really only have good things to say about the best of emerging design that Qiu and Helen shared with me.