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Why 5,000-Year-Old Fashion Is Making a Comeback

Handicrafts from China’s 56 ethnic minority groups have long been ignored and some are on the verge of extinction.  Now their fashion techniques are being sought for inspiration and collaboration by brands as diverse as Marni and Uniqlo.
Chinoises jackets and Angel Chen's moodboards | Collage by BoF
  • Casey Hall,
  • Zoe Suen

SHANGHAI, China — Though they make up less than nine percent of the country's 1.4 billion people, China's ethnic minority cultures punch well above their weight when it comes to highly specialised traditional and artisanal handicrafts.

One look at the spectacular "one hundred bird" dress traditionally worn by women of the Miao ethnic minority of southern China reveals handwoven cloth, pieced together with brocade silk in red, yellow, green and blue. Embroidered on the chest and corset are patterns made up of flowers, birds, insects, fish and butterflies, with a hem made from embroidery and batik decorated with a circle of birds at its bottom edge.

It is a 5,000-year-old culture of couture at odds with modern China's reputation for mass-produced fashion and cheap labour, one also at odds with the breakneck pace of modern and increasingly urban life here, where it's easier and more affordable to head to the local mall to buy the latest style from Zara or H&M, or buy a look inspired by your favourite celebrity with two simple clicks on your phone's Taobao app.

Miao women dancing in Guizhou | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today, the keepers of these traditions are few, and their numbers get fewer each year. But their recent rediscovery, and an embrace from fashion and accessory brands both within China and abroad, is shining a spotlight on the traditional handicrafts of China’s ethnic minorities and giving their future survival a shot.

At an event timed to coincide with the fever surrounding Shanghai Fashion Week, Italian brand Marni, which has recently undergone a design renaissance under the irreverent, accomplished hand of Creative Director Francesco Risso, today announced an upcoming collaboration with traditional artisans from the ethnic Miao minority of Southern China.

Though over 91 percent of China's population is of Han ethnicity, the country is actually comprised of 56 official ethnic groups, counting groups as diverse as the Zhuang, Yi, Hui, Uyghur Muslims, Tujia, Mongols, Tibetans, Dong, Yao and Bai. The Miao people, who have a 5,000-year history and in China number a little over 9 million people today, have long been known for their intricate embroidery, lace and pleating techniques and heavy silver headdresses.

The Miao interpretation of time makes you wonder whether we shall readdress our understanding of luxury.

“I have fallen in love with the Miao,” Risso told BoF prior to the event in Shanghai. “Their interpretation of time makes you wonder whether we shall readdress our understanding of luxury and envision a different purpose, that goes beyond hasty consumption,” he said.

Marni is not the only major international brand tapping into thousands of years of Miao know-how. Earlier this year, Japanese giant Uniqlo announced plans to employ 400 Miao women to provide embroidery for Uniqlo products.

The Fast Retailing-owned company, which currently boasts more than 700 points of sale in China with plans to exceed the 1,000 mark within the next three years, has won fans in China for its localisation efforts and well-priced basics.

"Chinese shoppers have become more rational, and they are not blindly following the crowd or imitating others. They want products with both local culture and [local] consumer mentality," said Pan Ning, chief executive of the brand’s China operations.

Angel Chen's Spring/Summer 2019 collection | Source: Courtesy

In recent years, a documentary television series aired by state broadcasters and numerous local newspaper reports have flagged the near-extinction of traditional Chinese handicrafts, as an influx of cheaper, machine-made goods prove too affordable and convenient to resist. In response, Beijing in 2017 inaugurated a ‘Cultural and Natural Heritage Day’ to raise awareness and support for these “intangible national treasures” before they disappear for good.

There has also been a movement from fashion and accessory designers within China to integrate local minority artisans and handicrafts, as a way to promote and continue the tradition.

Angel Chen has always included elements of traditional Chinese culture in her collections. In her SS19 release, the designer drew inspiration from traditional Qiang embroidery native to her hometown of Chaozhou, employing, among other techniques, a traditional, three-dimensional embroidery style with gold thread. "I wanted to draw upon Chaozhou culture because I really love it and it's in my blood. I feel that it should be respect and shared with international audiences," Chen explained.

Ziwei Longhong is a member of the Yi ethnic minority and hails from the famously beautiful Lugu Lake region of China's southern Yunnan Province. After graduating from her MA at London College of Fashion in 2017, she founded Soft Mountains, a contemporary jewellery brand inspired by silver Yi jewellery's traditional geometric designs.

“It’s much more than a jewellery brand, we want to create a platform to promote the ethnic minority culture. It was sad for me, when I left my hometown to discover that nobody knows about the Yi people,” Ziwei said.

Artisans crafting jewellery for Soft Mountains | Source: Courtesy

Based between Shanghai and London, Soft Mountain’s pieces are handmade by the Yi community’s few remaining artisans, with prices ranging from $98 to $350. Most of the brand’s customers currently hail from China’s tier one cities, but an upcoming launch on Net-a-Porter is expected to change that.

Though it would be easy to conflate Soft Mountain’s success with Chinese youths’ increasingly nationalist, heritage-forward appetites, Ziwei reckons that design comes first. The connection with minority traditions and craftsmanship is an added bonus rather than a driving factor in shoppers’ purchasing decisions, she says.

By contrast, Angel Chen sees a greater pride among Chinese people for local traditional handicrafts as parallel to the nation’s geopolitical and economic power. As more brands enter the market, it also doesn’t hurt as a point of differentiation, she says.

“Chinese consumers are also bored of seeing very ordinary and very mass-produced products; they are keen to see something that’s undiscovered and has history and a story behind it. Consumers are looking for products with more spirit,” Chen said.

The connection with minority traditions and craftsmanship is an added bonus rather than a driving factor in shoppers' purchasing decisions.

The same sentiment is echoed by Felicie Corre-Le Blan, a former long-time employee of Hermès who came to China with the storied French house before striking out to launch the fashion and lifestyle brand Chinoises, which collaborates with Miao artisans to create embroidered silk jackets, retailing for around $430.

Since opening its e-commerce site in May, the brand has garnered famous fashion-world fans such as Julia Restoin Roitfeld.

“As a consumer, I want something that lasts forever, not just for a season. I suppose the idea is to maybe promote craftsmanship that people don’t know about, promote minority people, but also make something that you will keep for a long time and that will not be out of fashion in a few months,” Corre-Le Blan said.

Though she believes most Chinese consumers are not yet actively seeking out traditional minority handicrafts (Chinoises’ customers overwhelmingly come from Europe), they certainly seem to appreciate efforts to support them, particularly when it’s international brands who are making the effort to discover and promote them.

“[The reaction from Chinese people] has been such a good surprise,” Corre-Le Blan said. “They say: ‘Thank you for showing me this, thank you for showing our crafts.’”


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