BEIJING, China — It was a chance encounter at Peter Lindbergh’s first solo Chinese exhibition that set Kiki Xue’s career into motion five years ago. The stage couldn’t have been more fitting. At Lindbergh’s first artistic encounter with Xue’s home country, held at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, the 23-year-old photographer had an encounter of his own that would draw him from China to the fashion capitals of Europe.
Having spotted Franca Sozzani across the crowded gallery, Xue approached the legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia and, without a portfolio in hand, began his hustle with nothing but charm and instinct. He soon found himself being instructed to upload images on Vogue Italia’s online platform, PhotoVogue, and before he knew it, was introduced to senior photo editor Alessia Glaviano, who landed him a feature in a special edition of the storied magazine.
“Alessia encouraged me to find a chance to leave China to develop my career, so that's why I left and met Elena [Mereu], and thanks to her and Atomo Management I was really able to start developing my work as a fashion photographer,” says Xue, referring to the director of the artist’s management agency with offices in both Paris and Milan.
Interestingly, Xue’s profile within China is considerably lower than many other photographers there such as Fan Xin, Trunk Xu and Zack Zhang who regularly shoot for top Chinese titles, including those with strong international links including Vogue China, Elle China or Modern Weekly.
While Xue was encouraged by foreign industry leaders to step outside China, Kai Z Feng, was signed by Eiger Agency in New York without the help of any inside contacts. Now he is tipped as one of the most successful photographers to have come out of the country since Chen Man, and has photographed everyone from Lucky Blue Smith to Anne Hathaway, and shot covers for British Vogue and Elle Australia.
According to fashion industry leaders both in China and abroad, the stories of Xue and Feng are anomalies. Although Atomo and Eiger aren’t the only international agencies to represent Chinese fashion talent outside China, there are fewer than most would expect.
The gap between designers and the rest
“I would say 10 to 15 Chinese talents work internationally [at the standard of Kai Z Feng],” says Felix Chang, former managing editor of Asia Pacific for Models.com, an extensive database for creative talent in the fashion industry. “More Chinese should be represented based on their unique talent and on their work, regardless of their nationalities.”
A tally of more than 50 of the top international creative artist management agencies listed on Models.com yields less than five agencies that appear to represent Chinese talent.
But more important than agency representation, say critical voices inside China, is that the work of stylists and photographers is not seen enough in European or American fashion magazines, save notable exceptions such as Leaf Greener, Wing Shya, Tim Lim, Christopher Bu, Chen Man, Grace Lam, and Lucia Liu.
Over the past few years, the fashion industry has witnessed — and facilitated — the rapid rise of Chinese designers. From cosmopolitan contemporaries like Uma Wang and Huishan Zhang to veteran couturiers such as Guo Pei and young rebels like Xiaoli Li, Chinese designers now have an impressive international profile. That China’s designers continue to feature prominently in the shortlist for the LVMH Prize and that retailers like Opening Ceremony in New York are stocking over 30 of them in a special dedication this year is testament to their rising influence.
Yet the creative individuals who work for and around designers in hubs like Shanghai and Beijing — the photographers, stylists, makeup artists and hair stylists — have not had the same global impact. While the success of China’s designer fraternity should be celebrated, their achievements should not obscure the need for other fashion creatives to follow suit.
After all, the fashion industry only stands to gain from producing more work like Chen Man’s seminal 2012 covers for i-D Magazine. To critical onlookers, the relative scarcity of Chinese names since her debut seems conspicuously unbalanced in a fashion economy that is increasingly dependent on the loyal Chinese customer, who accounts for over 30 percent of revenue for brands such as Prada, Hermès, Burberry, and Gucci, according to data reported by Deutsche Bank last year.
Challenges at home and abroad
Challenges both within China’s creative economy and beyond are limiting the global reach of its up-and-coming creative class.
“In China, we’ve had these kind of politics, where we don’t really support individual creativity. Now, our government is becoming more dynamic, but it still needs time,” explains Leaf Greener, stylist and former senior fashion editor of Elle China.
China is becoming increasingly dependent on its creative economy, which like the rest of its economy is growing rapidly, as the country moves from manufacturing to services.
“You have now got a creative industry that can support visionary talents that go abroad and are coming back… I think we are really at the axis of a cultural shift,” says Andrew Keith, president of Lane Crawford and Joyce, who was an early champion of Chinese designers and continues to talent-scout for Lane Crawford’s ‘Created in China’ portfolio which includes rising names such as Min Liu of Ms Min, Angel Chen and Xuzhi Chen of Xu Zhi.
Yet while China’s creative economy may support the visionary designers who have gone abroad and returned home, that doesn’t mean it prepares its creative talents to gain international recognition.
“Creative talents now have the tools to see the world for themselves and develop their own aesthetic, but most publications in China still aren’t allowing these talents the creative freedom to really express themselves [fully],” says photographer Kai Z Feng.
So while China’s creative economy is undeniably booming, it is still in a fledgling state compared to other countries at the traditional centre of the fashion system. This, suggest industry leaders, implies that the institutional framework of China’s fashion industry still compels many to take a more conservative and commercial approach to the creative brief.
This is exacerbated by the fact that stylists, photographers and other creatives in China don’t have an equal diversity of outlets, such as the plethora of independent fashion and lifestyle publications enjoyed by their European counterparts. Also, China typically has not embraced freelancers in the same way as other countries, which leaves some fashion talent tethered to the style mandate of a single magazine or publishing house.
“It’s not an issue of whether international capitals can discover an iceberg, but how strong and independent the Chinese creative industry can be,” says Lucia Liu, whose features for i-D and Dazed & Confused as well as various ad campaigns, including Linda Farrow, have made her one of the most internationally renowned Chinese stylists.
On the other hand, the youth of China’s creative economy means it creates a social and cultural environment that, although turbulent, is inspirational. “History offers a surreal situation…that means the breakdown of ‘rules,’ so you discover opportunities, risks, irrationality, and desires all together at the same place,” Liu adds
But talent is only one variable in a complex equation that requires international access, ambition and resources if fashion creatives hope to cross over from local hero to global dynamo. Overcoming barriers of language, working visas, money and the invisible walls of creative cliques and industry nepotism are common to creatives hoping to make it big in the fashion capitals no matter where they come from. It doesn’t help that photo sharing sites like Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook — which many young photographers around the world use to get scouted — have been banned by China’s firewall.
Global ambitions aren’t always a priority
According to Tasha Liu, co-founder of Dong Liang, a multi-brand concept store dedicated to showcasing Chinese designers, it comes down to a question of mindset. “I think one of the challenges is thinking globally but operating locally. So they have to think in terms of making references all over the world but still operate locally [before embarking on a career abroad],” she says.
Rather than being intimidated, some of China’s creative class are too occupied with their own apparel market, which is estimated by Euromonitor to overtake the US in size by 2019. Confining themselves to the local market is often a simpler, safer and more lucrative way to generate income. For some, it makes the risks involved with a career abroad less appealing and even unnecessary.
“In Hong Kong, many hair and makeup artists only service the local market and only a handful of them bother to travel to the shows to work on a team with the best in the world. They figure they have enough work so why bother to expand their knowledge,” says stylist Grace Lam, who was born in Hong Kong, but spent her formative years in London, and has had features in Vogue Italia, V Magazine, and i-D.
But for go-getters like Lam, Liu and Greener who did have ambitions to break through, a global culture that often paints China as an ‘other’ can complicate the journey. Almost a year ago, the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “China: Through The Looking Glass” adopted a lens of fantasy to uncover China’s influence on fashion. However, what could have been an opportunity to celebrate China’s modernity and diversity, was seen by critics as little more than a parade of fire-strung headdresses and qipaos.
“The outside world will always put on coloured glasses to look in at us. We’re living in a globalised world right now, imagine if I travelled around in a qipao? It’s as if I traveled around in an 18th century gown. I think western culture always has this idea to impose and to impose,” Greener protests.
Most observers agree it is only a matter of time before Chinese fashion photographers, stylists and other creatives have a greater international impact, but that it won’t happen fast enough without effort from the international fashion community. “We [at Italian Vogue] do a lot… but maybe more people should do a lot and maybe we should all be looking to use Chinese talents more,” says Glaviano.
Atomo Management’s Elena Mereu, who has represented a number of Chinese talents, concedes it is not an easy task, from sorting out visas and logistics to arranging for translations and sponsoring lessons to overcome language barriers. But, “it’s totally an investment for an agency,” she says.
Nevertheless, for proactive agents like Mereu and Emmanuel Tanner, founder of the Eiger Agency, the potential rewards of signing more Chinese talent are obvious. In a fashion ecosystem in flux, Tanner believes working with Chinese fashion photographers and directors could become a competitive advantage over agencies that are slower to scout talent from China.
Tanner’s opinion resonates with others in a globalising industry that calls for the representation of the nuances of different markets and aesthetics. Such endeavours are more urgent when online platforms like Flickr and industry tools like PhotoVogue increasingly help talent get discovered outside the traditional agency system.
“I think it’s the realisation that China is a creative powerhouse. We have got great talent here [but now it’s about] getting that message out to the world,” says Lane Crawford’s Keith.
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