When South Korean investor Chung Yoo-kyung announced that the legendary couture house Paul Poiret, which fell into obscurity almost a century ago, would relaunch at Paris Fashion Week this season, the designer tasked with its new creative vision wasn’t the first name on everyone’s lips. Chinese-born Yiqing Yin – formerly one of the 15 fully fledged members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture – will show her debut Poiret collection on Sunday 4 March, putting her eponymous line on hold and forsaking her coveted spot on the couture schedule alongside the likes of Christian Dior and Chanel . Yin is – and Poiret was – a couturier by training, but the newly relaunched brand bearing the latter’s name will now focus on ready-to-wear, with offerings in accessories and footwear. It’s a move that neatly captures how much the fashion industry has changed since Poiret’s heyday during the turn of the 20th century.
Although Chinese designers have long shown during Paris Fashion Week – Shiatzy Chen of Taiwan, for instance, made her debut in 2008 – what makes Yin’s appointment extraordinary is that there has never been a Parisian maison so deeply entrenched in the history of French fashion with a Chinese designer at the helm. In his prime, Poiret was heralded as the King of Fashion, dominating the Pre-War era: he replaced the once fashionable excesses of Edwardian frills and S-bend silhouettes with fluid draping, vivid colours and longer corsets, pioneering the girlish figure of the early 1900s. Established in 1903, the brand postdates Lanvin but predates Chanel, making it one of the oldest houses in French fashion.
Yin joins several Chinese designers of diverse backgrounds on the Paris Fashion Week lineup, including London-based Yang Li, Shanghai-based Uma Wang and Jourden from Hong Kong. “This phenomenon [of Chinese designers showing in Paris] is quite natural and reflects the growing place of China and the constant progress of the Chinese design culture,” Pascal Morand, executive president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, tells Vogue. “Our constant is to detect the greatest talents all over the world, but it is true we see some more Chinese talents both on the menswear and womenswear calendars.” According to Morand, 50 percent of the brands showing during Paris Fashion Week are not French – rather they belong to 20 different nationalities. Beyond the runway, the top Chinese designers who show on the stages of Shanghai and London, including Shushu/Tong and Xiao Li, all have their showrooms in the French capital.
The increasing volume of Chinese talent in Paris and elsewhere in Europe can be attributed in part to the evolving perception of Chinese design and manufacturing internationally. “With the growing level of design sophistication and quality, this new generation of Chinese designers has created a new authority in ‘made and created in China,’” says Joanna Gunn, chief brand officer of Lane Crawford. Yang Li, for example, is a purveyor of £2,000 parkas and £1,000 bomber jackets – all made in China by KTC, a premium performance manufacturer that additionally produces for brands like Rapha, the cycling outfitter. “There is an appetite to take risks, and an increasingly global mindset, which informs bolder and more original aesthetics,” Gunn continues. “We found that across visual language and price point, these designers want to stand out, instead of blend in.”
Moreover, attitudes towards Chinese design is changing within China itself. “[It’s] more and more positive than even five years ago, with progress being made on both creativity and commercial value,” says Tasha Liu, co-founder of Dongliang, the Shanghai-based concept store committed to Chinese designers, and Labelhood, an independent fashion platform that champions Chinese talents. Today, the country accounts for about one-third of global luxury sales, but despite the constant stream of Chinese tourists visiting London’s Bond Street or the Champs-Elysées, domestic consumers are becoming increasingly discerning. Beyond Louis Vuitton or Gucci, many are looking for a point of difference in design and style, thus sparking an interest in the new generation. “But showing in Paris alone cannot replace the designer’s connections with the market: the product itself, along with the the positioning, price and design, is taking a more important role than where they have shown,” Liu continues.
Given the critical mass of Chinese designers in Paris, one might be tempted to draw comparisons to the other East Asian wave that hit the City of Light several decades ago, when the likes of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo first arrived. But such a comparison is only superficial. “The Chinese wave is marked by a double – that is, Western and Eastern – culture of designers, linked with education and experience,” Morand says. “The Japanese wave was more strictly relying upon Japanese culture, while playing with Western codes.”
What’s even easier is to misguidedly consider all the Chinese designers of Paris, and beyond, under one umbrella despite their aesthetic differences. Wang, for instance, draws from her Chinese heritage, combining Eastern references and Western counterparts, with a focus on developing new innovative materials. For her Spring/Summer 2018 collection, the designer showed fabrics that resembled the patterns of Gustav Klimt’s paintings and gowns cut with Chinese collars. Meanwhile, Central Saint Martins drop-out and former Raf Simons intern, Yang Li – who has a penchant for tailoring – regularly turns to music for inspiration. Last season, he sent out an array of all-black looks, comprising double-faced silk coats and biker jackets, as Michael Gira of the band Swans played on stage.
Diverging approaches to fashion notwithstanding, the likes of Wang and Li today continue to share the one-dimensional label: Chinese designers. Does the taxonomy of being reduced to their cultural identity bother them? “I think it is normal and makes sense now; never before in the Western world have so many Chinese designers blossomed,” Wang replies.” I believe that in the near future, the Western world will have a deeper understanding of the story and style behind all the Chinese brands. But only time can tell.” 1 /9
Thursday, March 1 2018
In Paris, Chinese designers are changing attitudes and increasingly in demand