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Homegrown, and proud

By Zhao Xu | China Daily | Updated: 2013-06-30 07:38

Homegrown, and proud

Homegrown, and proud

 Homegrown, and proud

Yao Chen (left) on the cover of Elle, wearing a Christina Lau design and (right) Masha Ma's sculptural creations have been shown regularly in London and Paris. Photos Provided to China Daily

Homegrown, and proud

Are local designers holding their own? They are, if given the chance. Zhao Xu looks at a few examples of budding talents breaking new ground.

Jiang Yi isn't a rookie, not in terms of experience. His boutique is a short distance from the copycat paradise that is Yashow Market in Beijing's Sanlitun shopping, bar and restaurant enclave. And it's been there for well over a decade, growing at its own unhurried pace, unaffected by the area's exploding changes. That is, until four months ago. One of Jiang's signature East-meets-West brocade designs appeared on the cover of the February edition of Chinese Esquire, worn by none other than Zhang Ziyi, currently China's brightest export to Hollywood. The cover showed Zhang posing samurai-style, showing a tantalizing glimpse of the blood red lining of the gold and black robe.

It has not gone unnoticed. At a recent fitting session with a new client at the boutique, the shop assistant was asked - rather discreetly while Jiang was away - whether he was the designer who had dressed the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon actress for the cover shot.

These days, the immense power of leading fashion magazines has been increasingly tapped by independent Chinese designers, especially the young ones, among whom are the "Saint Martins clan", those who studied at the prestigious London-based fashion academy.

With the confidence to match their talents, these aspiring couture stars think nothing of toiling in a back-alley workshop for years while waiting for that moment of recognition.

Diligence and perseverance are their keywords. More and more, the speed of their success reflects the growth of the industry, where production lines unload a new collection every season.

To dress a real star for a photo shoot with a top fashion magazine read by hundreds of thousands of eager trend-followers is the shortest of short cuts to fame. But who gets chosen and how?

"The works need to be visually strong and assertive," says Yu Kun, veteran fashion editor at Cosmopolitan, one of the "big five" in fashion publications, the other four being Vogue, Elle, Bazaar and Marie Claire.

"The picture in this case is about the star, the clothes, and ultimately, fashion photography as a form of art. And art likes to take extreme forms."

In other words, one can go for the minimal or the maximum, but never the middle road.

Homegrown, and proud

Invisible seams and good construction is essential, but clothes that get chosen must have a voice, and a pedigree.

Christina Lau fits the bill. She is a Beijing native trained at the Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design and known for her customized fabrics printed with her own hand-painted insects and circus monkeys.

In the past months, her creations have appeared on Li Bingbing and Yao Chen, both red hot on the celebrity index, and on the covers of Chinese Vogue and Elle respectively.

"My designs are conversational pieces, with color and a pinch of humor. They attract attention for the stars," says the designer, who only turned to dressmaking after initially training in textile design.

Cosmopolitan editor Yu says that local designers need to be alert and responsive to the trends on international catwalks for their works to be featured in major fashion magazines. That's in addition to their own potent and personal aesthetics.

"As style leaders, we are supposed to show on our pages designs that are not only beautiful, but also forward-looking," he says, adding the industry has become more concept-driven over the past years.

One example is Masha Ma, Liu's alumnus at Saint Martins who has been showing her sophisticated sculptural creations regularly in London and Paris since she graduated in 2008.

The designer recently dressed Zhang Ziyi for her photo shoot with Chinese Vogue and Zhou Xun for Chinese Bazaar.

Talent matters hugely, but personal contacts count, says Yu.

"For any such photo shoot, I probably have more than 50 independent designers to choose from, and the names that jump to mind are invariably those I know personally.

"It's all very well for a designer to confine himself or herself to a peaceful courtyard atelier, but believe me, time invested in socializing with people in the magazine circles pays off."

Lau, whose media exposure these days often inspires envy, knows all about it.

"Sales are up 20 to 30 percent each season," she says, looking over the color-saturated, Matisse-inspired new arrivals in her Beijing boutique which are flying off the racks.

Jiang Yi, who scored his Esquire cover thanks to a high-profile photographer friend, seems to relish the moment more for its own sake.

"Business aside, to have my design worn by a beautiful star and photographed by someone who has an eye for beauty is in itself a huge compliment."


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