If there’s one person to turn to if you want to learn the straight facts about China’s fashion industry, it’s media mogul Hung Huang.
As the CEO of China Interactive Media Group and editor-in-chief of fashion magazine iLook, the publisher, book author, blogger, television host, and actress was named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time in 2011. She is often called “China’s Oprah” in Western media, but anyone familiar with her knows that you don’t need an Oprah comparison to get a sense of her massive influence in China’s media and fashion industries.
In addition to her business acumen, Hung (also sometimes written as Hong) is well-known for her outspoken commentary on Chinese society, culture, and politics. Despite the fact that she comes from a politically elite background (her mother taught English to Chairman Mao and her stepfather was the Minister of Foreign Affairs), her willingness to speak her mind openly on any topic has earned her a staggering 10.9 million followers on Weibo.
Hung is also a tireless supporter of the development of Chinese designers. In 2010, she opened Brand New China, a fashion boutique in Beijing dedicated solely to Chinese labels that features brands such as Masha Ma, Yang Du, Chictopia, and this year’s Woolmark Asia winner VMajor.
This doesn’t mean she shies away from discussing the challenges faced by Chinese designers, however. Instead, she takes a “tough love” approach, often commenting on things she believes they should improve upon in order to gain more commercial success. To learn from Hung’s expertise about the Chinese fashion industry, we recently held an exclusive interview to hear her thoughts on the Met’s new Costume Institute exhibit, China’s anti-corruption campaign, Anna Wintour, and why Chinese designers should embrace tradition.
Since you founded Brand New China, how has demand for fashion by Chinese designers changed, both in China and globally?
Chinese designers have become much more accepted in the market. I do not have a number for you in terms of market share or total sales volume. I am sure it is still very small when you think of the total Chinese fashion market. But independent designers are all the rage these days, so they are getting a lot of publicity; some of them are quite well known already, although not quite household names.
This year’s Costume Institute exhibit at the Met is called “China: Through the Looking Glass,” but it’s actually focused on Western designers’ use of Chinese elements. What do you think of their decision to make it mainly about Western designers rather than Chinese ones?
It’s not about Western designers, it is about the influence of Chinese film on Western fashion designers. It is about cross-cultural pollination, which is fantastic. I know people think it should be about young Chinese designers, but in my opinion, young Chinese designers have not found their own language or voice yet. The day will come, but just not yet.
Are there any differences in the way Western designers incorporate Chinese aesthetics in their designs compared to the way Chinese designers use them?
I know very few Chinese designers who work with Chinese fashion design tradition, draw inspiration from China’s past. I know even fewer of them who do it well. Most Chinese designers draw their inspiration from the West, from Boy Scouts to American sportswear.
For those who do draw from Chinese fashion tradition, Western designers see the glamour in Chinese fashion; a lot is translated into evening wear. Chinese designers see day-to-day wear: for example, Zhang Da’s Boundless has dived into the “cotton padded coat” from the past; he has revived the garment to be a thoroughly modern day wear piece.
I think if Chinese designers focus on Chinese tradition, they will be able to breathe more life into it. Whereas, Western designers will allow Chinese tradition 15 minutes under the spotlight.
When Anna Wintour visited Beijing in the fall and was asked about what she thought about China’s fashion design scene, she said, “I don’t see the growth here yet.” How would you respond to this assessment?
I don’t think there is anything wrong with what Anna said. She was just being honest. I suppose the Chinese press were waiting for some encouraging words from the power-that-be.
I agree with her. I don’t see a trend yet in a unique Chinese sensibility to fashion built on modern-day life in China. Most Chinese designers are trying to win applause in Paris and Milan. They are looking outward, not inward.
But honestly, great design comes from great cultural understanding and a fashion interpretation of the values upheld by a society. If you look at Prada, who knows the values and aesthetics of the bourgeoisie better than Miuccia Prada? That’s why she can have fun with it, turn it upside down and inside out. That is why “the devil wears Prada.” Look at Yamamoto, it is clearly a Japanese sensibility, and Comme des Garçons as well. But Chinese designers can be from New York, Paris, or Milan. They don’t have their own design language.
Chinese designers have been appearing at top global fashion weeks and are increasingly being sold in major department stores across the world. Do you expect their status to keep increasing in the international fashion world?
Yes I do. Not being critically acclaimed does not mean you do not have commercial success. And sometimes, commercial success will lead to critical acclamation, one might hope.
We’ve heard a lot about how China’s anti-corruption campaign has affected typical “gifting” items like watches and spirits, but has there been a significant effect on fashion?
Yes and no. High-end fashion has been affected. People feel less secure, so they buy less. Mistresses are fleeing, so they buy less. Wives are insecure about the future, so they buy less. But the middle-class spending is fine; in fact, it has shown an increasing interest in local designers and individuality.
There’s been a lot of news about the decline of “bling” among Chinese consumers. How widespread is this trend and what is replacing bling?
When bling was still raging on, we detected a strong counter-culture in the “drop out.” This is trending quite a bit. Drop out might not be the right work because it has a negative connotation. But what happens is affluent, well-to-do urban white-collar people are leaving the corporate world to pursue their own interest, be it cooking, ceramics, education, or craftsman studios. They have basically said “no” to the bling values and have chosen a simpler, yet elegant lifestyle.
This is trending; I expect it will be totally mainstream in a year.
Who are the top Chinese designers you’re watching right now?
I am very fond of “ZUCZUG” by Wang Yiyang and “Boundless” by Zhang Da.