Over its 165 years of history, Lane Crawford has seen big business from sale of Western fashion labels, but its recent anniversary celebrations made it clear that Chinese designers have a big role to play in its future.
In addition to featuring exclusive special-edition items created by designers including Isabel Marant, Alexander Wang, Diane von Furstenberg, and Rick Owens for its 165th anniversary this year, the historic department store recognized the importance of the next generation of Chinese designers with a special in-store exhibition and party on October 15 in Shanghai entitled “Visions from a New Generation.” The store unveiled the projects of 11 emerging designers, including SHUSHU/TONG, Benwu Studio, Naihan Li, Sky Yutaka, Wan Hung Cheung, The Fabrick Lab, Ejing Zhang, and Angel Chen, which all featured materials from sponsor Swarovksi in their creations.
The pieces on display contained influences of Chinese culture, such as Angel Chen’s couture wedding dress made out of Chinese traditional medicine paper entitled “Project Acupuncture,” and “MR.S,” Wan Hung Cheung’s straw shoes that referenced the Terracotta Army and the Long March.
Lane Crawford and Swarovski are just two major fashion companies paying close attention to Chinese designers. The party took place during Shanghai Fashion Week, where an increasingly high-caliber list of both domestic and international buyers flocked to the city to seek out new labels.
At the event, Angel Chen said that she has noticed a tangible increase in international interest in Chinese design. “We got some buyers who only come to China to source Chinese brands,” she said of Shanghai Fashion Week, noting that buyers from high-caliber stores such as H. Lorenzo were in town. “I feel like the foreign media, press, buyers are really interested in Chinese designers. The design is getting better than before and it’s a strong group.”
To become the next big thing for China’s young fashionistas, the designers agreed that brands need to have a “cool factor” that transcends nationality. According to Chen, the generation between the ages of 25 and 35 is willing to specifically seek out Chinese labels, but those younger than 25 care more about the design than country of origin. The more mature customers “want to know that Chinese designers can have a certain place in Europe or in America. They really support us,” she says, “but the younger generation—I don’t think they care about if it’s a Chinese designer or not. They only want something cool.”
These emerging designers can benefit, however, from the fact that younger Chinese consumers are more open to emerging labels than the older generation. According to the 26-year-old menswear designer Wan Hung Cheung, his parents’ generation is much “more careful” about the brands they choose, remaining wary about the quality of new brands and being less open to new designs. But according to him, his generation is “much more updated to appreciate and accept the new angle in fashion.”
Lane Crawford is known for its wide range of emerging fashion-forward labels, and the store has been increasingly focused on stocking Chinese brands. In addition to special-edition collections and items from top Western designers for its anniversary, the store is also featuring capsule collections by local brands Ms MIN, Chictopia, Uma Wang, and Ziggy Chen.
Many of the designers featured in the “Visions” exhibit studied at prestigious design schools in London, and said that their international backgrounds have a strong influence on their creations. London-based and Royal College of Art-educated Ejing Zhang, who designed a statement necklace inspired by landscapes, tribal color, and glass and ceramic art, discussed how her UK background has impacted her aesthetic. “I think Royal College is a very open-minded college, so they encourage you to have your own style and pursue it—to push your technique level to the best point. I think it shaped all my design thinking.”
Like Zhang, several other designers presenting opted to remain abroad after their design education. Cheung, who graduated from Central Saint Martins, opened his menswear studio in London and is focusing on the European market ahead of China. “When I’m more ready and established, I’ll come back to China,” he said, noting that returning to China “is really important. I’m still Chinese.”
The designers take varying amounts of inspiration from Chinese culture for their designs. “I always find the inspiration from Chinese traditional handcrafted art pieces,” said Cheung. In contrast, Chen said that her couture gown was the first piece she’s made that has been influenced by traditional Chinese culture, noting that her Spring/Summer 16 collection that was presented at London Fashion Week was inspired by the art and rebellious youth culture of the 1960s in America. China still factored into her designs, however, as she said that “China right now is very similar to that time in the United States.”
Peng You from design trio Benwu Studio said the brand’s “Floating Galaxy” installation on display, which applied the principles of the physics of “singing bowls” to interpret an ancient Chinese meditation technique with crystals, was inspired by a “combination of two different cultures.” With offices in New York, Beijing, and Shanghai, and a diverse design education background spanning the United States, London, and Switzerland, the trio said their international experience has had a strong influence on their design. “We think our work has been inspired by these things spontaneously,” said You.
For now, Lane Crawford’s racks still predominantly feature European and U.S. labels, and the designers said that it will take time for the Chinese design scene to reach that caliber. “The design scene is slowly coming. It’s knowledge-based, you have to immerse yourself for many, many years, and then can finally have a breakthrough,” said Hongchao Wang of Benwu Studio.
Many of the designers were optimistic about the future of China’s design scene. According to London-based designer Liushu Lei of SHUSHU/TONG, “China is not as isolated as before and the aesthetics can influence each other. Before, Chinese people were more into learning from the outside. Now, we’ve started to establish our own aesthetic, as Japan has done as well. That’s why Chinese design is getting more and more attention.”