A few years ago, Chinese fashion designers at New York Fashion Week were few and far between, even as their presence grew markedly at other major fashion events in London and Paris. Now, it’s a completely different story as New York is becoming a key platform for Chinese designers as they find it crucial to establish themselves in both the U.S. market and the international fashion circuit.
The lineup of the recent spring/summer 2017 New York Fashion Week lists over a dozen Chinese designers who presented their collections in both the main hall and at nearby satellite shows. Highlights included not only New York Fashion Week veteran Vivienne Tam, but also newer faces in the U.S. market such as Chinese gown designer Lan Yu, who has dressed celebrities including Kim Kardashian, and Wang Tao, who is known as China’s “Queen of the Suit” with her label Taoray Wang.
“Five or six years ago, we only saw designers like Alexander Wang” at New York Fashion Week, says the founder of fashion media company Globe Fashion Runway Todd Hessert, commenting on the recent lack of designers from mainland China (Wang was born in the United States). Globe Fashion Runway helped to promote shows for several up-and-coming independent Chinese designers through production company Nolcha’s runway shows held at ArtBeam Studios in Chelsea during New York Fashion Week. Its “China Moment” show featured three mainland Chinese labels including NIKISTAVIA, Cashmere Song, and Syu Syu Han, while a separate solo show highlighted rising fashion star Yang Lu, who hails from Chongqing and just set up his clothing line Lu Yang in China a year ago.
“Before, a lot of Chinese designers would say, ‘oh, New York Fashion Week—it’s too high-end, it’s too far away,’” says Hessert. But as China has “developed very fast,” he notes that Chinese designers are increasingly drawn to the United States.
“The U.S. market is the largest,” he says. His company especially focuses on attracting media and buyers to the designers’ New York Fashion Week runway debuts, such as buyers from hip downtown boutiques Opening Ceremony and 3NY. He also helped to organize a showcase called “A Day in China” at the New Museum on September 14 featuring established Chinese designers including Renli Su and Taciturnli.
“The offering to show at New York Fashion Week for international brands is a compelling one as it is an ever-growing market with incredible opportunities,” says Nolcha Shows CEO Kerry Bannigan, who notes that New York Fashion Week is also “very inclusive of all cultures and styles.”
Wang Tao, who made her New York Fashion Week debut in 2014, says that as Chinese designers have more of a chance to explore international markets, New York is “very attractive” commercially. “The market is here; that’s why I’m coming here,” she said backstage at her official New York Fashion Week show, which attracted a diverse range of front-row elites including China’s deputy consul general for New York Zhang Meifang and Tiffany Trump, who showed her support in spite of father Donald Trump’s constant negative assertions about China “stealing” American jobs on the campaign trail.
Wang Tao received a fashion degree at Japanese fashion institute Tokyo Mode Gakuen, and is one of many Chinese designers at New York Fashion Week who attended prestigious international fashion schools. A growing number hail from design schools in New York such as Lan Yu, who studied at the New York Fashion Institute of Technology before starting her brand in Beijing in 2005, or former Parsons students Andrea Jiapei Li and Calvin Luo.
The number of Chinese fashion students in New York has increased dramatically in the past five years, says Cosmo Xue, a graduate student at Pratt and the head of the local Chinese Artists Association. When he started in 2011, he only knew of two Chinese fashion design students at his school, but says he’s seen the number double every year. He estimates that among all design schools, the number of Chinese students is growing by 40 to 50 percent annually, based on observations through the association.
He notes that one reason for the influx is simply the growing number of Chinese families who can afford to send their kids to study design abroad. “They have enough financial opportunity to study in the U.S. private art schools,” he says, noting that “there are not too many outstanding professors” available at fashion design schools in China. “It costs a lot, but they think it’s worth it.”
New York in particular is becoming more popular for aspiring Chinese designers studying abroad, who have been known to flock to schools in the UK and Europe, especially the prestigious Central Saint Martins. “I think people think more about New York as the center of fashion design right now rather than other cities” in China, he says. “The students here have more flexibility and freedom to do whatever they want” in the United States, he says. “More and more students are realizing this.”
Chinese designers with international degrees are introducing an aesthetic to the international scene the is often infused with influences from Chinese culture. Lan Yu, for example, uses a traditional technique called Su embroidery, while Wang Tao sews silk with Chinese patterns into the linings of her jackets.
“I didn’t make Taoray Wang dragons and phoenixes,” she says, but she includes the “Chinese heritage lining” because “I think it’s more important how you feel when you put the clothes on.”
For Chinese designers who are new to the international market, Hessert says they often face challenges in overcoming language barriers and learning to promote themselves. “They don’t have a website; they don’t have social media,” he says of the new Chinese designers. “The American ones—they do. They have the social media—Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, everything. So right now, we tell the Chinese designers, ‘you’ve got to improve your social media, your website, everything.’”
Overall, he says that it will take years for more mainland designers to reach the top echelons of New York’s fashion scene. “They need time,” he says, noting that they shouldn’t expect to get big after just a few seasons. “It’s step-by-step; year by year. Vivienne Tam and Alexander Wang have been here many years. They’re based here; their English is good—everything.”