Chinese designer Xuzhi Chen was in the limelight late last month as the Central Saint Martins graduate was supported by Giorgio Armani at Milan Fashion Week to show at the Armani Theater, Armani’s own catwalk space that has sent new designers to international stardom.
Xu is not the first Chinese designer to have this privilege. Rico Manchit Au, known for her minimalist style, was chosen to show at the prestigious venue last September.
As China grows to be one of the world’s largest luxury markets, luxury brands are launching collaborations in one way or another with China's independent designers (and even fashion bloggers) to explore the local market.
One of the most influential 'collaborations' in this sphere is the one that brought Shang Xia to life. Co-founded by Hermès Group and Chinese designer Jiang Qiong’er in 2009, Shang Xia is known for its Chinese-inspired contemporary design, challenging the idea that high-end traditional craftsmanship is generally undervalued in the country.
While Hermès wants to replant its pursuit for quality and craftsmanship into another culture, Jiang, who is now Shang Xia's CEO and artistic director, is keen to use Chinese inspiration and traditional craftsmanship in modern design. The brand sells clothing, jewelry, tea sets, homeware, and furniture, covering almost all aspects of the Chinese lifestyle.
With 10 locations in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, the brand is also looking to open in second- and third-tier cities in the Chinese mainland, eyeing the increasing number of local customers who start to look for their own cultural roots.
It opened a boutique in Paris in 2013, exploring the international market. The brand says that it has seen more non-Chinese customers, especially in the Paris boutique.
“When foreigners are amazed and enchanted with the mysterious culture and arts of China, it means Chinese elements have already joined the rhythm of global fashion," Jiang said. "We believe this appreciation for high-quality China design and China-made (products) will spread among sophisticated Chinese and overseas markets. They shrugged off the old stereotypes they had and saw a previously unknown China.”
It was reported in 2013 that Hermès invested more than 10 million euros (US$10.6 million) on average a year on Shang Xia, while sales figures remain unknown. However, instead of seeking immediate commercial success, the brand is taking a slow luxury approach.
“It is not a commercial project, but a cultural one,” Jiang said. “Financial return is not our immediate goal. If we compare Shang Xia to a child who was born in 2010, now he learns how to walk. Ten years later, he will have deep thoughts and a strong personality. When he is 18, the brand will develop a more mature and obvious image, so we have vision for the long term.”
While Shang Xia is committed to a long-term investment, more brands have taken on a more flexible approach.
Early in 2012, Swatch worked with Chinese designer Uma Wang on watches that highlight contrasting materials. Jewelry maker Swarovski has worked with designers like Masha Ma, Wang Peiyi and Christine Lau for a Christmas collection highlighting its crystals in 2014.
Reda, an Italian upscale wool fabric maker, has been working with emerging designers like Xander Zhou and Zhang Chi, enriching its tradition with new creative forces.
Last year, the company tapped designer Hu Xinyu for a capsule collection, which was showcased at Shanghai Fashion Fashion week last season for Reda’s 15th anniversary in China.
Hu, who stood out for her bold and clean style, incorporated elegant details and splicing techniques with the classic men’s suits.
“The goal of the collaboration is to put each designers’ art of expertise in the spotlight and act as a platform to showcase tradition and innovation: classic fabrics and fresh ideas,” Fabrizio Alessandro Goggi, Reda’s global communication manager, said. “For this collaboration, we were expecting a refined and experimental aesthetic from her design to capture the changing attitudes toward fashion in China and the needs of contemporary gentlemen in this market today.”
However, it is not necessary for a brand to have a China-focused market to enlist a Chinese designer, as their talent is now being increasingly acclaimed globally.
With Europe as its top market, French skiwear label Perfect Moment has chosen to work with Shanghai designer Helen Lee.
With her own namesake brand being sold in Lane Crawford, Lee is known for her feminine, elegant design, but took the opportunity to expand her talent to activewear that combines fashion with function.
After five seasons, the brand has been rewarded both critically and commercially. Lee’s design is now available in Harrods, Harvey Nichols, and Selfridges, as well as e-commerce platforms like Net-a-Porter and Matches Fashion. It has been worn by style icons like Kate Middleton and Cara Delevingne. And it is going to expand in China by the end of this year, Lee said.
Aside from more international exposure, Lee also started to incorporate sporty elements in her own line, creating a more dynamic style. “I got to try a completely different style from my own brand and learned a lot from the process," Lee said. “As I combine sporty elements with fashion design, I’ve also found interaction and balance between the two labels.”