Designer Miuki Wen takes inspiration from bamboo and water for her creations. (Brandie Raasch)
It’s a young designer’s dream come true.
When Jeanette Chang, senior vice-president and international publishing director of Hearst (the publisher of Harper’s Bazaar) swept into the “China in Paris” showroom midway through Paris Fashion Week, her eyes immediately fell on the work of Siv Zhang.
Zhang, a former ballet dancer-turned-designer, on his first trip to Paris, suddenly found one of the most influential women in fashion ordering five outfits. Among them was a cloud-gray evening dress she planned to wear October 1, as the host of Hearst’s key fashion week party at the Royal Monceau Raffles hotel.
It doesn't get much better than that for a designer showing a debut collection of women’s wear in the world’s fashion capital.
Dancer-turned-designer Siv Zhang at Paris Fashion Week. (Brandie Raasch)
Zhang is among nine young Chinese designers presenting showroom collections in Paris this week. They were chosen by Inlife, a partner of the Fédération Française de la Couture, the governing body of French fashion.
The event is an initiative by the China National Garment Association (CNGA) and Christine Zhao, a director of Inlife International Group. Zhao is successfully shining a light on China’s homegrown talents, helping them establish an ever-stronger presence in the international market.
Since its modest beginnings in 2010, “China in Paris” has found its way to the “must-see” list for international buyers in search of new talent. Indeed, Zhao has unearthed true stars, including Shanghai-born Masha Ma, who is now a regular on the Paris fashion calendar and will show her Spring/Summer 2015 runway collection on October 1.
The early whispers last week around “China in Paris” hinted at the maturing status of Chinese designers and their use of sophisticated fabrics, interesting prints, subtle embellishments and high-quality workmanship. That news swiftly attracted industry luminaries, including Virginie Maunier of Bergdorf Goodman, Brooke Jaffe, fashion director of Bloomingdales, and Mathilde de Saint Anthost of Neiman Marcus.
The event organizer, Nicky Fidalis Pétard, said buyers were struck by the confidence designers showed as they embraced their Chinese heritage while at once seeing themselves as part of a global industry.
“Western designers regularly mine Chinese heritage for inspiration—now a new crop of Chinese designers are celebrating what is truly theirs,” she said.
Some, like Kilin Chen, are consciously designing with the Silk Road in mind. “In my work there’s a cultural message of East meets West,” said Chen, describing a silk print with images from both Van Gogh and Chinese painter Fan Kuan.
Kilin Chen adopts an "East-meets-West" aesthetic in his designs. (Brandie Raasch)
Christophe Billet, a leading French buyer, said, “I’ve always believed Chinese designers would become as strong as the Japanese were in the 80s. What we are seeing in “China in Life” is their new confidence, exposure, and maturity to follow their heart and not design with a Western audience in mind. When they show who they are, the results are fabulous.”
These cultural elements were clear in designer Miuki Wen’s collection. “My prints are inspired by Chinese symbols like bamboo and water,” she said. “They’re such an integral part of our lives.” Wen already boasts high-profile clients, including Phoenix television presenters Gehui Xu and Wu Xiaoli.
Niki Qin referenced Song dynasty patterns and designs, with tight sleeves buttoned from the wrist to elbow in her Moodbox brand. “I’m inspired by my father, who was an opera singer,” she said. “Through him I became aware of elaborate theatre costumes and I weave rich threads and beading into my clothes. I think of fashion as poetry.”
Zhang, whose studio is in Chonqing, subtly references traditional Chinese costume in his silhouettes—and imagery from the Tang dynasty in prints. He otherwise chooses luxurious Japanese and Italian fabrics.
Designer Allan Qi with some of his looks. (Brandie Raasch)
The excitement around China’s new designers signals a low-key warning to Europe’s stealth brands, according to Philip Guarino, the Paris-based director of China Luxury Advisors.
“The Chinese are making their minds up today on the brands they will buy and remain loyal to,” he said.
“Therefore it’s incredibly important for French brands, either veteran or new, to engage further with the Chinese, as this new generation of home grown designers shows no lack of creativity.”
Other designers in the group, including Jie Si, Allan Qi, Lilian Wen, and Ji Cheng are reinforcing the notion that “Made in China” is looking like a very desirable tag to have inside your silk robe.
Susan Owens is the founder and editor of Paris Chérie, a Paris-based fashion website dedicated to bringing French style news to Chinese readers.