“In terms of Chinese fashion designers, I don’t see the growth here yet,” said Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour while in Beijing last week promoting the upcoming Met Gala’s China theme. Although Chinese fashion isn’t currently on her radar, she remains optimistic about its future: “I’m sure within the next generation, we’ll see the emergence of Chinese designers on a global scale,” she later told The Wall Street Journal.
Look at the country of origin of most labels in any high-end department store in Europe, the United States, or even China itself, and you’ll see that she clearly has a point: Chinese designers have a long way to go to catch up top European fashion brands. That doesn’t mean Chinese fashion hasn’t yet made its major global breakthrough, however—many Chinese designers have actually made quite a big footprint on the world fashion scene in recent years. If one looks at the number of Chinese labels appearing at top global fashion weeks, winning prestigious awards, and even being sold at upscale stores on Madison Avenue, it’s clear that Chinese design may be young, but it has definitely emerged as a legitimate market player worldwide.
As one of the most important global fashion events of the year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s annual gala is likely to shine a bright spotlight on Chinese designers with its first ever focus on China. Since the gala’s accompanying exhibit will feature both Western and Chinese designers, Wintour met with notable Chinese fashion names including Guo Pei, Lawrence Xu, Masha Ma, Ma Ke (a favorite of China’s first lady), and Uma Wang while in Beijing.
Although this event will certainly give Chinese design a boost in the fashion world, Chinese designers have already been making quite a name for themselves across the globe. If you look at the world’s four major fashion weeks—London, New York, Paris, and Milan—all have had a strong Chinese design presence as part of their official lineups in recent years. London, which frequently has the biggest number of Chinese designers, has seen presentations by Haizhen Wang, Huishan Zhang, Simon Gao, and Xiao Li in recent seasons—not to mention a host of satellite shows by smaller up-and-coming Chinese labels. Meanwhile, Yang Li, Masha Ma, Laurence Xu, and Yiqing Yin have presented in Paris as part of Paris Fashion Week or its couture iteration. Uma Wang and Wang Peiyi have presented at Milan Fashion Week, while China-born fashion veteran Vivienne Tam is always prominent in the main New York Fashion Week tent.
In addition to top runway presence, these designers have been racking up the fashion industry’s most prestigious global awards. In 2008, Chinese designer Qiu Hao joined the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan, and Giorgio Armani when he won the distinguished Woolmark Prize. The awards have only become more frequent since then. Haizhen Wang won the Fashion Fringe award in 2012, while in 2013, Huishan Zhang snagged the Dorchester Fashion Collection Prize. Both Yifang Wan and Xiao Li won the Fashion Scout Merit Award back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, respectively—adding to Xiao Li’s awards from Diesel and H&M’s global programs for rising designers.
Part of the reason for such success has been the growing presence of Chinese designers at top fashion schools in Europe. London’s Central Saint Martins Institute was a jumping-off point for many famous Chinese designers, including Masha Ma, Huishan Zhang, Yifang Wan, Haizhen Wang, Vega Zaishi Wang, Yang Du, and Uma Wang—just to name a few. Before creating their own lines, many of these designers got their start at the world’s top fashion houses: Masha Ma previously worked for Alexander McQueen and Huishan Zhang got his start at Christian Dior. Min Lu of fashion label Ms Min, who made an appearance at last year’s Met Gala, was working with Viktor & Rolf before becoming the creator of her own label.
These designers’ lines have caught the eye of both awards judges and top buyers. While Chinese designers have already been widely available at major department stores and multi-brand boutiques across China—including Lane Crawford, Galeries Lafayette, 10 Corso Como, and I.T—for quite some time, shoppers in New York or London shouldn’t be surprised to spot Chinese labels in upscale stores as well. Huishan Zhang pieces can be found at Barneys, Browns, Beams, Harvey Nichols, and Fenwick, while Barneys also stocks looks by Yang Li. Meanwhile, Masha Ma has been sold at Bstore in London, and Italian online retailer Yoox sells names including Masha Ma, Yang Li, Yiqing Yin, and Huishan Zhang internationally. Yiqing Yin (who has been outfitting a host of Western celebrities including Elizabeth Banks and Audrey Tautou) can also be found at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, as well as boutiques in Los Angeles and Chicago.
While there’s no doubt that the Met Gala will raise the average American fashionista’s consciousness about Chinese designers, the event will be more of a celebration of the ongoing process of their growing popularity than their “big break” moment. Since celebrities in attendance often dress according to the theme, we’re likely to see a large swathe of stars wearing dresses by Chinese designers for the first time (and, for those who choose not to go with a Chinese designer, hopefully no displays of offensive cultural appropriation à la Katy Perry). Although it may be quite a while before the number of Chinese designers equals the number of French and American ones at Barneys and Saks, the fashion world may be closer to that point than it thinks it is.