Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017, 7:02 PM CST – China

Society

Fashion Designers

FINDING THEIR VOICE

While they’re finding some success abroad, young Chinese designers say China’s budding fashion industry has work to do before it can flourish

Models wear Huang Qiaoran’s designs for New York Fashion Week Photo Courtesy by the interviewee

In the past few years, China’s fashion industry has begun to walk the international runway. More and more young Chinese designers are leaving their homeland to study the trade abroad, and the US has become the main stage where they sharpen their skills. Some have already achieved a name for themselves, earning top jobs in the industry or striking out with their own lines. Their collections are showcased regularly on catwalks in fashion hubs around the world. These talented young designers, alongside increasingly famous Chinese models, have begun to put China on the world fashion map.

New York, New York

“How did you get that job?”

This is the question that Cai Pengji is asked most frequently after he tells people he works for Oscar de la Renta. He is an assistant designer and draper for the world-renowned luxury goods firm.

The 28-year-old Chinese graduate of Parsons School of Design became the only Asian member of the brand’s core design team within two years of arriving in New York. Even after three months on the job, at times colleagues from other departments still mistook the youthful Cai for an intern.

Before meeting Cai, the Oscar de la Renta team had spent nearly a year interviewing hundreds of applicants in hopes of finding a suitable designer with excellent draping skills. Cai landed the job shortly after his May interview. Things progressed quickly –  just four months later, when Oscar de la Renta creative director Peter Copping listed the designers at the brand’s New York Fashion Week show, Cai’s name was among them.

In the US, in contrast with industries such as IT and biotechnology in which Chinese faces abound, the fashion industry notably lacks Chinese representation. This void is even more evident among those major fashion brands that guide mainstream American culture and drive high-end trends. Chinese students who come to the US to study fashion are met with sparse job options. According to one industry insider, no more than three Chinese people have been able to push their way into the core design team of a top fashion firm in the US. That is why Cai, a designer born and bred in China, is a wonder.

After graduating from Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 2011, Cai worked in Beijing for two years, during which time he received an investment to launch his own label. His fate changed in 2013 when he participated in a competition run by State broadcaster CCTV called Creative Sky. The winners would be eligible for admission to Parsons School of Design, which is ranked among the world’s top fashion schools.

The contest was extremely challenging. The judges included Vogue China’s editor in chief Zhang Yu, established designer Jason Wu and former Parsons dean Simon Collins. After defeating numerous competitors, Cai and four other designers entered the final round, for which he designed a set of clothes with printed patterns of Chinese medicinal herbs, a concept that was inspired by the Chinese martial arts film A Battle of Wits. His innovative idea and exceptional skills won him third place, earning him a full scholarship to a Parsons master’s program.

The prize thrilled Cai. A great many household fashion names have come out of this school, such as Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi and Chinese American Alexander Wang. The scholarship allowed him to walk through a door that had rarely opened for other Chinese.

“Grueling”

Very few Chinese mainland students have majored in fashion design in the past. Huang Qiaoran is one of the few. After she graduated from Donghua University, she decided to apply to Parsons in 2008 to fulfill her dreams. When she looked for Chinese Parsons students or alumni to consult about it, however, she was surprised to come up empty-handed. It was not until she actually arrived at Parsons that she learned there was another Chinese student in her graduating class.

More recently, however, there has been a striking increase in the number of students from China applying to fashion schools. Take Parsons as an example: For the 2012 fall term, Parsons admitted 80 Chinese students to its fashion and design programs, 40 times more than the two students accepted in 2002. At the Pratt Institute, another famous art school in New York, the number of Chinese applicants tripled from 2010 to 2013.

Many of these applicants may subscribe to the romanticized version of a designer’s lifestyle as portrayed in the media, equating entrance into this exclusive club with enviable clothes, world travel, international fashion shows and celebrity parties. But according to Cai Pengji, industry insiders know the true bitterness beneath this sweet facade. Months of hard work, countless failed drafts and unimaginable effort is woven into the fabric of each finished piece.

“Horribly grueling” –  that was how Cai remembers his first month at Parsons. “Two or three weeks’ of work there is equivalent to a one-year graduation project at Chinese design colleges,” Cai told NewsChina. “By contrast, study [requirements] at China’s fashion design schools [are] too relaxed.”

In the past, Cai had always considered himself a disciplined person, but when he came to New York and worked with his foreign classmates he was totally overwhelmed by his peers’ extraordinary diligence. “They can work on a project for one or two months, sleeping for only two or three hours each night,” he said. “Everyone around you is like this –  working, working, working all the time.”

Xu Xingyuan, 21, a senior at Parsons, also spoke to NewsChina about the hardships of college life in New York. “I need to muster all of my courage every time I fly back to the US for the next semester, because I know what is waiting for me,” she said.

In her earlier days at Parsons, Xu was surprised to find that her classmates at this prestigious design school were not conventionally “fashionable.” They tended to dress quite simply, often sporting a black T-shirt and a pair of skinny jeans. At first, she thought people here were following a special “Parsons” look, but she later realized that the fashion choice was only motivated by convenience. “Parsons students cannot spare extra time focusing on our own clothes,” said Xu.

She hasn’t had a free weekend since her first year at the design school. She usually does not leave school until 2 or 3 AM, and the next day she often wakes up early to buy fabric. She remembered once working on a project from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning without taking a break. She later realized the reason she could constantly taste blood was because of an open canker sore.

But she loves the work. “In New York, when I start on a new piece, the love and passion I have for creating immediately flows into my body,” Xu told NewsChina. “I really enjoy the moment when I am fully absorbed in my own work.”

This level of diligence is not only necessary for aspirants who are still in school, it is also a must for designers who are already established in the fashion world. One of Cai Pengji’s friends who interned with Jason Wu’s company told him that Wu, who found fame after designing multiple dresses for First Lady Michelle Obama, is always the first to arrive at work. “Outsiders only see the shiny surface of the fashion industry; the insiders see the bitterness,” Cai said.

“The fashion industry is highly advanced in New York, Paris, Milan and London,” he continued. “China is always saying it’s ‘stepping out’ and ‘catching up.’ But merely in terms of diligence, we’ve already lost too much.”

Originality

If they don’t enter top fashion firms like Cai Pengji, many young designers try to create their own brand in an attempt to make their own voices heard.

Huang Qiaoran interned for Diane von Furstenberg after she graduated from Parsons in 2010. During her internship, she met her current design partner, Josh Hupper, who shared a similar vision. Both she and Josh had a strong desire to work on something original. The duo decided to found their own label. That same year, they launched feminine streetwear line Babyghost, which often features geometric silhouettes and edgy embellishments. Huang and Hupper held their second New York Fashion Week runway show this past September.

Huang’s father runs a garment factory in her hometown in Shandong Province, which offers support for Babyghost as part of its supply chain. With the studio in New York and the factory in China, Huang travels across the Pacific every few months. As a designer and entrepreneur, her hand is in every pot; along with designing the clothes, she orders the fabric, supervises the manufacturing and organizes promotional events.

“No matter how terrible a situation you might face, there is always a way to settle it,” Huang said, when asked about the past five years with Babyghost. “In the end, you can always overcome it.”

Interestingly, Babyghost actually owes much of its growth in popularity in the US to support from well-known Chinese supermodels, such as Liu Wen, Ju Xiaowen and Xi Mengyao.

Huang and Hupper consider Ju Xiaowen to be Babyghost’s muse. Ju is Hupper’s longtime roommate, and the three are close friends. Huang has also formed ties with other Chinese supermodels; for example, she met Liu Wen during New York Fashion Week in 2009 when she was still studying at Parsons. After Babyghost launched, Liu and other Chinese models helped spread the word about this fledgling label by attending its promotional events and wearing its products in their daily life. Thus, Chinese models became Babyghost’s best advertisements.

When Huang and Hupper first formed Babyghost, they did not have a clear, concrete objective or plan. But with the label constantly maturing, they now have hopes for a much greater future. “[New York] is very energetic –  everyday, countless people come here with their hopes and dreams,” Huang told NewsChina. “In New York, if you want to do something, nobody will say that you can’t. Instead, everyone will encourage you. Such a dreamer-friendly environment makes me feel very comfortable.”

Designed in China?

This generation of Chinese designers has become a rising force in the international fashion world. “They are educated in both China and the US, so they can think from both perspectives,” said Zhang Yu, editor in chief of Vogue China. “They always come up with new ideas. And what’s more, Chinese are fast learners!”

The young designers usually shy away from featuring strong Chinese elements in their pieces. Accomplished, internationally known Chinese designers, such as Masha Ma, Haizhen Wang and Huishan Zhang, as well as their younger counterparts, such as Cai Pengji, Xu Xingyuan and Huang Qiaoran, seldom highlight typical Chinese imagery in their designs.

But the designers are not rejecting their own culture. They say they weave Chinese culture into their creations instead of making icons associated with China visible just to cater to Western perceptions. “I prefer a style with a traditional core and a modern look,” Cai Pengji said, explaining his outlook on design. Huang Qiaoran holds a similar opinion. “My way of thinking and doing things is typically Chinese,” she said. “My cultural background certainly will influence my designs, but it does not mean that I will use symbols like Chinese knots or a cheongsam to emphasize Chinese characteristics.”

Cai admitted that while the Chinese fashion industry has grown rapidly in recent years, it’s still too early to boast of an upcoming Chinese design renaissance. “As far as I know, many local fashion firms are trapped in the copying-ideas-and-modifying-them mode.” Plagiarism plagues China’s fashion industry. During Shanghai Fashion Week last October, independent designer Liu Xiaolu claimed another brand stole some designs from her 2014 spring and summer lines. This incident roused a huge storm of controversy within the industry.

“Chinese designers, including those of my generation, still have a long way to go,” Cai said. 

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