The Nature and Potentiality of an Emerging Ethos in Chinese High Fashion Design
There wasn’t a formulaic pattern for how the dangling leather strips were woven through the front of the skirt; the pattern was instead determined by the designer’s eye. It was between this process, and the leather’s treatment, laser cutting, and folding, that the skirt passed through the five production locations.
If you read the headlines relating to the global fashion industry, you will have noticed that more and more of them concern Chinese high fashion designers. One of these designers—Ma Ke, whose work is characterized by its criticality and visual austerity—was even invited to show at the Paris Haute Couture week in 2008. This is an extraordinary time in the fashion industry’s history, as a country that was previously known only for the production of fashion, is now gaining respect for its authorship of fashion. As the number of Chinese fashion design graduates increases, and as inspirational role models such as Wang Yiyang and Uma Wang become more visible, the ubiquitous “Made in China” label is gradually being challenged by the label “Designed in China.” Even more interesting is an emerging ethos in Chinese high fashion design that might be termed Thinking Dao (Thinking The Way). Its tenets—simplicity, “thinkering,” and connectivity—combine to form a more thoughtful, sustainable high fashion design practice, which rises above China’s recent heritage as “the world’s garment factory.”
“This skirt is a complicated piece to design and produce,” Chinese fashion designer Qiu Hao explained to me.1 By the time it is swinging on hot hips along the Shanghai streets, it will have circulated five local textile and garment manufacturing factories. The designer used a specialized leather-folding technique; the strips of leather were not left with a raw underneath after being laser cut from the hide (as might be seen on a typical mid-Western American cowboy fringed leather jacket), but rather the sides were folded over and pressed down. This creates a jangling needle effect, as the leather strips rustle with a slick, determined sound. And it means the strips won’t soften as they are exposed to grease and moisture over time, because the outer facing surfaces of the leather strips are the treated, outer hide.
The skirt was finished by hand at the QIUHAO studio. There wasn’t a formulaic pattern for how the dangling leather strips were woven through the front of the skirt; the pattern was instead determined by the designer’s eye. It was between this process, and the leather’s treatment, laser cutting, and folding, that the skirt passed through the five production locations. “If you don’t know the story behind these things, you just think ‘okay, it’s a woven leather skirt,’ but we really try to do unique things—to ask for different things,” Qiu Hao said.2
Since the 1990s, Chinese textile and garment manufacturing factories have predominantly been interested in working to deliver to the big quantity, low price model demanded by Western fashion design companies. When Qiu Hao started his prêt-á-porter line Neither Nor in 2001, it was difficult for a small-volume Chinese business like his to even get his clothing designs produced at all.
One big production house in particular, with technically skilled workers and specialist equipment that can produce high-spec garment designs like Qiu Hao’s fringed leather women’s skirt, caters to big volume global high fashion brands such as Céline, Nina Ricci, Balenciaga, and Alexander Wang. As of 2014, QIUHAO is the only Chinese fashion design brand that they will do work for, and Qiu Hao has personally worked hard to establish this business relationship. “I re-educate them. So I explain to them what I am doing, what the future will become, and I pay extra money—this is about making them interested in working with my business.”3 The designer even invites influential people from the production house to his fashion shows, to show them explicitly how the innovative production requests he makes materialize. He feels this has been successful in overcoming the skepticism he used to encounter when he made production requests that hadn’t been tried before or copied from the Western brands.
To explore Qiu Hao’s approach, I had a discussion with social and cultural Professor Thuy Linh Nguyen about her 2011 book The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion. Nguyen’s research is based on thirty Asian-American prêt-à-porter designers who were operating within New York’s fashion industry between 1990 and 2010. Nguyen analyzed how these designers related to the garment workers who produced their goods, identifying family-like connections, which she linked to the success of the Asian-American designers within a brutally competitive globalized economy. She observed that the designers had, for various reasons, formed intimacies that challenged, what she calls, “the fashion industry’s logic of distance:” “This logic seeks to delink fashion design from garment manufacturing and to render the two as distinct practices.”4
Likewise, in order to get his designs produced, Qiu Hao is squeezing in small orders with factories by developing relationships and by sharing in the creative and innovation process with the garment manufacturers. He is navigating the demands of the fashion industry by engaging in small, sporadic acts of exchange that allow him to access important resources, and therefore he is transforming the typical “market relations” of globalization into “intimate relations” of kin or culture.5 In doing this, he gets business done, but—more importantly, I think—he is educating the production houses on how to innovate, by taking a local, personal approach: He is generating innovation exchange.