China. Land of promise, land of opportunity. It’s the new San Francisco, the new Hollywood, the new anything you want. It’s the perfect copy of a designer handbag, it’s that completely unique piece of art, it’s the traditional skill of papercutting that’s been practiced for over a millennium. Artisanal behaviorism connaisseuse Alina “Arrr” Raetsep rolls out old and new. The Really Old and Brand New Genuinely Fake.
Being in Beijing for a little over four years, researching the local culture, fashion, lifestyles, attitudes, and habits, has been an incredible life experience. Seeing skyscrapers built at a speed never witnessed by mankind before, technology penetrating all layers of life, yet as soon as you turn into a quiet hútòng (胡同 in Chinese), the lifestyle there seems as if it hasn’t changed in centuries.
Progress moves so quickly you can hardly follow as things unravel. Where a year ago there was a deserted spot, is now a bustling city center full of restaurants, shops, and nightclubs. Rickshaws ride alongside Maserati, local包子in Chinese; aka steamed buns) are sold off wooden wheel carts outside expensive gourmet restaurants. Nonetheless, as fast as China’s city landscapes are changing, the Chinese fashion and design scene is changing faster still.
China is a land of contrasts. And this is its most valuable point of attraction.
From Uniform To Unique
Since the economic boom, the Chinese millionaire population has exploded – and so has its ravenous taste for Gucci and Prada. Eager to show off the money it was of the utmost importance that the label was big and screamed “I am wealthy!’ at a passerby. But this has changed too, commonly retrospectively, with an almost nostalgic appreciation for pre-revolutionary sartorial freedom.
Bringing back the individuality and shaking off their grandparents’ Mao uniforms, the new generation of Chinese designers is defining the future of the industry, and bringing it to the international arena.
Young designers are becoming increasingly experimental and risky in their work, feeling their path to the true Chinese fashion identity.
Today, Tomorrow, Toyo… Long-time ago
Up until 16 years ago, China had no designer brand to call its own — that was until Ma Ke (马可 in Chinese), founder of Exception De MixMind, entered the scene with her sustainable fashion philosophy, pioneering the move away from mass-produced fashion and cheap labor. Ma offered an experimental approach to fashion that weaved Chinese culture and Oriental philosophy with modern shapes, which was groundbreaking at the time.
One fun fact which has made the evolution of the fashion ecosystem in China superbly unique.
The Upside Down
Imagine a brand that can charge thousands of dollars for an item with the tagline “Made in China.” A brand that restores dignity to Chinese heritage. That is all that Shang Xia aspires to be — and more. Mandarin for “Up Down,” the name conveys the paradoxical harmony of polar opposites (like yin and yang, East and West, tradition and modernity) that is so intrinsic in Shang Xia’s core philosophy. At Shang Xia hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hours are poured into designing a single item: A table made from rare rosewood (紫檀木| zĭtánmù in Chinese), a yak-hair felt coat, a gold-woven teacup.
Many are limited to eight pieces or less worldwide, so it is not a profit-making machine. Shang Xia can afford to be patient, however, being an outpost of the French fashion house Hermès, one fashion bastille who reportedly owns 75 percent of the company. “China has spent the last 30 years [trying] to conquer the world with its economy,” says Shang Xia’s CEO and artistic director Jiang Qiong’er. “Over the next 30 years, China has the opportunity to conquer the world with a Chinese cultural renaissance.”
Name: Zhang Da
Style: An avant-garde look with a strong Chinese feel
Elusive with the press, Zhang Da (张达in Chinese) has earned a reputation as one of China’s most mysterious designers. Having founded his label Boundless (没边in Chinese) back in 2005, Zhang is inspired by “Chinese people’s way of thinking”, and tends to work exclusively with understated materials, and non-fashion ‘ordinary’ people in his fashion shows.
Instead, Zhang emphasizes the intellectual element of his designs that reflects Chinese sensibility towards clothing. Zhang’s label has been widely featured in Vogue China, Vogue Italia, Vogue France, and Elle China.
Zhang himself has been recently approached by Hermes’ abovementioned Shang Xia for collaboration. One shall have to wait and see.
The brand Shanghai Trio (1998-2011; currently still on an extended hiatus, but we have high hopes!) one decade ago welcomed a return to traditional Chinese craftwork, bringing back objects and skills from the old China that have been long lost and forgotten. Committed to improving living standards through sustainable trade, Shanghai Trio worked with local Chinese artisans, combining their expertise with such materials as bamboo, linen and organic cotton. The result was a diverse range of bags, scarves, and accessories, sustainably and ethically created in China.
A boutique, a gallery, and a teahouse all rolled into one, Urban Tribe in Shanghai makes for a unique shopping experience — but their commitment to natural living is what really sets them apart. Urban Tribe’s minimalist collections, which are presented alongside unique handmade jewelry, use only natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, and wool.
“I think the answer is the book published by us called ‘Needlework Interview: with Miao Mother and Daughters’. The book describes a journey of the Urban Tribe team, who visited several Miao Minority (苗族| miáozú in Chinese) villages in China’s southwestern Guizhou province, and commissioned local mother-and-daughter teams to co-create a piece of traditional clothing to feature in the book.
Urban Tribe provided them with the materials and covered all production expenses, as well as awarded the creators for the final product. We documented the entire process behind these garment creations, conducting field interviews and filming, made picture albums for charity, and donated all the proceeds to the mother and her daughter teams, helping spread the knowledge and love of traditional needlework.
For us, this is what we can do now to help protect the local environment, handing down the knowledge and skill-ship of past generations.”
Paperclips And -Cuts
A distinctive visual art of Chinese handicrafts, paper cutting originated in the 6th Century. Women used to paste golden and silver foil cuttings onto their hair at the temples, and men used them in sacred rituals. Yet paper cutting takes on a whole new meaning under the knife of the artist Bovey Lee.
Born in Hong Kong, Lee has exhibited with an array of art museums and galleries, including Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, Museum Bellerive in Zurich, Museum of Fine Arts in Beijing, Fukuoka Museum of Art in Japan and Hong Kong Museum of Art.
Far from being a dying craft, the traditional Chinese art of paper cutting today inspires fashion designers all over the world and brings a touch of China to their collections. Louis Vuitton, Marchesa, Ralph Lauren — to name but a few — all borrowed from this ancient technique.
Looking at China from outside in it’s still obvious that the Chinese love – and love to imitate – western fashion and lifestyle, but however tech- and world-savvy the new generations might be, they are always going to be fiercely proud and protective of their roots, and it will shine through whether it is fashion, food or ceramics.
As the nation’s New Youth walks into tomorrow, a part of their being will always belong to the country’s great past.
FEATURED IMAGE: COURTESY OF URBAN TRIBE LIFESTYLE, 2019. All RIGHTS RESERVED
WRITTEN BY ALINA RAETSEP FOR TEMPER MAGAZINE, “THE R-RATED ISSUE”
EDITED BY ELSBETH VAN PARIDON FOR TEMPER MAGAZINE
THE CONTENT AND IMAGERY IN THIS FEATURE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN TEMPER MAGAZINE’S “THE R-RATED ISSUE”, NO. 3, 2019. ANY FORM OF REPRODUCTION WITHOUT PRIOR CONSENT IS PROHIBITED.
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