Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, the Temper WeChat phone rang and on the other end we found our beloved Beijing-based Atelier Rouge Pékin in desperate need of a fresh fashion grad to design a collection for the brand in collaboration with vintage plum-colored Chinese sports brand Meihua. Temper dove into the academic archives and pulled up the file of Maximilian Welsch, a 2017 fashion design graduate from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. A capsule collab was born.
Meihua Sportswear holds a special place in the hearts of many a Chinese, from the post-50s right up to the post-90s. The Tianjin-based “Plum Blossom” brand between the 1960s and 1980s was the No.1 choice in sweat gear for Chinese athletes. Marksman Xu Haifeng in fact wore the staple Olympic Meihua uniform during his medal ceremony at the 1984 Olympic Summer Games hosted by Los Angeles, where he won the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal. Meihua since has become a plumb (hardyharharrr) point of patriotic pride.
Temper-favored Atelier Rouge Pékin (ARP), on the other hand, is known for its rebellious streak; a red hot bold of lighting cleaving into the Chinese fashion landscape with its very own sense of unadulterated post-80s pride — hold the prejudice. In search of new horizons, Meihua Sports reached out to ARP in a bid to infuse its lines with an injection of undaunted adventure; a triathlon in the making. Enter: Maximilian Welsch.
Freshly graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Antwerp, Belgium), Welsch was brought on board by ARP to strike the fine yet whiz-bang balance between patriotism and rebellion, between China’s establishment and the nation’s new generations. A daunting task that proved both intriguing and insightful to both the outsider (i.e. Welsch) entering the core of China fashion, as well as that other outsider (i.e. Temper Magazine) reporting on contempo China through a fashionable lens. In wait of the final and material results, we sit down with Welsch and ask… As the “odd one out” becomes part of the in-crowd, how do you reconcile objective fashionable critique with subjective creativity?
Despite its “if I ruled the world” efforts and strides forward in the past decade, China remains an enigma to those who are not moving within its restricted confines.
Pride And Prejudice
To this day, the “Made In China” label comes with its own mindset of Austen-dramatic ad nauseam-repeated prejudgments. When it comes to China at large, we may take it one step further and say that despite its “if I ruled the world” efforts and strides forward in the past decade, the nation remains an enigma to those who are not moving within its restricted confines. Most people are left outside the gates looking in and gasping at the sheer bossdom that seems to be slowly making its mark on the world. From the inside out, mind you.
China does as China sees fit, a phrase one might apply to cens*rship, A.I.-optimized hardware and innovative creativity across all spheres of society alike. Welsch, too, faced the initial hurdle of overcoming prejudice and taking a peek behind the star-studded curtains in order to find out what’s really happening on the down-low. Harboring a past, and partial present, of low quality and labor issues among other things, the Middle Kingdom does not exactly have an original designer worthy resume to hand over.
On the flipside, as Welsch puts it, “Even luxury brands are currently manufacturing their products in China; despite the country no longer boasting the lowest charges in that area. A revision of the nation as a producer and creator is soon in order. ARP, to me, is an example of such ongoing change”. The country’s creativity in technology and fashion is slowly becoming a matter of pride.
Stand Alone And Stand-Out
“When I first saw ARP’s work online, my interest was sparked given the designs came across as being genuine, well thought-out and new. I could identify with them, both on the design level as well as on an ‘independent, stand-alone’ brand level. Nevertheless, there’s always the designer matter of ‘feeling is believing’ and luckily this too proved pleasantly positive when I first saw — and felt, yes ha — the garments in real life,” explains Welsch. That’s one discipline successfully completed already.
The strong heritage of the Meihua brand made for a solid starting position to take the collaboration to the next level. Even as an outsider, Welsch through pictures and old news articles alone was able to grasp the importance, pride and borderline iconography underlying the image and meaning Meihua holds for many Chinese. The 1984 Olympic visuals of the Meihua stripes adorned with gold medals, as shown in the above picture of athlete Li Ning who in later years would start up his very own eponymous sportswear brand, conveyed a strong sense of proud patriotism. It was now up to Welsch to jump the next hurdle and incorporate this “national treasure” feel into designs which would also channel the raw and edgy rebellion that makes ARP stand out in the crowd…
We’re talking oversized hoodies boasting the signature Meihua stripes, big ‘n bulky gold medal zipper-chains as well as an adherence to the original facing of the neckline and tracksuit construction.
There’s a whole lot more to designing a capsule collection than meets the eye; especially when working from the inside out. Starting from the core of Meihua’s design, i.e. the construction of the garments, to getting down ‘n dirty with the details, Welsch’s collaboration with ARP from the very first firing of the starting pistol was based on trust. The man of the hour sums it up as follows:
“We had no difficulties in working together whatsoever; we shared our opinions and suggestions and I simply took it from thereon out. No hurdles, no tripping up. P.J. [designer and co-founder of ARP] basically handed me the reigns and let me take the lead with this capsule collection — and the trust to do as I saw fit. What’s more, we’re all eager to learn and expand our knowledge and experience.”
Circling back to the actual design process, then, Welsch ensured for the design to be both authentic in terms of construction as well as details. We’re talking plum-red, yellow, blue and stripes, oversized hoodies and sporty-slouchy (in a good way) dresses boasting the signature Meihua stripes. We’re seeing big ‘n bulky gold medal zipper-chains, almost-hidden pockets adorned with the 梅花 (Meihua) or 中国 (China) characters on the one hand; and an adherence to the original facing of the neckline and tracksuit construction (similar to the European one) on the other. Temper hearts. Nevertheless, as we cross the finish line, one last critique from Welsch must be taken into account:
“As a designer, you must always remain critical and combine the objective with the subjective, both when it comes to your work and fashion overall. This capsule collection I designed for ARP transmits a Chinese feel, obviously, yet it is crucial that you avoid the pitfalls of copying successful European ‘items’ and stay at our last, i.e. taking a solid design and updating it with a 21st Century individualistic twist. Do not look at your inspiration and take it to the letter; take it from there. The original Chinese roots and blueprints Meihua exudes undoubtedly have the potential to attract customers across the lands and ponds as well. And even though I may still feel rather foreign towards China, this collaboration has further piqued my interest in the nation as a whole and most definitely in what is has to offer fashion-wise. It’s all about change in motion. At the speed of light.”
Turning things “inside out” in this exposé carries meaning on various levels. We here have the story newly graduated designer Welsch looking in from the outside, yet designing from the inside out. We here have the story of Olympic local brand Meihua reaching out, aiming to modernize its staple, core gear. We here have the story of 2010s-born Beijing brand ARP pulling in efforts from across the world in order to continuously challenge the odds and educate itself to further create the fashion of the future. It’s a combination of the subjective inside and objective outside that leads to critically correct creation.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Maximilian Welsch
All photos come courtesy of Meihua Sportswear
All sketches come courtesy of Maximilian Welsch