"How do you describe Chinese style?" asked Shanghai-based bespoke designer Grace Chen before the third annual China Fashion Gala, presented by the China Institute and Yue-Sai Kan China Beauty Charity Fund. "You probably think back a few hundred or maybe thousands of years ago. That's the only thing you can relate to. So, what's the modern Chinese image?"
The question is decidedly difficult to answer. As Chen says quite often, China is experiencing a period of lost "fashion identity," influenced and diluted by the proliferation of (and desire for) Western brands. Perhaps we think of Guo Pei's museum-worthy haute couture gowns or of other emerging local designers, whom Chen credits for bringing unique and authentic points of view to the mix. But for nearly a decade now, Chen has been quietly and successfully establishing her vision for the distinctive style of a modern Chinese woman — and it all came full circle at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
In 1996, Chen was one of the first students from mainland China to graduate from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.). She then spent nearly 15 years in the U.S., working for Halston in New York and Tadashi Shoji in Los Angeles, where she designed red carpet gowns for the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Helen Mirren. Armed with her international experience, Chen returned to China in 2009 to establish her own brand through her couture atelier and studio in Shanghai, housed in a historic Art Deco mansion. She then opened a Beijing location in 2012.
As part of her "fashion diplomacy" ethos, Chen shares her designs and visions via runway and trunk shows around the world, including the Chinese Embassy in Paris and London's Lancaster House in 2016, attended by international socialites including Russian and British royal descendent Ella Mountbattan and Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff of Russia. Back in her old stomping grounds here in New York, she presented a mix of her current "Modern Times" collection that's proven favorites to luminaries, including Iris Apfel, Carmen Dell'Orefice, Vivienne Tam and the evening's honorees actress Maggie Q and Christian Louboutin.
During a pre-gala Q&A with moderator Simon Collins, founder of Fashion Culture Design and former dean of the Fashion School at Parson's School for Design, Chen explained that she founded her brand with two goals in mind.
"One is to establish an image for Chinese women. I think they're very misunderstood in every other way. I want to find the true beauty to them to give them the respect they deserve," said Chen. " The second goal is to find the Chinese fashion language — our fashion — to express a Chinese aesthetic view of beauty the philosophy behind it and to the world."
During our one-on-one interview, Chen also admitted that various levels of cultural appropriation — however well-intentioned — from established Western designers also influenced her desire to develop an aesthetic representative of the modern culture. "Because it's so easy to do stereotypes," she said, about the lack of cultural understanding behind designers clumsily repurposing "clichés" and traditional motifs and symbols. "So, instead of arguing about that, I'd rather set up a right example."
With such a rapid rise in spending power in the last two decades, the Chinese luxury consumer has the reputation of preferring international "Western" designers over local ones, but that's changing, especially with the younger generation. So, Chen thinks her timing is just right to present discerning luxury clientele — with closets already stocked full of Gucci and Louis Vuitton — another option offering a unique experience customized for their individual style preferences. Seems to be working: Her Shanghai studio produces around 120 custom pieces (priced around $3,000 to $6,000) a month and her clients include some of China's most influential women, like actresses Liu Xiaoqing and Qin Hailu, Lenovo senior VP Gina Qiao Jian, politician Hua Chunying and — according to rumors — First Lady Peng Liyuan.
As a Chinese woman with proven global design experience, Chen emphasizes that she really gets her local clients on another level. "We understand their body type, their skin tone, their needs for their appearance and for their social needs and inner needs," she says, about her bespoke gowns, suits and dresses designed for the needs and lifestyle of professional, active and modern Chinese women. "That's why they call us, 'the designer who knows women the best.' It all comes from our customers. They gave us the reputation."
Via her international runway shows, the designer also wants to show that the Grace Chen-branded Chinese aesthetic can be worn by all types of power women. From the beginning, Chen made a point to cast a diverse range of models in both age and ethnicity for her shows. "Fashion is not about tall and thin and young models," she said. "It's something that everybody can relate to. This is my principle: I never make a dress only for a show. All of the dresses can be ordered and can be worn to whatever occasion that you need to."
Although, for her New York debut (in the gallery above), Chen cast a lineup of "all Western" — no Asian — models to further emphasize that her modern Chinese design aesthetic also applies to European and American tastes. But as a Chinese American, I myself would have liked to see how her jackets dripping with fringe-detail, handcrafted with the traditional weaving style of the Miao people, qipao-inspired bias-cut gowns and silky pajama suiting would look on a representaton of my American community.
Her international runway shows also serve as a soft diplomacy tool to hopefully clear up misconceptions people have about Chinese women and their style. "Many people, even though they've been to China many times or they lived in China many years, they still don't get it," she explained. "But from one fashion show, they see it. The reason is because we have the ability to translate our view on fashion and Chinese culture into a common language that everyone can understand."
Offering a different approach, a panel with two the evening's honorees, Massimiliano Giornetti, who left Salvatore Ferragamo in 2016 after 16 years as creative director, and Alessandro Bastagli, executive chairman (and new owner) of Shanghai Tang followed. The fashion and lifestyle brand was founded by the late Sir David Tang in 1994 in Hong Kong, three years before the former British colony's handover back to People's Republic of China in 1997. During its debut, Shanghai Tang made waves as a pioneering homegrown luxury label reinterpreting the Chinese qipao and traditional silhouettes of the '20s and '30s with electric neon colors and modern detailing. In 1998, Tang sold the company to Richemont — followed by too-rapid expansion, store closings (which included the Madison Avenue flagship in 1999) and a near-two decade-long identity crisis.
Florence-born Bastagli, who lived in Asia — and specifically China — since the '70s, along with private equity firm Cassia Investments bought Shanghai Tang in 2017 and hired Giornetti as creative director to rejuvenate the brand to appeal to both today's Chinese market and the global luxury consumer. In contrast to Chen's forward-thinking outlook, the two are looking far back in time for what seems like an Italian's view of China for inspiration for the new Shanghai Tang's "East meets West" philosophy.
"The colors, the dynasties... " said Bastagli, an avid Asian art collector, about his recent visit to the Chinese antiquities department in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. He gathered about "200 ideas" there to brainstorm with Giornetti. "Some of those pieces are from the army of the old emperor guards! Five thousand years of history that you can get into and interpret. Nobody wants to wear an army jacket, but all their history can be inspiration for creativity. The Chinese colors of the old days are incredible."
Kicking off the new vision for Shanghai Tang for Fall 2018, Giornetti also looked to what immediately comes to mind when one thinks of Italy's historical connection with China: Marco Polo's journey on the Silk Road. The collection, presented at Milan Fashion Week, features a wide leather belt, presumably referencing the sashed skirting on a Chinese ruqun (and not a Japanese "obi," as referenced in Vogue Italia), and natural textures, like colorful wool macramé knits, shearling, cotton and silk, which Giornetti considers "the true ambassador for this brand."
"Of course, silk is one of the most poetical stories to tell," he said. "It's linking together the Italian tradition and heritage — and the quality and strength together — with the most high-quality in materials that are coming from China." Which, to be honest, came across as textbook colonial mentality: A European power plundering the natural resources of a country without regard for its history or culture.
This made me wonder: Are there any designers of Chinese descent providing the Giornetti and Alessandro Bastagli with a diverse, modern and authentic perspective? Especially since the design team is based — not in the P.R.C. or Hong Kong — but in Italy, where the production of clothing and accessories was relocated, as well. Bastagli did mention that Giornetti's seven-person staff is comprised of "international" people, including "Chinese," but didn't elaborate on the capacity. When I asked the creative director for more details during a one-on-one interview following, he hedged.
"I think it's interesting that the creative team is becoming international, but still keeping our [attention] on this idea of Chinese tradition and Chinese culture," said Giornetti, who does fly back and forth between Italy and Hong Kong. "I don't think nowadays, it's important where you're based. I think it's important how attached you are to an idea and a vision. You could design Yves Saint Laurent from Los Angeles, but you are still attached very much to the spirit of Yves Saint Laurent."
Hedi Slimane, who was born in Paris to a Tunisian father and Italian mother, had designed for Yves Saint Laurent — a French fashion house and global luxury brand with a long-standing relationship with Hollywood — from Los Angeles from 2012 to 2016. (Note: The house's current creative director Anthony Vaccarello and his team are based in Paris.) I'm curious to see if Giornetti and his team honoring Chinese culture and the heritage of Shanghai Tang from Italy is just as organic of an approach for success.
With rapidly growing consumer spending power and the tastes and demands that evolve with it, it's only a matter of time before China develops and establishes its distinct "fashion identity" — at home and to the rest of the world. What will be more interesting is to see which designers, brands and trendsetters help shape the movement, especially since an unprecedented number of mainland Chinese students are studying fashion overseas to help bridge today's East and West. (At Chen's alma mater F.I.T., enrollment for fashion students from the P.R.C. skyrocketed 277 percent from 2013 to 2017.) But perhaps remembering to keep it authentic is key.
"The main thing that inspires me is the Chinese people. Chinese women," said Chen. "I get all the strength from them."
Homepage photo: Host Yue-Sai Kan, designer Grace Chen and models wearing looks from Grace Chen's couture collection at the China Fashion Gala. Photo: Courtesy