After the Rodarte show last season, I did my usual round of gauging opinion by asking a well-known Hong Kong fashion journalist what she thought and she said “I don’t think Chinese people will wear that” motioning to the neck to illustrate the high necks on the dresses resembling cheongsam collars, that were a motif in the show. I, on the other hand was too dazzled by the Mulleavy sisters’ newly softened approach to notice any Chinoiserie notes of the collection that may or may not be Chinese women’s tastes.
Then just under a month later, Louis Vuitton closed the S/S 11 season of shows with a parade of glamped-up Chinese razz-ma-tazz femmes, rife with Mandarin collars, cheongsam-style dresses with thigh high splits, embroidery of bamboo, orchids and pandas – everything that conjured up a glamourized vision of an ‘exotic’ Chinese costume, filtered down from 1930s Shanghai straight to the 1970s where a laviscious intent lies beneath the clothes. From there, a more straightforward link to China, as the looming economic superpower and spending heavyweight was presented for us to speculate upon. Some reviewers interpreted the collection as an appeal to this market, which to me seems too generalistic a statement, and certainly contradicts with what that journalist said about Rodarte.
To be fair, Rodarte’s collection in contrast to Louis Vuitton only really nods to Chinese detailing whilst retaining their usual mish mash of influences that makes their collection not one guided by ethnic bias but an ode to emotive 70s suburbia-derived textures and a girlish naivete that always makes Rodarte’s collection so deliciously good to analyse. I therefore only use Rodarte as a starting point to my querying post.
After fashion month, I’ve been bashing my head about the presence of an Asian aesthetic in some of the collections this season, specifically looking to Louis Vuitton, a collection that references some clichés that perhaps might not sit all that well with actual Chinese women. My opinion is but one of over a billion of course and my perspective as a British Born Chinese person is even more warped in that generally speaking, there exists a love hate relationship with ethnic heritage on varying levels when growing up in a country that’s biologically not your own. Previously I’ve stated that I have trouble wearing Chinese traditional dress as a rule of thumb, stopped by the gut feeling that I don’t really wish to wear my ethnicity on my sleeve as well as being in fear of looking like a waitress in a dodgy restaurant or a roleplay actor in a theme park. That said, traditional dress, when abstracted, reflected, refracted and dissected can have positive results, and in truth, I love both Rodarte and Louis Vuitton's collections, before and after raising this query about the ethnic connotations on a wider level.
However beyond my wanton sartorial desires, I really wanted to find out whether presenting a Chinese aesthetic would indeed appeal to the Chinese, when there were these insider signs telling me that Chinese women would find it hard to accept or wear certain looks from the collection for numerous reasons be it a detachment to the shackles of old fashioned traditional dress or just a lack of desire to look overtly Chinese.
Sarah Rutson, fashion buying director at Lane Crawford of Hong Kong who has a great insight into the shifts of buying patterns within mainland China and Hong Kong says “China customers are not wanting to buy looks that are obviously ‘China Doll’ as the reality is it is too close to home and costume -y. The Chinese customer loves colour and embraces lux rich fabrics and with a brand like Louis Vuitton they will embrace certain looks because of colour, print and fabrics, not because it is a reworked cheong sam. I remember when Tom Ford did his last YSL collection - the world loved it and I looked at the YSL representative for the China region and it was not the happiest face I’ve seen.”
By this admission, the term 'China Doll', which peppers Rutson’s comments, is deemed to be a symbolic image that is entrenched as something of a turn-off. Even if I don't necessarily know what it means I sort of understand the negative association. Despite the fact that I thought so much of Louis Vuitton was decorative in all the ways that tickled my fancy, there was something that did trigger off the fear of someone tapping me on the shoulder should I be fortunate enough to be wearing one of the ensembles, going “Suzie Wong wants her dress back” (of course this fictional character was name-dropped into some of the reviews about the collection).
Connie Wang, global editor at Refinery 29 who is American Born Chinese hones in on the 'China Doll' better definition than I and furthermore, makes an interesting observation that differentiates the feelings of an overseas placed Chinese person to that of someone living in China: “I think that there are some women - especially in Asia - who would find it fun that designers are appealing to Asian sensibilities and are making high-fashion qi paos for them. But for lots of us who want to avoid all those weird connotations that traditional Asian dress signifies in Western cultures (docility, demureness, opium-den-sluttiness, etc), it's the least appealing thing.” I’m not in favour of making sweeping generalisations but sadly Wang's point about the stereotype of the docile and demure Chinese woman is most certainly one that still exists.
The differentiation between Chinese people of different backgrounds is also affirmed by, Deuscher Tang, features editor of Numero China who brings up a detachment to traditional Chinese dress by way of the Cultural Revolution in China. “You must know about the Cultural Revolution in 1960s till 1970s which abandoned all the traditions, which means we totally have no feeling (attachment to) for “tradition”, so I think local women will feel these Chinese traditional dresses on the catwalk are so beyond their life and exotic.” Miuccia Prada’s recent quote given at the recent Prada show in Beijing: “I was told that people do not like being reminded of the past” perhaps therefore referred more to Mao-uniforms than the cheongsams and qi paos.
Still, Tang also goes onto say that the likes of Shanghai Tang have been exporting this aesthetic for years and that it’s a label that does mainly cater to Westerners rather than a local clientale, an opinion that makes me think of my own perverse and secret belief that cheong sams and qi paos just look a whole lot more interesting on a non-Chinese person.
If we can't take anything away other than indifference or mild dislike to 'China Doll' looks, then perhaps we can accept a compliment. Peggy Tan, a young designer based in New York, points out that collections such as Louis Vuitton’s could potentially be a show piece cultural nod that indirectly garners sales, if not of the pieces from the catwalk collection themselves. “I am not so sure if Chinese will actually buy and wear those show pieces but it certainly is good PR. I think Chinese people are happy to know that a designer/brand appreciates Chinese culture or that they are “Chinese friendly.” And that makes them more willing to buy products form the brand even if not this one.”
Tan’s own label Mandarin & General demonstrates the incorporation of Chinese-inspired details that is both subtle and effective and illustrates Chinese-inspired pieces that I personally would wear on a daily basis. “I noticed most of the Chinese inspired designs (including many of Chinese own local brands) focus on the obvious decorative motifs. It is understandable since the designers don’t always have time to really investigate the cultural background and historical trends of Chinese garments (there were many just Qipao along), and those surface treatments make good show pieces and visual statements. The draw back is the results usually feel more like novelty items. This is also what motivated me to start Mandarin & General. I want to fill that void and create truly modern and wearable clothes that play with the structural and functional details rather than the cliche.”
It’s not gonna take a paltry blog post to dissect the full ins and outs of Chinese market reaction to the presence of chinoiserie in high fashion. It’s also important to remember that, Marc Jacobs’ own references for this Louis Vuitton collection are not directly Chinese-influenced either even if the visual results suggest otherwise. The pop-art and highly stylized nature of the collection actually made me think that the costume-y elements were heightened enough for me to instantly want to wear a lot of the pieces without too many internal qualms. It also has to be said that everyone I spoke to heaped high praised upon Louis Vuitton's stylised collection, which when you look beneath the cliched surface is in my opinion, a solid stroke of positive kitsch.
The bottom line of all of this comes down to singular personal tastes that can’t be swept into neatly boxed-in opinions, but relating this all back to China’s imminent pole position to become the place to make/break profit margins for designers and luxury fashion houses, it’s interesting to momentarily confront this complex relationship with traditional dress that gives a generation of part-time Chinese observers such as myself much to think about when faced with a pivotal and conveniently themed collection such this one by Vuitton. On a more general end note, Rutson's sums up her thoughts on China as a consumer force that is ever present on the minds of fashion brands and designer as thus... "Understanding that the worlds most important market is China is one thing - I'm sure designers are not naïve enough to think Mainland Chinese want ideas based on their "national" idealized dress from the past. This is not the way to break the market or show an understanding of their needs!" Goes without saying of course...