The Young and the Hungry: Emerging designers debuting at Shanghai Fashion Week

“The character I created this time is a really bad girl,” says Angel Chen, a 24-year-old fashion designer from Shenzhen, of the inspiration behind her Autumn/Winter 2016 collection, Fight Club. “She’s a biker-gangster. In Japan it’s called bosozoku, which means biker-gangsters who come out during the night. They’ll probably carry a knife with them, and they’ll wear this uniform with embroidery that might say violent words like, ‘I’m the top of the universe,’ or ‘hundreds of ghosts come out in the night.”

Chen tells us this over coffee near her studio in Zhabei District, though her new brawl-themed collection is still in Paris, where it debuted at fashion weeks there and in London. She’s shipping it all back to Shanghai this month for the Autumn/Winter season of Shanghai Fashion Week (SFW), the biannual event that’s increasingly driven by young designers like Chen, who’ve studied abroad and then come back home to help cement Shanghai’s status as the fashion capital of China.

SFW launched in 2003, exactly 40 years after New York Fashion Week first opened its tents, and quickly snowballed into a platform for emerging Chinese designers. The rapid success of Shanghai Fashion Week has also, according to Chen, left European and American designers “crazy” to get in the game. “Before China became popular like this, many Chinese designers wanted to go to Europe or to USA, to show their collections there,” she explains. “But now, everyone wants to come here.” 

Chen has been out of school for less than two years (she attended Central Saint Martins in London, alma mater of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen and arguably the world's most prestigious fashion school). She made this year’s Forbes List of 30 under 30 Asia, and international shops like trendy American boutique Opening Ceremony carry her line, along with Dong Liang here in China. But despite her rising international reputation, Chen still lives and works in Shanghai, which she believes is the epicenter of Chinese fashion. “Shanghai has a history of wanting to be the most fashionable [city] in China since the Qing Dynasty,” she says, citing the local invention of the qipao.

It's a different story for Chinese designers entering the international market, according to Fengchen Wang, a menswear designer from Fujian now based in London. “There's still a general perception among fashion consumers that China is not a place that designers come from,” Wang says. “That instead we just run the factories that make designs by Italian, French or British designers.”

This perception may be changing, however; Wang is part of the new generation of young Chinese designers who have achieved much international success in a short time. A version of Wang’s graduate collection, an otherworldly mix of zippers, folds and wires inspired by her father’s cancer diagnosis, debuted at New York Fashion Week last year, while her A/W 16 collection, I AM A MAN, showed there this February.

Wang will be flying in from London to take part in SFW A/W 2016 because she hopes to reshape the international reputation of Chinese designers. “I think any designer who responds genuinely to the things that impress or matter to them is unique, because they are dealing with the things that affect them in their heart,” she explains. “Whatever we feel in that space is what we are.”

Shanghai Staples: Tried-and-tested SFW veterans

The flagship store of Poesia by Chris Chang stands on the ground floor of Jing An Kerry Centre with its unmistakable irreverent aura and a fluorescent-patterned kimono in the window. In a café across the hall, the brand's founder and designer explains why SFW A/W 16 will be her best season yet. 

A Chinese-American who grew up in San Francisco and worked at Prada in Taiwan, Chang has been showing Poesia at SFW since 2009. This year, she’s syncing her A/W collection with the release party of her collaboration with MAC Cosmetics, a suitably psychedelic-colored line of unconventional lipsticks and rouges inspired by a futuristic version ofKunqu, the traditional Chinese opera from Suzhou.

Chang says she decided on the concept in five minutes. “When I moved to China, I saw a lot of Kunqu performances, and it was kind of like a big hammer on the head,” she recalls. “I realized that actually, all of my color aesthetics and the way that I like to style women was very much in line with Kunqu: dramatic makeup, dramatic costumes.”

Between 2009 and 2016, Chang has seen SFW grow in both prestige and commercialism, eclipsing Beijing Fashion Week, which is older (it launched in 1997) and was initially the more prominent of the two. “Now Beijing Fashion Week is—I don’t want to say it, but it’s almost obsolete compared to SFW,” she says. “Fashion weeks are about commerce, and Shanghai has been about merchandise since the beginning.”

The downside is that SFW's coveted slots are more costly and are increasingly being awarded to large brands over local designers, who can no longer afford to rent a space in Xintiandi and stage a show. Chang has made it happen season after season, however, and is now hoping to expand beyond Shanghai through her MAC partnership, though she’s taking the time to do things right. 

“I’m a little more mature, so I’m not as hungry as the new designers,” she says. “They have this hope of breaking in and breaking out immediately. I’m comfortable with drawing people by word of mouth, and we’ve been okay with business right from the start.”


Another SFW veteran is Shanghainese designer Helen Lee, whose work embodies the city perhaps more than anyone else’s. Lee got her start in the early 2000s with a streetwear brand called insh (short for “In Shanghai”) and is one of the few well-known Chinese designers who never studied outside the Chinese mainland—a distinction she wears like a badge of honor. 

Lee showed at the inaugural SFW in 2003 (the organizers invited her free of charge, something that doesn't happen anymore) but stopped participating six seasons ago. “We were kind of growing up with Shanghai fashion; everything was new and fresh,” she says of the first SFW. “It’s more for young designers who are very excited to showcase.” After launching her namesake brand and seeing it evolve, Lee moved away from SFW to accommodate the needs of her international buyers, including Australian outlet David Jones, which makes its purchases earlier in the season.  

Because of this, Lee is showcasing her collection abroad this month for the first time at LA Fashion Week. This overseas expansion is of great significance for her; it’s an opportunity she’s turned down in the past because she felt she couldn't handle the increase in business. “I was invited by London Fashion Week and others,” she recalls. “I could go, but then what? I figured that I needed to build the system first.”

Even now that her system is built, Lee remains aware of the difficulties ahead. She's named her new collection, a riot of synthetic fur and gold chiffon, “Find Me (Qing Zhao Wo)” after the stuggle of setting yourself apart as a fashion designer.  “It’s quite ironic,” she says. “There are so many good designers, so how do you stand out? You work hard, you do your own collection very well, but sometimes it’s not enough.” 

Na Zhang of local label Fake Natoo also understands the sometimes-grim realities that the business entails. When she launched her brand in 2007, she planned to name it Natoo after herself, but a manufacturing company in Tianjin had already registered the name. “We offered them ¥60,000 to buy this name from them, but they said no,” she recalls. “So we said, ‘Okay, you’re the real Natoo, so we’ll call ourselves Fake Natoo.’” 

In the end, the new name fit well. “I think clothes are like a mask, and we have to wear our mask to translate something to our customers,” she explains. “We think ‘Fake’ references that mask, so actually Fake Natoo is the right name for us. It has a lot of meaning." 


Fake Natoo’s aesthetic offers a similarly understated rebellion. In Zhang’s lane house studio on Changshu Lu, samples from her previous collection—which she showed at the last SFW—feature what looks from a distance like a series of abstract laser-cut patterns. Up close, however, viewers see they're actually silhouettes of women kissing women and men kissing men in romantic colors like white and pastel pink. For A/W 2016, Zhang has decided to “slow down”; she'll debut her new collection, which features more laser-cut patterns and a theme of “flowers that grow out of stone,” in a private showroom in lieu of SFW. 

Zhang has always been based in Shanghai, and the city's commercial conveniences (like the many factories in the region) as well as its fast-emerging reputation keep her here. “In the last three years, there’s been a huge change in Shanghai fashion,” she says. “I believe the city has a lot of potential.”

 The Rebels: Designers devoted to breaking the rules

 “Do you want to see my fox?” asks Tiffany Pattinson, a Hong Kong designer based in Shanghai, as she leads the way up the hardwood staircase of her friend’s 26th-floor penthouse apartment in Jing’an. The top floor opens onto the rooftop garden, a square of overgrown greenery where an Arctic fox wearing a collar runs around happily in the cold. “I got him from an online forum,” she says. “They were going to turn him into a fur coat if someone didn’t adopt him.”

 Pattinson and fellow designer Joyce Wang use this unusual flat, which holds several mannequins and a sewing machine, as an office and studio while they prepare for “weRable,” a sustainable fashion show slated for April 7 (SFW's opening night) that will pose as a grassroots alternative to the Xintiandi event. 

“If there were sponsors, then of course I’d do it,” says Wang of SFW. “But you have to pay something like RMB200,000 to get in there. Start-ups and local new designers don’t have that much money.” In the year that Wang’s been living in Shanghai, she’s excelled at putting on fashion shows for free with volunteer models and donated venues, and the same will go for “weRable” in April. 

After all, no scene is really a scene until people start reacting against it, and global design centers like New York and Paris see dozens of alternative fashion shows alongside their fashion weeks every season. Grassroots efforts like these are worthwhile alternatives to Shanghai's commercial side as well as proof of SFW's solidifying prestige and upward trajectory. 


In fact, Alternative Fashion Week by The Dark Mattress first brought Wang to Shanghai from Beijing last April. This community initiative only lasted one season, in part because the government shut down its venue the day before the debut. “They didn’t want to have an alternative fashion week against actual Fashion Week,” says Wang. She and Pattinson both believe, however, that positing their sustainable fashion shows as a SFW alternative may fare better, because, in Pattinson’s words, “[sustainability] is just another option; it’s not really confronting anything.”

The recent success of the Fur Free Fashion Gala at Grand Hyatt in mid-March—a large scale event promoting cruelty-free clothing that showcased 17 labels and saw endorsements from celebrities like the reigning Miss Earth China—supports this theory, and the sustainability trend extends down to a streetside level: another Shanghai designer far outside the high-end workings of SFW who’s involved in the movement is Spanish expat Monica Muriel Zurita, who opened her eponymous store Zurita on Wulumuqi Lu across from Avocado Lady in September 2015.

She features customer volunteers instead of models for her promotional material (a recent lookbook featured two enthusiastic customers in a South Bund alley of colorful fabric stalls) and uses only all-natural, local fabrics like bamboo and silk in her minimalist designs. “We source locally, produce locally,” Zurita says. “It's for logistics, but it’s also more environmentally friendly and more logical to develop your community than to do it somewhere else.” 

For the upcoming “weRable” show, Wang and Pattinson are sourcing their fabric from the Buyizhe minority in Guizhou Province, who make patterns with indigo dye. “We separated the word ‘buyi,’” says Pattinson, “because bu means ‘fabric’ and yi means ‘garment.’” Pattinson focuses on the “bu,” using color-changing upcycled plastic to make her own fabric, while Wang tackles the “yi” by designing clothes with adjustable sizes for increased sustainability. 

As the two explain their plans for the Buyizhe collections, it’s apparent that they are just as concerned about pushing the envelope as the designers showcasing their SFW collections in Xintiandi. “It’s just time to change the idea of ‘made in China’ as being about copying and bad quality,” Pattinson says. “It can be something really cool and really original. There’s a lot of talent here.”



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