Chinoiserie Query




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 ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think Chinese people will wear that‚Äù 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‚Äô newly softened approach to notice any Chinoiserie notes of the collection that may or may not be Chinese women‚Äôs 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 ‚Äì everything that conjured up a glamourized vision of an ‚Äòexotic‚Äô 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs collection so deliciously good to analyse.  I therefore only use Rodarte as a starting point to my querying post. 


After fashion month, I‚Äôve 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 clich√©s 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‚Äôs biologically not your own.  Previously I‚Äôve stated that I have trouble wearing Chinese traditional dress as a rule of thumb, stopped by the gut feeling that I don‚Äôt 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 ‚ÄúChina customers are not wanting to buy looks that are obviously ‚ÄòChina Doll‚Äô 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‚Äôve seen.‚Äù

By this admission, the term 'China Doll', which peppers Rutson‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúSuzie Wong wants her dress back‚Äù (of course this fictional character was name-dropped into some of the reviews about the collection). 

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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: ‚ÄúI 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.‚Äù  I‚Äôm 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.   ‚ÄúYou 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 ‚Äútradition‚Äù, so I think local women will feel these Chinese traditional dresses on the catwalk are so beyond their life and exotic.‚Äù  Miuccia Prada‚Äôs recent quote given at the recent Prada show in Beijing: ‚ÄúI was told that people do not like being reminded of the past‚Äù 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.

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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‚Äôs could potentially be a show piece cultural nod that indirectly garners sales, if not of the pieces from the catwalk collection themselves.  ‚ÄúI 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 ‚ÄúChinese friendly.‚Äù  And that makes them more willing to buy products form the brand even if not this one.‚Äù

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Tan‚Äôs 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. ‚ÄúI 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‚Äôt 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.‚Äù

It‚Äôs 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‚Äôs also important to remember that, Marc Jacobs‚Äô 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‚Äôt be swept into neatly boxed-in opinions, but relating this all back to China‚Äôs imminent pole position to become the place to make/break profit margins for designers and luxury fashion houses, it‚Äôs 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 na√Øve 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…

(All backstage photography of Rodarte and Louis Vuitton by Morgan O'Donovan for Dazed Digital)

Pencils, Icing and Tea




>> Does a Friday afternoon require anything more than the components in the title of this post to make it a pleasurable one?  Especially when all of those things are combined in an event that feels less like an 'event' and more like an informal gathering at someone's house, and this case, the home is 123 Bethnal Green Road which I didn't know had a sweet little basement space that last Friday played host to Amelia's Compendium of Fashion Illustration launch party.  A 3pm-7pm timeslot means it's cake and tea time and it was Lily Vanilli that provided these little mini scones dusted with iridescent shimmery powder, accompanied by lashings of softened butter…


… as well as a centrepiece cake that nobody could bear to touch… I think a few of the white chocolate shavings coated with a pearlescent pink were peeled off for eating pleasure…



Dr Hauschka was on 'hand' to give hand massages to guests… I *think* the connection is that you surely need hands to do fashion illustraion.  Unless you have Christy Brown-type skills as seen in My Left Foot


Tea, scones and massages aside, the main point of celebration was of course the 30 fashion illustrators who have been featured in Amelia's compendium, a few of which were present at the event to draw guests and show off their work… here's Jenny Robins water colour-ing away…



Rachael de Ste. Croix aka Little Precious was tasked to draw me, which she did in a flurry. 


This is her page in the compedium, which is CHOCKER-filled both in terms of content and visual treatment.  The pages expand on the fashion illustration promotion that Amelia Gregory did in past issues of Amelia's Magazine, so in addition to showcasing work, there are indepth profiles to go with the visuals. 


Amelia has also used the compedium to showcase 50 ethical designers that are also illustrated by the ones featured in the compedium to link everything up.  I was admiring Amelia's Nina Dolcetti shoes that she had on last Friday… yes to the flat raised platforms… and they are made out of vegetable tanned leathers


This is Little Precious' final drawing on me after some computer wizardry… if my cheeks where this rosy, my mother wouldn't have to keep making me drink strange Chinese medicine to get some 'colour' into my pallid face…


I thought I'd take this chance to thank the illustrations that regularly come through my inbox as well – I'm not sure what prompts them to do so.  As per what I said before about fashion illustrations of myself – you can't really be preening and primping at images at yourself because that's just a slippery path so instead, I like to think of them as imaginary cartoon interpretations of myself – what would I look like if I was an animated character…?  Obviously in the hands of various people, they're all very different beasts indeed…

By Nancy Zhang who has a very cute take on an outfit blog as her pics are also accompanied by illustrations…


By Nancy Macknack from the Netherlands… ok, less cartoonish and more like the imaginary svelte figures that I used to draw myself as when I was a child even though I was just a stumpy 4" nothing being…


By Panda Panda of Frida Where Are You?, probably the most realistic representation of myself…


“More, More, More – how do you like THAT?” Part III


It's taken me about four months to get my arse into gear and conclude the analysis of the "More, More, More" series of seminal London fashion week collections, that got my eyeballs enlarged, goosepumps tingling and hands clapping last season.  Actually it's taken me nearly a year to say that it shook me to the core when Meadham Kirchhoff did what seemed like a 180 in their A/W 10-11 show, taking their deconstructed craftsmanship and shedding its utilitarian shell to reveal a Christmas tree decoration explosion that took place on the catwalk, set to a Bedouin tent backdrop.  It was a jolt that spoke so specifically to the side of me that can't resist layers, adornment, too much, textures, complexity and femininity that satisfies you and you alone and doesn't play up to the pressures of flirtations with other people.  Basically, what Meadham Kirchhoff have done in their past two collections is sum up my ideal vision of attire in a hyper reality where parks might look a little like their set for their S/S 11 show as seen below.  I also say it's a hyper reality because wearing pieces as beautifully made as Meadham Kirchhoff's everyday might be a little dizzying, a drug-like experience if you will. 

I guess Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchhoff don't need the seal of approval from myself when they have since been recognised in an official capacity with an Best Emerging Talent award at the British Fashion Awards as well as winning Fashion Forward sponsorship for the first time.  Therefore, it seems like the perfect time to extol what will be hitting stores very soon and look forward to what they have in store for A/W 11-12 collection which apparently will involve "Revolt, texture and feminism" – in other words, more of the same, except with a little more added on top?


If the A/W 10-11 was initially clouded by onlookers' reactions of confusion followed up by eventual delight, then I was definitely come over with instant lust for the S/S 11 collection, beginning with the glittering headpieces by Nasir Mazhard and ending in more sequins and embellishment at the feet courtesy of the shoes designed by Nicholas Kirkwood for Pollini.  I remember speaking to the boys at their A/W 10-11 show and asking about their seeming 180 degree swing, and they said that they're still just young designers who can't be boxed in yet.  Those words have put in a swig of perspective into how I view young designers and their career trajector, and by young, I mean with less than five years of consistent collections under their belt – how can we expect designers to find their niche immediately and limit them in terms of aesthetics in such a short period of time?  Because fashion requires jam jar labelling immediately?  Because we heap pressure on young designers (especially those in London) to reach dizzying heights in one season?

Still, looking back at Meadham Kirchhoff's past collections, the details of deconstruction were always there except they have now burst into a colourful passage, creating a genre and signature that is uniquely their own.  The 'grunge and utilitarian' box has been bust open and instead we have something that alludes to aspects of princesses, punk, lolita, goth, My Little Ponies, defunct labels like Biba and Granny Takes a Trip, Victoriana, Fruits, New Romantics… and you can go on, but you certainly can't pick a singular description, noun, music genre or era to sum it all up… and you wouldn't want to…










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The thing that is consistently emphatic though is the beautiful make which yes, means prohibitive prices but would it make sense if this colourful chaos was let down by shonky handiwork?  Nope… and in a perverse way, I like that the dreamy aspect of the clothes is further impounded by the fact that they're beyond my reach…




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Well…except… I'm still crossing my fingers that somehow a pair of these will magically appear on my feet with the click of a finger.  Actually, with the rub of a finger as I can't click them properly to make a noise.  Will someone hear my silent finger rub?  Let's hope the designs that Nicholas Kirkwood did for Studio Pollini will all be commercially available…

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(All catwalk detail shots from and backstage shots taken from Dazed Digital)

If dreaming is all that can be done about the bona fide thing, there's no stopping me from accessing the spirit of Meadham Kirchhoff's collections that affected me from the beginning of that A/W 10-11 show and all the way through the S/S 11 one.  It's a spirit that means that there is a higher element of 'play' when getting dressed.  There's a trial and error with layering different things together because I'm not about to give it all up for the easy-to-reach option of flinging on the simple formula of shirt + trousers + jacket.  So it will take longer.  My bed will become a disarray of vintage slip dresses, old pieces that I hardly ever wear anymore.  It's a my idea of a fun puzzle to solve, piecing things together until I feel that there's a smidgen of the sort of uncompromising feminity that Meadham Kirchhoff get so spot on.  I say a smidgen because of the absence of the real McCoy but I'll settle for smidgen.  Any excuse to stare blankly at clothes on my bed until a eureka moment comes along. 




(Vintage dusky pink shirt, vintage coral slip dress, Triskaidekaphobia black leather collar necklace, Topshop pleated pinafore dress, vintage pale blue knit skirt, Tabio coral stirrup socks, vintage shoes, Liberty fabric knot watch)



(Lanvin x H&M sheer cardigan, Carven bib collar, Browns Focus face vest, vintage coral cape, Issey Miyake Pleats Please fluro yellow skirt, vintage lace-edged trousers, Miu Miu shoes)

Lace Face Off


>> I think I may have embarrassingly pressed my face against the windows at Liberty today breathing onto the glass, whilst cooing "Ooooh… lacey facey…".  It's a good thing that Liberty tends to be security guard-lite otherwise he would have had to file some kind of complaint for window display infringement.  I might harrass the peeps at Liberty to see if I can put a name to this beautiful handiwork or was it that someone simply diligently cut into a doilie mat. 

The cause for all this lacework as well as the background sets is of course to welcome in the new S/S 11 collections full of pleats, textures and terracota and cinnamon hues as well as a slew of accessories from the likes of Proenza Schouler and Chloe that has me doing more window breath panting.  Not a pretty sight by the time you get to the far right window by the corner entrance to the department store.  Again, grateful for the absence of a stern looking security guard…