Essay: Orient Excess

by Alexander Fury on 16 November 2011

Shaking off its Communist past, China has fast become fashion's latest promised land. Alexander Fury examines this season's Asian invasion.

Shaking off its Communist past, China has fast become fashion's latest promised land. Alexander Fury examines this season's Asian invasion.

Image by Nick Knight

Schlepping myself around the 2012 Resort press days earlier this year, I was struck by the Asian influences that seemed to throb through the collections. It wasn't as obvious as cheongsams and kimonos, but there were almost-oriental prints, vaguely Chinese embroidery and something about wide-cut, wide-set sleeves that hissed 'Tianjin, Beijing, Shanghai'. Those are, of course, fashion's new promised land - there's nothing forbidden about these cities, whose combined population is on a par with France or Britain (Shanghai's populus, at 23 million, exceeds that of either Spain or Australia). 

Fashion has been eyeing the orient for a while - I won't even go into the 'Japonisme' that threw up Poiret and the Ballets Russes a hundred years ago, and the stylised cherry-blossom strewn LV monogram in 1896. Ironically it was Marc Jacobs' Spring/Summer 2011 Vuitton show that started this Asian invasion, the one allegedly upbraided by LVMH brass for its oriental bent. Nevertheless, it hit a nerve for winter: none less consumer-savvy than Giorgio Armani made it the focus of his Privé line last couture week.

At that Privé show I was struck by the number of clients - not exclusively but predominantly Chinese - kitted out in Mr Armani's previous couture range, a line I dismissed as undesirable and entirely unwearable. The first assertion I stand by, but the latter was dismissed by a front row fairly shimmering in spring's techno-textiles. The one that leapt out at me was a variation on look 22 worn by a woman in her early fifties (although with the skin-chignons hocking the features of many a couture matriarch chez Gorg Giorg, she could have been closer to seventy). The jacket in her version was less waisted, the skirt below the knee and she'd ditched those leggings. The acid green and silky sheen remained.

The absence of 'desirability' I observed was perhaps the point: 'Chinese women want to look expensive, but not vulgar', a Paris fashion PR told me. 'They don't want to look like mistresses.' 'Short but haustère,' is young French designer Anthony Vaccarello's more flattering take. 'They don't care about the shortness of the dress, but they won't show the breasts.' Bad news for Far East export figures on Giles Deacon's fruity little sheer-and-sex Ungaro numbers from his final winter hurrah, but good news for designers who err on the more sensible side of sophisticated.

Maybe that's why moneyed Chinese are turning to haute couture. It isn't exactly synonymous with sexy, after all - those high necklines and ankle-length skirts are all the better to display thousands of pounds of embroidery rather than scream result wear. Then again, its not just the women: generally, Chinese tastes seem to veer towards the conservative. The men wear Zegna, the women wear Prada, they both wear Armani. The Chinese market is now a good 32% of Zegna's business - but what is it that marks Zegna out as worthy of so much attention? Probably because it doesn't say 'trend', but is recognisably fashion. It is also sufficiently masculine: men outnumber females by 20%, and hence the male market is dominant in China - 60% to 40%, the exact opposite of Europe.

The Chinese word for 'logo' is the same as the Chinese word for 'luxury'. That's more than a coincidence, it underlines the entire ethos of Chinese fashion consumption and creation.

This season, for the first time, the British Fashion Council's London Showrooms travelled to Hong Kong, exposing a new generation of high-end London designers - including Christopher Kane, Marios Schwab and Mary Katrantzou - to the Asian market. It did a roaring trade in the newly-booming Chinese department stores. 'Our Hong Kong clientele are very discerning and also adventurous,' London-based designer Erdem says, 'and colour is really important.'

'The Chinese buyers definitely purchase the more elaborate catwalk styles,' says Sophie Wright of London-based showroom Rainbow Wave, sales agent for designers including Meadham Kirchhoff, Peter Pilotto and J.W. Anderson. 'They love embellishment and unusual details or unusually cut styles - basically all the pieces that most markets (other than Japan) consider too difficult.' Designer David Koma concurs: 'this is such an important emerging market for us, they buy a lot of show pieces and we’ve had great sell through.'

So for China, high-octane, highly-visible brands are out, heritage is in. Very in. Example: Bottega Veneta analysed its e-commerce - when it saw how much came directly from China, it quickly opened stores in the vicinity. 21 stores, in fact. And it's the hyper-luxe pieces that are being shipped to the Bottega outposts in Shanghai, the painstakingly-pieced python-and-velvet handbags and anything in crocodile. 

The Chinese word for 'logo' is the same as the Chinese word for 'luxury'. That's more than a coincidence, it underlines the entire ethos of Chinese fashion consumption and creation - but rather than the negative connotations, why not look on it in a positive light? After all, there was a time in Western fashion when a designer name was synonymous with quality - buying a Dior dress was equivalent to buying a Rolls-Royce not only in terms of price, but of product.

Perhaps the Asian expansion marks a return to these qualities: a new society, albeit one with a tradition of luxury, demanding something new from the established names of the West. Perhaps that's why luxury goods manufacturing is being shipped out there, and why levels of excellence are equalling and even exceeding European centres while undercutting them on price. And maybe that's why China could be the real future of fashion.



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