Western designers' China 'fetish'

CHINOISERIE: This cocktail dress by Dior features a script that was part of a medical report on intestinal disorders. In China, not everything made as a result of the West's enduring fixation with the country is appreciated.


    Jun 30, 2015

    Western designers' China 'fetish'


    IN 1951, when French designer Christian Dior used a piece of customised fabric with Chinese calligraphy printed on it for a cocktail dress, little did he know that the script - taken from an eighth-century stele inscription - was part of a medical report on intestinal disorders.

    Today, the dress is on show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it is exhibited on the same floor as an intricately embroidered one-shoulder "dragon gown" created for Chinese actress Fan Bingbing by Laurence Xu, one of China's most exciting designers.

    Titled China: Through The Looking Glass, the exhibition that started last month has been very popular among visitors, according to the United States media. But among some 200 pieces of high-fashion clothing on display, only three are by two home-grown Chinese designers.

    Western fashion history is full of references to Chinese culture and the Met show isn't any different, fuelled by the imagination of those who have "a thing for the Orient", according to Xu.

    While it is difficult to say with certainty when the Western fashion fraternity's fascination with Chinese styles started, it is well known that silk caused a sensation when it first reached ancient Rome through overland and sea routes from China.

    In the past century, major Western designers - from Paul Poiret to Dior, Yves Saint Laurent (YSL), Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano - were intrigued by the "mysterious Middle Kingdom", in the words of Jiang Yi, a Beijing-based designer. Many other Dior creations were also inspired by China during his long, monumental career.

    But a colour palette with shades of blue or grey (Giorgio Armani uses greyish blue), ivory white and champagne isn't often the choice of many other Western designers when the theme is China. Most of their clothes come in fiery red or gold, on which spiralling dragons and fluttering phoenixes reign against backdrops of floating clouds and seething waves.

    Chinese exports ranging from jade and porcelain in the 18th century to Lee Ang and Wong Kar Wai movies in modern times provided visual stimuli for Western designers, many of whom lived in the first half of the 20th century and had never visited this faraway land, says Zuo Wen, a Beijing-based designer trained in London.

    "It was a glimpse of China that gave little indication of the country's cultural complexity, yet produced something very close to a fixation, a fetish."

    But in China, not everything made as a result of this enduring fixation is appreciated. Western designers' highly stylised renditions of Chinese motifs have led some reviewers to question the authenticity of their garments when it comes to interpreting China through sartorial means, according to Jiang. "If you look closely, although China has undergone dramatic changes over the past century, the clothes from Western designers inspired by China haven't."

    For Beijing designer Christopher Bu, who shot to fame after dressing Fan for the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 and 2012, stereotyping may be unavoidable owing to how people approach any foreign culture - looking for an element of exotica.

    According to him, the beauty of an YSL dress by Tom Ford, for instance, may hinge on many things including how it is cut. But a Met visitor may leave the exhibition just remembering dragons floating on a sea of red sequins.

    Similarly, Western designers' drawings may be influenced by what they most recall from a just-viewed Chinese art show or gongfu movie.

    Angelica Cheung, the directorial editor of Vogue China, dismisses criticism of superficial renderings as irrelevant.

    "A painter may see a leaf and want to paint it. That's an impulse," she says. "Western designers picked up certain elements of Chinese culture because those elements are different from what they are used to."