Saturday, 4 December 2010

Asia On My Mind

In fashion, Asia is everywhere. Many of New York's hottest designers are of Asian descent: Derek Lam. Jason Wu. Anna Sui. Doo-ri Chung. Alexander Wang. Naeem Khan. Wayne.  This month's Vogue has a spread totally devoted to the industry's top Asian models. And, of course, apparel manufacturing has moved from North America to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. In the Wester fashion industry's subconscious, we see the entire continent as a source for that stereotypical, lithe, shy girl with mysterious hair, or maybe the land of cheap labor and even cheaper knock-offs, or the place of origin for the brilliant children of immigrant families. But we never think of Asians producing clothing--much less couture--for their own market. That's about to change.

In a piece for T Magazine, fashion writer Cathy Horyn visits the workshop and studio of Guo Pei, China's premiere couturier. Horyn describes Pei as a "a study in Asian poise and etiquette." The whole article is tinged with an unfortunate racism, but Pei's character study serves to illustrate a larger point: caught between a love for traditional Chinese design, and an unimaginative but creative industrial infrastructure inherited from Mao's regime, Pei has set herself up to rival any Marchesa or Dior creation.

Guo Pei began her education at a moment in China where fashion and glamor didn't exist: apparel-making was a trade, not a craft. She enrolled in Beijing Light Industry School in 1982. When she asked her teacher how to make a large skirt, "'I don’t know, but maybe you can find a solution in costumes for opera,'  Guo Pei recalled. ‘‘At that moment, I fell in love with big things." Her large imagination eventually led to her opening her own studio in 1997. About four years ago, she took advantage of China's growing industry. Now, as Cathy Horyn points out, where Paris houses are starting to cut back on hand sewing to save costs, Pei can take advantage of cheap labor to create her dramatic pieces. One dress took 50,000 hours to embroider. While her designs are a little tacky--almost as if a Disney princess vomited glitter on an Alexander McQueen dress--no one can doubt the originality of Pei's vision. It's hard to imagine Beijing ever becoming a new Paris--especially with the instability that rapid industrialization brings (that cheap labor isn't going to be cheap for long--but there's no reason why designers in secondary markets like China won't be mentioned in the same breath as the Paris greats 20 years from now. (You can view Pei's Winter/Fall 2010 show here.)

Reading Pei's story reminded me of an Indonesian designer I caught sight of on Jezebel, Tex Saverio. According to his official blog, Saverio is 26 years old. He dropped out of high school--which his parents weren't too happy about--and eventually graduated from BUNKA Fashion School. His creations easily rival Alexander McQueen's in spirit and maybe even in technical achievement:

Oh, and did we mention that he's only 26?

Pei, Savario, and no doubt many other Asian designers are hungry for the big leagues. Luckily for them, they may not have to go to Paris to get there.

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