The world of fashion design is not only about the dominance of American and European designers. There's also a new guard of fiercely independent faces born and bred in Asia, set to shake up the fashion industry with their own refreshing creations. Here, the five we've got our eyes on.
Liu Min describes her look as “edge with ease, ease with edge.” It’s a clever way to sum up an aesthetic that’s equal parts classic and cool, and a label that is growing to epitomise what modern Chinese women want from fashion today. With designs often labelled a “yin-yang of masculine and feminine,” Liu is known for clothing that hits the sweet spot between strong and subtle. “We all have that duality of masculine and feminine, and in my designs there is a constant dialogue between the two sides. Some days a women feels lacy, and others you need a hard pair of pants. This yin and yang exists in all of us.”
Growing up in Fuzhou, Liu discovered fashion via magazines. “My first fashion moments probably come down to a couple of images I found in magazines like Vogue and ID, and designs by Vivienne Westwood, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander. They literally left me breathless.” They also left her with a determination to get to the London College of Fashion, which she did. A stint at the decidedly avant-garde Viktor & Rolf design studio in Amsterdam followed, before she returned home, moved to Xiamen and in 2011 launched her label, which was picked up by Lane Crawford the same year. Liu’s trajectory mirrors that of the market she finds herself in, her contemporary label growing all the while
Liu’s trajectory mirrors that of the market she finds herself in, her contemporary label growing all the while alongside the dual forces of the Chinese women she serves so well and the world’s interest in fashion born of Asia. Liu attended the Met Ball in New York in 2014, launched her label in the US last year, where hip stores such as Opening Ceremony now stock her, and was a runner-up for the LVMH prize this year. “I think all eyes are on China for many reasons: the economic growth, the effect that overseas Chinese have had on world economies, combined with the vast number of us now travelling and shopping. It’s natural that the world is curious and more aware of Chinese art and fashion.”
Talent such as Liu’s is also giving the global market plenty to get excited about.
It would be fair to call Huishan Zhang the darling of China’s fashion scene right now. Celebrated from London to Shanghai, with couture clients scattered around the world from Hong Kong to New York, a slot on the London Fashion Week schedule and celebrities from Suki Waterhouse to Sarah Jessica Parker clamouring to wear his beautiful creations, he is more than having a bit of a moment. It all started back home in
It all started back home in Qingdao,before Zhang really knew what fashion was. “There wasn’t even a word for it, but I always used to try and find some freedom in clothes. For me, it was always about attitude,” he says. Zhang’s big break came courtesy of his years at Central Saint Martins in London, when Delphine Arnault chose him for an internship at Dior. “It was the most influential thing to happen in my career. I always had passion—but suddenly seeing those fabulous couture dresses every day in the atelier, I made a rule to touch everyone and to not waste any minute I had there. The experience really encouraged me to start out on my own. I realised I wanted to do something I associated with couture and also with my passion for Chinese culture, and that the best way to combine those was to launch my own brand.”
The brand that emerged in 2011 was immediately picked up by Browns in London and is one of the most exciting of Zhang’s generation. Known for what he terms “modern couture,” Zhang is the man women head to for beautifully conceived, feminine dresses that are lighter than air yet still feature beautiful embellishment. Even though he now oversees more than 150 styles a season— taking in ready-to-wear and couture, and with more daywear featuring in his line alongside his famous dresses—his emphasis is still on craftsmanship (“Often the things we design are as beautiful inside as out.”) He is fiercely proud of his heritage and everything is still made back home in Qingdao. “When Barneys picked us up, we were the first ever luxury brand made in China to sit on their couture floor, and we still make everything there today, from the first stitch to the last.”
Given the extraordinarily delicate, feminine beauty of his creations, you couldn’t ask for a better ambassador for the region.
With icons from Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge to Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerry Washington and Jessica Alba wearing her designs, Indian-born, Hong Kong-based Saloni Lodha is doing something right with her eponymous label. “My love affair with textiles began at a very young age growing up in India. My family originally hails from Rajasthan and women from my traditional community still wear saris on a daily basis. Their heavily embroidered blouses and tie-dye bandhani fabrics are often paired with an abundance of jewellery, and if I think about it, this was the real inspiration behind my initial interest in fashion.”
After Saloni’s launch in 2008, the label quickly became known for its flattering, draped dresses in kaleidoscopic prints. Fast-forward a few years and Saloni—the label and the lady—have grown up. The globe-trotting mother of one now offers a well-rounded proposition for women who want to look colourful, interesting and fashion-forward but not silly. “Our clothes are easy to wear and can take a woman from a wedding to the office. I design for someone with a multifaceted lifestyle. She is a working woman and a mother running around juggling many things but still wanting to look her best.”
For autumn/winter, that may involve some seriously smart tweed, wide-leg trousers, a statement midi skirt and silk blouse or a shirt-dress in one of those beautiful prints. As Lodha puts it, “the collections exhibit chic yet easy-to-wear pieces and evoke a free-spirited, inquisitive mood in keeping with a woman who pieces together the best things of life to make them entirely her own.” It’s no wonder, really, that she’s well on the up.
If you’ve attended a cocktail party, wedding or black-tie event in the past year, you’ve probably been in the company of someone wearing a Self-Portrait dress. The brainchild of Malaysian designer Han Chong, the label has exploded onto the fashion scene in just two-and-a-half years, changing the contemporary space and sparking an appetite for well-designed, intricate, feminine dresses that don’t break the bank.
It was his artist aunt who introduced Chong, the son of a butcher, to the world of creativity when he was growing up in Penang. He initially launched a brand with three others before branching out on his own. “I figured, since I’m still young, I might as well just give it a go and do what I really believe in. I really thought the market was missing my type of product, one that was a bit more thoughtful on the design details but still contemporary.” The key to Chong’s success has been his price points. “I’ve always wanted to offer contemporary prices because normal girls deserve good dresses as well. Looking fabulous is not just for millionaires.”
Now the Self-Portrait bandwagon could not be rolling with more force. Picked up by stockists all over the world, with sales reported I really thought the market was missing my type of product, one that was a bit more thoughtful on the design details but still contemporary.” The key to Chong’s success has been his price points. “I’ve always wanted to offer contemporary prices because normal girls deserve good dresses as well. Looking fabulous is not just for millionaires.” Now the Self-Portrait bandwagon could not be rolling with more force. Picked up by stockists all over the world, with sales reported
Now the Self-Portrait bandwagon could not be rolling with more force. Picked up by stockists all over the world, with sales reported to double season to season, Chong is dressing the likes of Rachel McAdams, Kristen Stewart and Beyoncé among the myriad women aged 15 to 50 who have fallen for his designs. “I think they give a good balance,” he says of why his designs strike a chord. “There is enough detail but they’re not too glamorous, so people can have fun in them. Plus they’re very flattering—there are a lot of really good brands out there, but sometimes when things are too expensive or fussy, you can feel too inhibited in them. Self-Portrait is a little bit more laidback. These are dresses to have a good time in.” And we predict plenty of good times ahead.
It didn’t take long for Helen Lee to flee the world of finance for fashion. “I met a friend who graduated from a fashion school in Shanghai. She asked me to participate in her graduation show, and I thought it was really cool,” she says. Unlike many prominent designers in the region, most of whom studied abroad, Lee is 100 per cent home-grown. As she puts it, “I’m very local. I studied in Shanghai, I design in Shanghai and I produce here.”
Lee launched her first label, Insh, in 2003. A streetwear concept, it raised a few eyebrows at first. “People didn’t get it. Ninety-nine percent of our customers were from other countries.” But she persisted and it paid off. “I wanted to do a label that included traditional Chinese elements in a modern international way. This was my big idea.”
As Insh developed and her customers grew up, Lee found herself being asked to design clothes to fit their new, more sophisticated lives. She responded by creating her eponymous label in 2011, with Helen Lee soon becoming the first luxury brand from Mainland China picked up by Lane Crawford. It quickly made a name for itself for its elegant and sleek yet playful lines as well as its original prints.
Lee is also the creative director of sportswear label Perfect Moment, introduced to the brand by her friend Sarah Rutson, a former Lane Crawford fashion director. “I guess she thought we were the perfect fit. And it’s really cool what we’re doing. We’re using very professional, technical fabrics, yet blending them with fashionable design elements.” However, she’s still making time for a bit of global domination. “Helen Lee is growing. I just did a show in LA where we received really good feedback. Next is New York and then probably London, Milan and Paris.”
Given her proven popularity in Asia, it’s likely the rest of the world will soon sit up and take notice of Helen Lee.
(Text by Gemma Soames)