What does the fashion set in China want? Top European labels, sure. But these days, increasingly, they’re shifting their focus to homegrown, independent Chinese brands – and no wonder. With styles ranging from street-inspired and modern to avant-garde and elaborate, numerous designers from China are finding an audience both at home and overseas. We pick four names who represent the diverse fashion scene emanating from the country.
The crossover queen
After completing her studies at London’s Central Saint Martins, she put on one successful runway show after another at London and Paris fashion weeks, quickly making a name for herself in the international fashion world. Today Masha Ma is one of China’s most well-known designers in the West, and she’s barely over 30.
Her eponymous main line, channelling underground subculture, has a cool, raw-edged appeal. But it’s Ma’s younger, more commercial secondary line, MA by Masha, that is going to help grow her presence in China: some 80 stores are planned for the next five years.
This expansion will place Ma firmly in the mainstream among young Chinese, whose fashion evolution she has witnessed with keen interest. ‘The industry and fashion scene have grown so much in recent years and are becoming more international and sophisticated,’ she says. ‘Street style is really gaining sway here, too.’
Last year Ma designed outfits for team China for the Rio Olympics; it was the first time the country’s chosen designer was internationally known, an indication of how far China’s fashion has come. But to Ma, Chinese designers shouldn’t be lumped together based on nationality alone, when each has an individual creative direction. ‘People always talk about “Chinese designers” as if we’re all alike,’ says Ma, ‘but would you say that to a French or British designer? No.’
The artful demi-couturier
For Fang Yang, couture doesn’t mean stuffy. Her philosophy is ‘couture-a-porter’. With a focus on timelessness – enduring styles and durable quality to last years – she has been making headway with couture-inspired detailing on outfits that are fashion forward and artistically inclined yet incredibly modern and youthful. Crisp origami pleats, bold patterns and elegant silhouettes have become signatures of the Shanghai-based designer’s work.
‘My goal is sustainability,’ she says. ‘Timeless clothing with an extreme attention to detail and a clear motto: I want women who wear my collections to feel confident, comfortable and unique.’
Since starting her brand in Paris, where she studied at Esmod and hung out in the city’s contemporary art circles, Fang has been busy building up her client base in China with both her couture line, Atelier by Fang, and her ready-to-wear line, By Fang. She’s recently collaborated with lingerie manufacturer SangLuo to create a black-and-white capsule collection.
She’s had a front-row seat to the transformation of China’s homegrown fashion scene. ‘More and more exposure is built as the world acknowledges that China will play a big role on the international scene, in fashion as in many other fields,’ she says. ‘It surely has created a very positive energy in these past few years.’
The grand couturier
She’s cornered the women’s couture market in Beijing and Shanghai with a combination of extravagant runway pieces and glamorous, easy-to-wear outfits. Chen’s clientele are the conservative, wealthy elites of China’s business and political circles who are more concerned with classic elegance than this season’s trends on the runways of Paris, New York or Milan. She counts China’s first lady Peng Liyuan and former Chinese ambassador to the UK Fu Ying among her customers.
After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Chen worked in eveningwear in both Los Angeles and New York before starting her own couture label in Shanghai. And her rise has been fast, especially in the past two years. She’s sought after overseas, too, thanks in part to collaborations with foreign embassies and government officials to stage VIP couture shows in Paris, London and New York, becoming one of the few Chinese designers to have a strong international diplomatic presence.
Most of the time, though, Chen hosts her well-heeled, mostly middle-aged clientele in her atelier in Beijing’s Guomao area or at the House of Grace Chen – a huge, glossily refurbished 1930s mansion in Shanghai’s former French Concession – where she takes private appointments and throws the occasional party or intimate runway show.
‘We’re in an era of transformation. It’s not only about style, but also about lifestyle, social style, even technology and retail – there are many things going on in China that haven’t happened in other countries,’ says Chen. ‘I think we are at a great time and major turning point for Chinese fashion.’
The menswear millennial
Meet Chinese fashion’s cool, new kid, whose edgy aesthetics in menswear and androgynous take on young subculture are making an impression at home and abroad.
Zhou started off studying graphic design in China before pursuing fashion design at the Hague in the Netherlands. He returned and started his brand in Beijing in 2007, offering menswear that incorporates the look of the artsy Beijing crew he hangs out with.
Zhou’s name is spreading outside China, especially in London; he shows at biannual showcase London Collections: Men and spends a fair amount of time in the British capital. Cool coats, deconstructed layers and interesting, sometimes conflicting silhouettes are signatures. Now his eponymous line is sold in London, New York, Tokyo, Seoul and his native China. His spring-summer 2017 collection is all huge, hanging hoodies, big vinyl fabric coats and baggy trousers with straps – very of-the-moment in menswear.
As China’s fashion scene flourishes, Zhou sees it as the time for designers to make their mark. ‘The fashion scene in China has become more chaotic and at the same time more promising over the past few years, more happening than before,’ says Zhou. ‘It is a state of anarchy in which everyone is finding his own way to express himself.’