Fashion Kingdom

Article excerpt

Byline: Melinda Liu; With Lisa Movius in Shanghai

The Chinese repressed personal style during the Mao Years. Now they're ready to express themselves with elan.

When Angelica Cheung was growing up in Beijing in China's Maoist era, her grandma sewed her a pair of fitted black-and-white pants. She loved those pants--her grandma was a skilled seamstress--and proudly wore them to school. But her classmates taunted her, calling her "xiao zi, xiao zi," or petty bourgeoisie. Cheung stopped wearing the beautiful pants because of the bullying. "Maybe that's why I love black and white so much now," she says, with an easy laugh.

These days, no one is denigrating Cheung over her fashion choices--as editor in chief of Vogue China, she's an icon in the country's fast--growing world of fashion and luxury. The magazine's fifth-anniversary edition last September boasted 622 pages--a factoid that reflects the decade-long explosion of China's luxury market, now on track to become the world's largest by 2020. This isn't just another case of the newly rich in a developing country embracing top-drawer brands from the West--though there's plenty of that. Instead, China is becoming a destination in its own right for fashion's elite. Last week designer Diane von Furstenberg's DVF label threw a Red Ball in Shanghai and launched an exhibition at Pace Beijing, the first big New York commercial gallery to open a branch in the Chinese capital. German fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh just opened his first exhibition in China. Upcoming events on the mainland read like a fashion who's who: Burberry, Lanvin, Armani.

A few decades ago, von Furstenberg's dresses--with their fluid fabric and plunging necklines--would have stopped traffic in China. Today, her designs are popular among Chinese fashionistas. Von Furstenberg--who is married to Barry Diller, CEO of NEWSWEEK/THE DAILY BEAST's parent company, IAC--says she has long been fascinated by the Middle Kingdom and became convinced of the country's potential as a huge fashion market. "I never doubted China would become grand, because it has been grand in the past," she says. Four years ago DVF opened its first store in Shanghai, and in 2010 the designer made a New Year's resolution: "I want to be known in China." Last year she opened a second shop in Beijing, which quickly exceeded initial sales projections by 30 percent.

DVF's Red Ball cemented China's role as a venue for legendary fashion bashes. The designer held the event in a massive studio belonging to conceptual artist Zhang Huan, known for his use of ashes from Buddhist temples in paintings. The black-tie affair drew more than 500 partygoers, including actress Jessica Alba and high-end shoe designer Christian Louboutin, who plans to open a series of shops on the mainland. The event recalled the iconic "happenings" of Andy Warhol and New York's art and fashion glitterati transposed onto the landscape of contemporary Shanghai. (Indeed, Warhol is among the artists on display in DVF's Pace Beijing exhibition, which lasts through May 14.)

China's love affair with Western fashion began back in the 1980s, with the introduction of post-Mao economic reforms. Yet even among those who could afford the new luxury items, something of the old collectivist mindset remained: there was a tendency toward being "brand slaves," says Nels Frye, editor in chief of the bilingual LifeStyle magazine who also blogs on street fashion. But Frye has seen a decisive shift in the past few years in terms of a growing willingness to take fashion risks: "The big story emerging now is a move toward greater individuality, he says. …