Really interesting post by fashion blogger Susie Bubble on Asian influences in Western designer fashion, and whether this will work (and what it means) given that much of the customerbase (and all the growth) for these brands is now in markets such as China…
After fashion month, I’ve been bashing my head about the presence of an Asian aesthetic in some of the collections this season, specifically looking to Louis Vuitton, a collection that references some clichés that perhaps might not sit all that well with actual Chinese women. My opinion is but one of over a billion of course and my perspective as a British Born Chinese person is even more warped in that generally speaking, there exists a love hate relationship with ethnic heritage on varying levels when growing up in a country that’s biologically not your own. Previously I’ve stated that I have trouble wearing Chinese traditional dress as a rule of thumb, stopped by the gut feeling that I don’t really wish to wear my ethnicity on my sleeve as well as being in fear of looking like a waitress in a dodgy restaurant or a roleplay actor in a theme park. That said, traditional dress, when abstracted, reflected, refracted and dissected can have positive results, and in truth, I love both Rodarte and Louis Vuitton’s collections, before and after raising this query about the ethnic connotations on a wider level.
However beyond my wanton sartorial desires, I really wanted to find out whether presenting a Chinese aesthetic would indeed appeal to the Chinese, when there were these insider signs telling me that Chinese women would find it hard to accept or wear certain looks from the collection for numerous reasons be it a detachment to the shackles of old fashioned traditional dress or just a lack of desire to look overtly Chinese.
Sarah Rutson, fashion buying director at Lane Crawford of Hong Kong who has a great insight into the shifts of buying patterns within mainland China and Hong Kong says “China customers are not wanting to buy looks that are obviously ‘China Doll’ as the reality is it is too close to home and costume -y. The Chinese customer loves colour and embraces lux rich fabrics and with a brand like Louis Vuitton they will embrace certain looks because of colour, print and fabrics, not because it is a reworked cheong sam. I remember when Tom Ford did his last YSL collection – the world loved it and I looked at the YSL representative for the China region and it was not the happiest face I’ve seen.”
One the one hand, a lot of fashion’s orientalism is explicitly imaginary, based on a fantasy of “Old Shanghai” decadence. It’s not (directly) the dangerous sort of orientalism that devalues by its co-opting, because designers aren’t claiming to define any truth for ‘Oriental’ cultures, and also because they purloin from Western history with the same ceaseless magpie-ism. Instead it’s simply relentless postmodernity where all images are equal.
It’s a fascinating fantasy to have resonance at the moment. As I understand, Shanghai in the 1930s generated its buzz from being a trade hub and a cosmopolitan melting pot – essentially globalised, much as we (falsely) believe globalisation to be a phenomenon of the past 40-odd years.
So I wonder whether the return to this imagery is about fashion trying to get a handle on what globalisation means now. What to do now that – in barely 5 or 10 years – their main consumer base has seismically shifted East. When the West is scared by what we perceive as the discipline and the dynamism of these quite alien cultures, a fashion collection like this is an attempt to mollify these anxieties by translating the Other into a familiar repertoires of Glamour and A Time When The Europeans Were There. It’s an attempt to persuade ourselves – despite our economic fears – that it’s all going to be ok.
(Designers cannot yet entertain the possibility that emerging market countries have their own distinct ideas of glamour, let alone dare to start learning aesthetic registers that may be quite separate from Western norms.)
Of course the Chinese consumer doesn’t want to buy our Western neuroses. These collections won’t sell. Jacobs won’t have the economic luxury of designing anything so self-indulgent for Louis Vuitton much longer.