We arrived at something which I would compare to the Eiffel Tower lighting up every hour on the hour. Something of artifice that is just so gorgeous, and glamorous, and beautiful, that you are completely mesmerized by it. – Marc Jacobs on the process that led to the Louis Vuitton campaign, found at ftape.com
While you would be forgiven for not noticing my minor cheongsam obsession, you will have found it impossible to ignore the proliferation of so-called ‘Oriental’ styles that have been cropping up on catwalks, on the High Street and in magazines over the summer and into next season. It seems I am not the only one enamoured with the East; first there was the successful exhibition of Chinese Imperial Robes at the V&A (read about it here), then the proliferation of Asian models on catwalks and in magazines which has courted controversy for some publications, and even a brief trend for fans, all of which highlight our ongoing love affair with the Orient. Not to mention the art direction of the recent Louis Vuitton campaign, where models lounge looking louche and languid, draped on lacquered furniture in what could be mistaken for a 21st century opium den, their exuberant attire combined with a deathly pallor reminiscent of any pleasure-dome of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan reverie or Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions. While these connotations have taken on a more sinister air in light of the recent tragedy of Amy Winehouse and the coinciding romanticising of addiction, they also highlight the ongoing stereotypes that the West hold of Far Eastern cultures, which centre on notions of decadence and the exotic.
To do Marc Jacobs justice, summer’s Louis Vuitton collection (which I adore) was not aimed at reinforcing reductive cliches, despite the qi paos and sensual ad campaign. In the show notes accompanying the collection he quoted Susan Sontag’s essay on camp, aligning the theatrical clothing with notions of performative fashion and exaggeration rather than recreating or redefining traditional Chinese styles. But his choice of China as the starting point for this journey remains relevant. The catch-all phrase of ‘Oriental’ is being used to sum up a profusion of current trends ranging from kimono sleeves to pyjama pant-suits and mandarin collars; even Hilary Alexander refers to such styles as ‘Oriental’ and ‘exotic’, beginning with the mantra “Go East fashionista!” and celebrating the “slinky, sensual allure of Orientalism”.
It seems almost unbelievable in our current age of post-Colonial political correctness that entire cultures, styles and countries can be conflated in this way, yet in the fantastical world of fashion journalism ‘exotic’ has become the new ‘ethnic’ – a generic phrase denoting distant lands and ancient hand crafts, ripe and ready to be pilfered by Western designers. But this is far from a recent phenomenon. As a sea-faring, trade-loving nation, the British have had a long history of assimilating foreign design into our own aesthetic; you can read about Orientalism in British design from the 17th century at the V&A, and a distinct Oriental influence was clearly evident throughout the Aesthetic Movement in the recent Cult of Beauty exhibition.
Japanese influence: 18th century print of Japanese courtesans by Eishi; 19th century Japanese court dress; and ‘The Princess from the Land of Porcelain’ by Aesthetic proponent James McNeil Whistler, 1864. From Art Deco Fashion Illustration and Fashion by Jane Dorner.
Throughout the last throes of the Belle Epoque, Poiret and his renowned Orientalist fantasies epitomised the spectacle of the burgeoning couture houses, sparking a trend for design and illustration (through collaborations with Iribe and Lepape) that would seamlessly reach the covers of Vogue.
Poiret often designed stage costumes alongside his couture; the notions of fashion and theatricality were intertwined for him, a theme which is mimicked in the S/S 2011 Louis Vuitton collection. Contemporaneous stage costumes for the Ballet Russes have been a perpetual source of inspiration for designers ever since, their renowned Middle and Far Eastern influences chiming perfectly with Poiret’s designs.
Ballet Russes: Costume for the Chinese Conjuror for ‘Parade’ (1917) – the first Cubist ballet with costumes by Picasso from the V&A; the Chinese Conjuror in action also from the V&A; Leon Bakst‘s design for the Blue Sultan in ‘Scheherazade’ (1910)
Leaping forward to 2004, Tom Ford’s final collection at YSL gave us the last extensive bout of Chinoiserie from a major design house. Inspired by Yve Saint Laurent’s 1977 Chinese collection (the same year that he launched his perfume Opium), Tom Ford was quoted at the time as saying “I felt the pagoda shoulder was right.” Mixing elements of architecture with both Mao-era utilitarianism and Qing Dynasty colours (yellow being an Imperial prerogative), Ford provided a whistle-stop tour of Chinese history in luxe fabrics and hourglass silhouettes.
Yves Saint Laurent’s original pagoda shoulder from his 1977 Chinese collection – the year he launched Opium. Find this and more archive YSL images here.
Yet the current fixation with Chinoiserie points to more than an interest in embroidered silk and dragon prints. The growth in the Chinese luxury market is well documented to the point of becoming an obsession – with facts bandied around everyday to help brands engage with this new feeding ground. In June China announced intentions to cut import duty on luxury goods to encourage domestic consumption, and according to Reuters it’s forecast to become the world’s largest luxury market by 2020 (it’s already the second largest behind the USA). Coupled with the eurozone crisis and yet another Wall Street wobble leading stock markets to plummet and fears of a double dip recession in the US, it’s no surprise that brands are flocking East in search of greener pastures and yuan-filled wallets.
This has led to something of a 21st century space race, with Western luxury brands competing for retail land in China and falling over each other to make their products accessible to this ever-expanding market. Western brands kowtowing to Chinese consumer demands knows no bounds, anything seems possible in order to tap into this prime market from Ferrari giving customers private driving lessons with professional Formula 1 drivers to re-imagined catwalk collections specifically tailored to Chinese consumers a la Prada and FedEx couriers waiting while customers try on their online purchases. Not to mention that Western markets also need to compete with the rise of home-grown fashion within China, championed vociferously by Hung Huang and her Brand New China boutique. The constant fawning over potential Middle Kingdom high-end markets has an interesting resonance with the recent Perfume series on BBC4, which highlighted how manufacturers are currently focused on creating products specifically for the BRIC countries and selling them to traditional Western markets almost as an afterthought. A phenomenon that the Wall Street Journal describes as a “trend of retailers offering special perks to impress upon China’s consumers they are priority No. 1.”
Elle Sweden July 2011 shoot by Joel Rhodin, featuring Josefine Ekman Nilsson found at Fashionising
Despite the many articles suggesting an apparent lack of sophistication in Chinese consumers, the overriding consensus is that customers in China aren’t interested in buying overtly Chinese-inspired designs. Susie Bubble contemplated this recently in a post that focused on cheongsam collars at the Rodarte show, concluding that such overt displays of ethnic heritage may not successfully sell to Chinese women. She continues to cite Shanghai Tang as an example of a brand who are more popular with Western consumers than Chinese despite – or because of – their use of traditional design features such as Shanghainese tailoring skills (that they claim were lost during the Cultural Revolution), and their Mandarin Collar Society and accompanying manifesto to rid the world of the neck tie (which has also been labeled a gimmick by luxury consultant Francis Gouten). So it would seem that the fantasies played out on catwalks from Paul Smith to Givenchy couture may well tap into Western dreams of Eastern exoticism but will fail to curry favour within the Chinese Economic Area.
The use of Chinese design cliches such as the mandarin collar and cheongsam have also been frowned upon in a recent BoF feature, which underscores the importance of tailoring product and marketing to Chinese consumers without falling back on mimicking traditional Chinese designs. The piece claims it’s preferable to offer cut and sizing to correlate specifically to Chinese customers (which may differ from their European counterparts) and also affirms that a focus on brand history, heritage stories and craftsmanship are successful tools to engage Chinese consumers with luxury brands. This informative piece in the Telegraph also outlines China’s importance as a new market in terms of shaping trends and products, ranging from Prada’s first Beijing fashion show to Karl Lagerfeld’s 2007 Fendi show on the Great Wall of China and Dior’s Lady Shanghai bag collection. It also discusses the new generation of Asian-American designers that are topping the wish lists of many magazines, such as Thakoon, Prabal Gurang and Alexander Wang.
But this incessant courting of China by Western luxury brands (and indeed Western governments) has a dark underside. The growing economy and seemingly limitless spending capabilities coupled with an enormous manufacturing sector and plethora of export industries leads to an uneasy balance of power for a nation that is in theory still a Communist country (albeit with fancy trappings of Capitalism) and is essentially run as an authoritarian one party state. The large scale human rights abuses and appalling working conditions have been well chronicled, but the economic power the nation wields ensures that democratic governments are at best slow to criticise, and at worst blatantly turning a blind eye. With China as the world’s largest holder of US debts, there’s very little that the so-called ‘Leader of the Free World’ can do.
Liu Bolin camouflage art, found here. Titled ‘Hiding in the City,’ Liu began this extensive project after his Beijing studio was shut down by Chinese authorities in 2005, making it clear that the government wanted to discourage artists from working together.
Alongside the perpetual industrial troubles there are the problems that arise from governmental censorship and the lack of free speech (especially online in the Great Firewall of China), and throughout the cultural sphere, as artists like Liu Bolin (above) are struggling with. Despite the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize going to dissident Liu Xiaobo (awarded to him while still in prison), the censorship, detainment and house arrests without charge still continue. The most high profile case at present is the artist and political activist Ai Weiwei who was released from detention in June – officials claimed he was detained for economic crimes but many groups including Amnesty International claim the imprisonment was politically motivated and yet another example of human rights abuse. Of Weiwei’s four associates that were also detained, Liu Zhenggang remains missing. For more information and to take action see Amnesty’s campaign here. Writers are facing similar persecution in a cultural crackdown that has worsened since February, sparked by fears that the Middle East’s pro-democracy rallies could spread to China. Read this piece in the NY Times for a full account of the atrocious human rights restrictions many authors, journalists and poets are forced to live with, from imprisonment to restricted travel and heightened surveillance in ongoing attempts to persecute those who speak out against the Communist Party.
Guinevere Van Seenus by Javier Vallhonrat for UK Vogue April 2011 found at Fashionising
These issues raise many questions. It’s reductive for Western designers to celebrate a generic fusion of Far Eastern cultures, romanticising the mysticism and sexual allure of the Dragon Lady with the decadence of Belle Epoque opium dens, but at the same time that is what fashion is all about: making a fantasy out of various sets of references, arriving back to Susan Sontag’s claim that “camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated”. Orientalism has long operated within the parameters of design to encapsulate this very essence of hedonism, exoticism and otherness that is in itself the substance of fashion. Aspirational and beautiful yet somehow always out of reach. But the profusion of ‘Oriental’ styles that are flooding fashion imagery at present also lead to other queries, as the continued romanticising of Chinese aesthetics is endemic of our pick n’ mix attitude to culture that allows us to skim off the best and ignore the worst of a country’s history and practices. In our current recessionary world it’s not hard to see why brands are flocking to new and emerging markets in place of the spiraling debt and austerity of Europe and the USA. But we should be wary of the excessively competitive courting of the yuan at the cost of civil liberties, as it undoubtedly implies a passive acceptance of China’s many transgressions, both economic and humanitarian.