Stepping off the train at Kings Cross in London, it’s easy to spot who’s heading to Central Saint Martins and who isn’t. Amongst the tired commuters in drab grey three-piece suits, the hordes of international school kids with matching neon backpacks, and tourists in anoraks and Hogwarts scarves, you’ll occasionally glimpse someone else in the crowd.
They’re wearing a Maison Margiela duster, chunky Doc Martens, impeccably fit trousers, an Off-White belt. Their hair is (under)cut to an edgy perfection. Their Dior tote is filled with sketchbooks and fabric samples. They’re heading to the famed design school – which boasts Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney as alumni – situated next to the station. And increasingly, they’re Asian.
Two such grads recently appeared on Next In Fashion – Netflix’s answer to Project Runway. And they excelled. Initially paired together as the “Dragon Princess Team”, Chinese designer Angel Chen and South Korean designer Minju Kim smashed multiple challenge wins, impressing esteemed guest judges Prabal Gurung and Kerby Jean-Raymond (of Pyer Moss). Individually, Angel Chen was the runner-up, and Minju Kim was crowned the overall champion.
The Dragon Princess Team’s success is a microcosm of the current trend in fashion generally: the rise of the East. Western designers have long since taken inspiration from China. In 2015, the Met Costume Institute exhibit was appropriately named “China: Through the Looking Glass”. Similarly, brands desperately court the Chinese consumer. No wonder, with China occupying a ⅓ share of the global luxury market. Last November, Valentino held an unprecedented major couture show in Beijing’s Summer Palace.
But Chinese designers are carving a piece of the fashion narrative for themselves. The centerpiece of the 2015 Met exhibition was a stunning gown by Beijing-born couturist Guo Pei. And the headliner of the corresponding Met Gala was Guo Pei’s extravagant embroidered silk and fur masterpiece for Rihanna. Guo Pei now regularly shows at Paris Couture Fashion Week, alongside Chanel, Gaultier and Dior.
Nor can Chinese designers be pigeonholed into a particular orient-exoticism anymore. Although Guo Pei takes immediate inspiration from traditional Chinese influences (her recent “Himalaya” collection evoked a wuxia heaven), a glance at global Fashion Week schedules easily reveals that up-and-coming Chinese designers are not restricting themselves to any aesthetic box.
“Made in China”, once symbolic of cheap-fast-mass-sweatshop-manufacturing, is beginning to transform its rep in the realm of high fashion. Innovative young Chinese brands are springboarding from Shanghai Fashion Week, and premier art schools around the world, into the designer mainstream. Although yet far from the clout of the major French or Italian houses, the once-inflexible fashion landscape is slowly opening its borders Eastwards. And after our quick jaunt outside Kings Cross Station, clearly, we shouldn’t anticipate that stopping anytime soon.
1 Fake Natoo
Zhang Na’s designs are avant-garde, yet wearable. Oversized, dramatic silhouettes, reminiscent of origami, are crafted in luxe, minimalistic, monochromatic textured fabrics.
Babyghost, a collaboration between Chinese designer Qiaoran Huang and the American Joshua Hupper, was one of the first high-end streetwear brands. Luxurious fabrics and tailoring meet an underground grunge aesthetic, logo hoodies and ironic t-shirts.
3 Ryan Lo
Hong Kong-born Ryan Lo creates frothy, fantastical, sugary sweet collections for his girl. Babydoll shapes, florals, lace and tulle, set in an eccentric Alice in Wonderland mythology.
4 Yang Li
Dark, strong tailoring characterises Yang Li’s designs: impeccably crafted, gothic and edgy, and wrought in jet-black patent leather.