Following on from Part One of my interview with Chinese haute couture fashion designer Guo Pei, in this part two of the interview I ask her about the path China’s fashion industry has taken to get where it is today, and what it will take for Chinese brands to gain recognition both at home and abroad.
Some people say that China’s fashion industry has developed behind the rest of the world and has a long way to go to catch up. How do you feel about this?
I feel we haven’t developed that slowly, if you look at the development of fashion in Europe, it actually took a few a few hundred years to get where they are today. China is rapidly catching up with Europe and the West, in fact, over the 30 years that I have been designing, China has caught up with perhaps 80 years of European fashion. So in those terms China is developing very, very, fast. Thirty years ago we didn’t even have a word in Mandarin for fashion. These days in Mandarin we translate ‘fashion’ as shishang, back then we only had the word fuzhuang which translates as ‘clothing’. Then the word shizhuang came along which meant ‘clothes in season’, or ‘contemporary clothing’. So the concept of fashion didn’t even exist in the language.
The outside world’s understanding of contemporary China and fashion is also inaccurate. Ten years ago people (including Chinese) would ask me where I learnt to make clothes and studied design. After discovering I studied in China they would be dismissive, thinking that Chinese trained designers are unqualified, but this view has totally changed now. Often fashion industry executives come to China or visit my studio and are shocked to see the level of fashion in China. One French fashion expert came to visit my studio and was completely surprised to see haute couture in China. He didn’t think it could exist outside Europe. For couture, the French are the best in the world and even though we may not be able to out design them, we have our own talents.
How can Chinese brands and designers educate consumers that their designs and products have merit?
I think you have to use culture. We have to promote Chinese culture to a point where it gets into the heads’ of consumers. Chinese accept overseas brands’ quality as superior and are attracted by the their international marketing and campaigns. Realistically, a lot of European brand’s designs don’t even suit Chinese! Ideally, we need a Chinese national brand that can show at foreign fashion weeks and become international, then brand awareness will rise slowly. But we also have the problem that for many Chinese brands they are already successful in China and have their own market, why do they need to bother with expanding overseas?
What is the way forward for China’s fashion and China Fashion Week?
I don’t think any other market has developed so quickly as China and so there is no precedent on what to do. Some say China Fashion Week should follow the big fashion cities like Paris or New York and learn from international brands, but not necessarily. Chinese designers and our industry has its own characteristics and we need to travel our own road. We have a saying that goes something like “it doesn’t matter how fast you arrive, just as long as you set out on your journey and make progress”. We have already started this journey so we should just keep going forward and see how it goes.
Can you offer any advice for young Chinese designers?
When I was only a few years I had to help my mother thread needles and sew because her eyes were bad. Now thirty years later, I’m still making clothes. It took me a long time to get here, but sometimes I feel like I’m only just beginning to understand fashion and design and you have to go through a lot and become experience and mature before you get things right. If you consider, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior or Karl Lagerfeld it was the same with them, only in their formative years did they really achieve success and become world famous. When I was thirty and filmed Mao’s New Suit I didn’t understand this, but now I know its OK to go slow and build your career to prepare for the future.