Mao’s New Suit

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Chinese Fashion Designers Sun Jian and Guo Pei in 1997. Source: 360 Degree Films

It’s been over a month since my last post, unfortunately I have been too busy doing (fashion) business to find the time to write about the fashion business. Despite this, I have been conducting some high profile interviews and will be publishing these over the next few weeks as things quieten down for the holidays. Meanwhile here is a prequel to an interview I recently did with Guo Pei – China’s most famous haute couture designer and owner of the fashion house Rose Studio.

In researching for my interview with Guo Pei I came across a 1997 documentary on fashion in China titled: Mao’s New Suit. The documentary follows a thirty year old Guo Pei and her best friend Sun Jian who were both aspiring fashion designers leading a new generation of Chinese into the new and fascinating world of fashion.

Intrigued at what a China Fashion Documentary from 1997 would be like I quickly tracked down and bought the film online. The film starts by introducing Guo Pei and then following her around Beijing as she goes about her daily work for a Chinese fashion brand. After trip to Inner Mongolia to source fabrics Guo Pei becomes frustrated with her employer and quits to join her best friend Sun Jian in creating their first collection for Shanghai Fashion Week. (Yes there was already a China Shanghai Fashion Week in 1997!)

Through their disappointment at the quality and organization of Shanghai Fashion Week Guo Pei and Sun Jian talk dreamily about becoming famous, traveling overseas to study design and how one day China may become the biggest fashion market in the world. Flash forward fifteen years later and these things have all come true for Guo Pei! Many of Guo Pei’s quotes from Mao’s New Suit are just as relevant today as they were in 1996.

Young (Chinese) people are definitely not like their parents. They prefer to make money, do business and advance their career. They will not sacrifice their life and personal ideals for politics.  Those days are gone. People aren’t like that anymore’.

‘As a designer, I influence a lot of people. My clothes help people develop taste. Right now in China standards are really rather low, I hope I can help raise standards. My clothes can change people’s lives. The right clothes give them a whole new outlook. They open up their minds’.

I was enthralled by the sense of anticipation that Guo pei and Sun Jian had about their life and roles in China’s fashion industry. Moreover, their belief that China’s had the potential to become a world player in the fashion industry showed tremendous foresight.  To understand the inspiration one would have to make a Chinese Fashion Documentary in 1996 I contacted Sally Ingleton – Producer and Director of Mao’s New Suit. Via email she explained some of the peculiarities of filming in China at the time:

Part of the problem was that [the authorities]could not understand why I wanted to make a film about two fashion designers. Why didn’t I want to interview important people or make a film about bridges in China? And where was my script?

My focus was different. I was curious to explore how China’s collective consciousness had been swept aside by individualism. ‘Maoism’ had become ‘meism’. And nowhere was this independence more evident than in how people dressed. ‘Fashion’ was the catchcry. It was everywhere. And thanks to China’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – business women have a lot of spare cash to spend on clothes. Many now work for foreign companies and earn big salaries yet their basic needs – housing and so forth are still covered by the State.

[Back then], If you want[ed]to film legally in China – it [was]mandatory to get a film permit. This took 9 months of negotiation – much of which was over the film’s title  – Mao’s New Suit. ‘Mao Zedong is dead – we do not wish to discuss him anymore’ was what the authorities kept saying. The irony of the title was lost and so to keep my intentions clear it became Fashion In China. I was given the green light.

Overall Mao’s New Suit is a delightful introspective into the state of  China’s Fashion Industry in 1997 and where it was headed. Although China has made astounding progress and is now on everybody’s fashion radar it is still far from maturity and many of the issues raised in Mao’s New Suit are relevant in the context of today’s China.  For people interested in China’s fashion history I strongly recommend watching Mao’s New Suit, you can buy it online here. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for an exclusive Maosuit interview with Guo Pei.

Guo Pei and Sun Jian pose with models infront of Beijing's Temple of Heaven in 1996. Source: 360 Degree Films

DVD Cover Photo for Mao's New Suit. Source: 360 Degree films

Samples of Guo Pei's Recent Haute Couture Collection. Source: Google

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