Standing out among the assemblage of designers from long-established fashion houses and popular brands at Paris Fashion Week is a growing number of ethnic-Chinese designers.
These 20- to 40-somethings, raised in the West, represent the first time so many Chinese designers have participated in Paris Fashion Week. The objective, it seems, is to find opportunities in China and other emerging markets at a time when growth in advanced countries' markets for luxury goods has plateaued.
Alexander Wang, 29, is a Chinese-American designer who has received particular attention at this spring's Paris Fashion Week, where he made his debut for well-established fashion house Balenciaga. The brand’s show venue was its original studio and flagship store, which dates back to Balenciaga's foundation.
Amid a quiet atmosphere before fewer than 200 invited guests, bold marble patterns and similarly striking designs added sophistication to the brand's traditional materials and patterns.
"I was identifying the codes of the house and the archive and trying to push into the idea of full wardrobe," Wang said backstage after the show.
He added he wanted to create a sense of living at this present moment.
Wang, born on the U.S. West Coast, started up his own brand in 2005 and was one of the hot talents during the New York Fashion Week.
Wang opened a store in New York and followed it up with another in Beijing. He plans to open more, mainly in Asia, this year. Even in China, Wang is a widely known figure among his generation.
Balenciaga is among the most traditional of the brands to have contributed to the haute couture of Paris. Wang's style, however, is quite different from that of his predecessor, a Frenchman who focused on a Parisian sense of esprit.
A local newspaper described Wang's hiring as "youthquake," and ran an interview with Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of the Kering Group, the brand's parent company.
In the interview, Pinault said he wanted Wang to make Balenciaga a more accessible brand, with a youthful, sporty touch.
Sonia Rykiel, another big-name Paris brand, has also hired an ethnic-Chinese designer, 44-year-old Geraldo da Conceicao, who unveiled his work at Paris Fashion Week, where he employed the style of the brand's founder, known as the "Queen of Knits," to arrange a colorful assortment of knitwear.
Conceicao was born in Macao and raised in Canada. For the past two decades, he has lived mainly in Paris, where he worked for the likes of Yves Saint Laurent before taking his current job.
"I designed these pieces by imagining a modern Parisienne maintaining a complex sensitivity throughout her hectic lifestyle, while also thinking about the Rykiel concept and personality and its achievements," he said.
The Sonia Rykiel company came under the control of a Hong Kong investment group last year. Commenting on the increasing number of designers with Chinese origins, Conceicao said, "When it comes to language and the way I think, I'm a European on the inside. In this modern society, which has become more global, I think that has contributed to advancing my career."
Meanwhile, fashion brand Kenzo has experienced skyrocketing popularity since switching two years ago to a pair of American designers, one with a Chinese background and the other of Korean descent. Founded by Kenzo Takada, the brand is now part of the LVMH Group. Kenzo's latest designs feature an Asian style inspired by ancient temples in places such as China and India.
The two designers, Humberto Leon, 37, and Carol Lim, 38, also run a boutique.
They pointed out that many designers with Asian origins who have come to prominence lately have parents who ran sewing shops and other such businesses.
"What’s interesting is that a lot of young designers that are Asians, their parents all worked in garment manufacturing. My mom was a sewer at the factory, Carol’s mom did jewelry," Leon said. "We always grew up around designing and manufacturing."
Japanese designers had a huge impact on Paris Fashion Week in the 1980s, and in the 1990s it was the Americans.
Designers such as Issey Miyake, Yoji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, "changed the occidental way to look at fashion," said Didier Grumbach, chairman of the association that organizes Paris Fashion Week.
"Since then, there is a special relationship between France and Japan. We have the same vision of what a fashion show must be," he added.
The style of the Chinese designers now making their mark has an appeal that is sporty and yet somewhat rough and simple. The question is whether they can become a forceful influence on their era.
But the big Parisian brands are not the only ones hiring designers of Chinese origin. Corporate groups from China, the Middle East and elsewhere have in recent years entered markets for cutting-edge fashion, and the competition is only intensifying. These companies, backed into a corner, may be prioritizing survival strategies.
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