Try as I might I just can’t seem to get my mind around Chinese fashion or design. In the famous words of Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it,” but I’ll be damned if I can describe it, much less define it. Words, for once, completely fail me.
My fashion tastes tend to simple elegance on a woman and timeless simplicity on a man. And while my tastes in artwork cover a wide spectrum of styles and eras, the colors are typically rich and the imagery straightforward.
The furniture in my home is eclectic but my material of choice is most certainly wood. Cherry is my favorite but you’ll find plenty of Mission oak as well. And while I do have several pieces of traditional Chinese furniture I have more contemporary Danish furniture than anything else.
I do truly enjoy old Chinese architecture, however. The ornately decorated temples, walkways, and royal compounds fascinate me to no end. I admire the fine craftsmanship and am genuinely stirred by the rich colors and textures.
More than anything else, however, I am dumbfounded as to how anything so intricately complex in detail could, as a whole, appear to be so inherently balanced and visually integrated.
Where do they start? When an ancient architect and master builder sat down to create a new building for the imperial grounds or a new temple where did they begin? Even great art, it seems to me, needs a center of gravity. There must be a grounding point around which everything turns. An artist cannot create a masterpiece instantaneously. It is a slow, methodical process that requires a multitude of starts and stops, necessitating a consistent starting point that ultimately brings the entire work together both visually and functionally.
And if there is such a center of effort in Chinese architectural design, to borrow a term from the world of physics, I’ll be damned if I can find it. It eludes me completely.
A Wikipedia entry which references a 2006 book entitled, Chinese Houses: The Architectural Heritage of a Nation (Knapp, Spence, and Ong; Tuttle Publishing), states, “An important feature in Chinese architecture is its emphasis on articulation and bilateral symmetry, which signifies balance.”
And that much I get. Balance is everything in Chinese culture and the foundation of the Chinese worldview. And I understand the basic principles of feng shui. Once you accept the existence of qi, by whatever name, it’s really pretty logical, even to the deductively oriented Westerner.
(As a quick aside, a German company is building a new plant across the street from our own. And for a while it appeared that their gate would directly face ours from the north, which had our plant manager convinced that we would have to purchase large stone lions to guard our gate and prevent our neighbor’s bad luck from cursing us. In the end, however, somebody apparently set them straight and they have built their gate perpendicular to the street and our own. Crisis averted. No lions needed. Bad luck can’t make right turns, apparently.)
This emphasis on symmetry and balance, however, does not fully explain the intricacy and complexity of Chinese architectural decoration. Yes, it is balanced and symmetrical. But it is also finely detailed and complexly intricate. And it all comes off as both appealing and, in some strange way, inexplicably calming. While it would be logical for such busy intricacy to create a visual sense of dizzying confusion, if not anxiety, it has quite the opposite effect.
Which, in an appropriately tangential way, brings me to the world of Chinese fashion.
For the fashion houses of Europe and New York, China is the new frontier, full of promise and opportunity. Hardly a week goes by that there isn’t some CEO or designer from New York or Paris in Beijing giddily proclaiming their intent to dip deeply into the pockets of the nouveau riche of China.
And if evaluated solely by the sheer scope and scale of Chinese affluence, to say nothing of the number of LV handbags hauled back on shopping sprees to Paris and Dubai each year (the two most popular outbound tourist destinations for Chinese tourists venturing out of Asia) that’s probably more than just wishful thinking. At least by the numbers.
Or is it? For the land of opportunity it is in virtually every industry, relatively few foreign companies have actually made money here. And while the foreign fashion industry has the advantage of powerful brands and creative energy, an area where the Chinese have yet to excel, the product is easy to copy and even easier to take costs out of.
And while the Chinese have the money to acquire the real McCoy, there are, I believe some fundamental realities that may ultimately rain on the parade of fashion brands seeking to dress and accessorize the men and women of China.
For starters, the Chinese are not as deeply aspirational toward foreign cultures as you might be led to conclude from their enthusiasm for German automobiles. As I have noted many times, the Chinese, on average, want nothing other than to be Chinese. They are perfectly content in their own skin.
While the first ladies of the G20 are often seen wearing clothes designed by the most prominent designers of the New York-Paris-Milan axis, First Lady Peng Liyuan is frequently seen wearing the work of Chinese designers little known outside of the Middle Kingdom.
And while I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone in Beijing wearing a Mao suit, officially known as the zhongshan zhuang, named after Sun Zhongshan (Dr. Sun Yat-sen), President Xi wore an updated version while attending formal diplomatic events on his recent trip to Europe and received enthusiastic accolades from the home crowd here in China.
And then there is what I might call the identity factor. Westerners often assume that Asian cultures promote uniformity rather than individualism. While the Chinese are very proud of their heritage and their ethnicity, however, I don’t see that in the Chinese culture. While the Chinese want to be Chinese, they don’t want to be a clone of the Chinese man or woman standing next to them. They value individual identity.
But how do you stand out in a country of 1.3 billion people, virtually all of whom share the identical hair color and similar facial features? It’s not easy and apparel and fashion accessories are one of the few avenues open to them.
Which is why, I believe, the Chinese will always be more inclined to create their own individualistic fashion trends than to follow the fashion trends defined by others, be they the designers who rule the fashion world or the celebrities that give their designs broad popularity.
A quick stroll down the streets of Beijing or Shanghai would seem to bear this out. While it’s clear that people, particularly the young, have chosen their wardrobe with some deliberate care, it is unclear exactly what specific style or design statement they are seeking to make. While my own mother taught me at a young age not to mix stripes and plaids, I can detect no such universal fashion guidelines at work here.
But somehow, as in their architectural design, they pull it off. Despite combining design elements that appear to have no common denominator, they generally end up with a ‘look’ that somehow hangs together. It’s not my look, mind you, but I am an old fart. (It helps enhance the chances of acceptance, I suppose, that the young women who are typically the most fashion conscious are greatly outnumbered by the number of young men seeking life partners; an unintended byproduct, of course, of the single child policy.)
Not surprisingly, I think, the Chinese approach to both design and fashion seems to follow the inverse process to the one employed in the West. While a Western fashionista builds a look from carefully selected design elements, the Chinese fashionista appears to start with a holistic impression and work back from there.
There are, it would appear, as a result, few rules to follow. Almost anything goes. And if the resulting look is something only you can readily decipher perhaps you’ve achieved your objective – standing out in a very big crowd indeed.
Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.