Fashion Diplomacy: CFDA/Vogue Brings American Designers to China

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

A model wearing an evening gown from Marchesa’s Fall 2013 collection at the CFDA/Vogue fashion show. Photo courtesy of Vogue China.

BEIJING - Should the U.S. government, following in the footsteps of the French government, be involved in the business of promoting American fashion to the world?  When American Ambassador to China Gary Locke kicked off a series of festivities surrounding the first CFDA/Vogue Americans in China program with a cocktails reception at his Beijing residence on June 20, I suddenly realized that fashion is an effective diplomatic tool not only because the Ambassador’s wife, Mona, is a storied fixture in VogueElle,Marie Claire and the like, but because Americans and Chinese can learn to communicate through the language of high fashion.

Actress Carina Lau (left), model Liu Wen (right) and Ambassador Locke attended a dinner party hosted by Zhang Yu, Vogue China’s Editor-in-Chief (second from left). Photo Courtesy of Vogue China.

To be sure, CFDA (which stands for Council of Fashion Designers of America) and Vogue are not government entities. But I found it of great interest that as a national organization CFDA was venturing out of the borders of the United States. Silas Chou, a Hong Kong fashion and textile mogul who invested in Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors and who has underwritten the program, remarked in his speech that fashion is more powerful than politics because it changes people’s daily lives.

Rag & Bone, Marchesa and Proenza Schouler, the brands selected for this trip, represent three distinctively different perspectives on contemporary American fashion: edgy downtown sensitivity, red carpet glamour and artsy wearable luxury, respectively. Coincidentally, each also features the collaborative work of a duo of designers.

Myself with Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hermandez, the designer duo behind Proenza Schouler. Credit Chiu-Ti Jansen.

The fashion shows, drawing notables such as Hong Kong actress Carina Lau and my fellow Financial Times columnist Sir David Tang, took place at the historic relic of a Ming Dynasty city wall at the Dong Bian Men Watchtower. Although the catwalk was shorter, it certainly alluded to the indelible Fendi fashion show in 2007 when Karl Lagerfeld staged the first fashion show by a mega brand on the Great Wall of China.

Myself with my fellow Financial Times columnist Sir David Tang (who founded the Shanghai Tang brand), at an after-party hosted by Silas Chou. Credit Chiu-Ti Jansen.

All of the models were Chinese natives. Some have garnered the international spotlight: Liu Wen, Shu Pei, Xi Mengyao, Sun Feifei, to name a few. Others are still coming to the scene. During my backstage interviews with them for the Phoenix TV/Phoenix Fashion, a privately owned TV Network and online platform in Greater China with global outreach, they indicated the excitement of walking the runway in their home countries.

Supermodels Sun Feifei, Xi Mengyao, Liu Wen and Xiaowen entertained themselves with a private photo session before the runway shows. Credit Chiu-Ti Jansen.

Until recently Chinese luxury consumers had gravitated towards logo-embossed foreign designer brands with little attention to the underlying aesthetics and legacy represented by such brands. As they are getting more discerning and individualistic in their likings, fashion shows such as the Americans in China were instrumental in opening their eyes to up-and-coming designers who had gained a following in America and Europe, but were virtually unknown in China except among a few enlightened fashion professionals.

Myself interviewing Keren Craig, co-founder of Marchesa, for Phoenix TV/Phoenix Fashion. Credit Chiu-Ti Jansen.

Zhang Yu, Vogue China’s Editor-in-Chief, noted during a dinner party she threw at 1949, a nouveau Peking duck house in Beijing’s trendy Sanlitun area, that the fashion shows were a culmination of two years’ labor of love among many participants, including Ambassador Locke’s staff. I was delighted to find in my company many Chinese fashion designers, including Masha Ma, who just returned from New York as part of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund China Exchange Program, and Uma Wang, a prior-year participant of the program.

Many young Chinese fashion designers, as well as fashion professionals, cut their teeth at the Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. Despite that American designers of Chinese descent have recently made waves in the international fashion world, New York-based fashion schools have not churned out China-born fashion designers at the same rate as its London counterparts. The CFDA/Vogue Americans in China program will hopefully make New York an enticing place for the young Chinese to pursue their fashion dreams.

Chiu-Ti Jansen is a TV presenter, a publisher and a writer based in New York City with a pulse on China. 

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