New breed of China-born designers seek their fortunes in Paris

Among the well-established houses on the Paris Fashion Week calendar, a growing number of new names hail from mainland China.

A coterie of young, China-born but internationally bred designers are choosing to work and show in Paris, driven by desire for exposure and customer base expansion. The trend comes a decade after a wave of Asian-American designers including Jason Wu, Philip Lim and Alexander Wang established themselves in New York with similar motivations, finding success with cool, contemporary and ethnically neutral collections.

Possessing similar ambitions – and multicultural upbringing – this generation of global designers are intent on similar critical and commercial recognition, defining themselves on a world stage rather than through distinctions around exotic heritage.

Yang Li, a recent nominee for the LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, is making waves with his inventive and experimental offerings. So too are Masha Ma, Laurence Xu and Yiqing Yin, creative director of Leonard. But what is attracting them to Paris?

Simon Collins, dean of fashion at Parsons the New School for Design, says: “It’s not just about evolving within a revered cosmopolitan hothouse in your early designer years. It’s critical in terms of bringing your work to the right eyeballs: editors, buyers and investors in the industry heartlands. Global fashion trends, whatever the nationality of the designer, are still dictated by what is seen on Parisian catwalks.”

Many of these designers made initial steps towards the industry via Parsons in New York or Central Saint Martins in London.

Nigel Carrington, University of the Arts London vice-chancellor, says the school has 2,300 ethnic Chinese students, with a demand 10 times that amount for places. He believes that China’s one-child policy has meant parents are more willing to invest in expensive international schooling, aware it unlocks career opportunities unavailable at home.

The lack of Chinese design schools, coupled with an industry infrastructure anchored in the west, has created a new type of fashion nomad. While born in China, most of them have spent decades away, with no imminent plans to return. The design hallmarks of their collections hold few ties to their homeland – instead embracing conventional industry aesthetics.

“Of course, I cannot escape my Chinese roots,” says Mr Li, who was born in Beijing and raised in Australia before attending Central Saint Martins. “I’ve lived in many places in my short life, and the juxtaposition of a new environment to my heritage has made me look at things from both directions, questioning a lot more due to cultural differences.”

But in the long term, there are many domestic opportunities for Chinese designers. Despite recent concerns of a slowdown in luxury spending, appetite for homegrown talent is surging – and retailers are looking to capitalise on it.

“We are hugely excited about the growth of fashion talent coming from the region and have a commitment and responsibility to identify and support the development of the next generation,” says Andrew Keith, president of Chinese department store Lane Crawford, who believes brands must build credibility in China as well as abroad.

Joyce, the retailer’s boutique business, stocks Ms Yin, Mr Li and Yang Du among others, and reports a loyal customer base for such rising stars.

“Still, we don’t take on designers out of tokenism,” says Mr Keith. “They may bring a new and distinctive dimension to offerings but they need to be able to stand within our global fashion edit.”

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