Thursday, June 04, 2009

Fashion Design and the Visual Arts in Shanghai by Doreen Ho

Fashion Design and the Visual Arts in Shanghai


Interdisciplinary, as it involves the visual arts and the fashion design world, has always been a fundamental part of the most forward-thinking and innovative works. Where design and art meet functionality and new and creative ways of thinking, it is crucial to explore how fashion design and the visual arts can be better integrated in an emerging interdisciplinary arts scene in Shanghai. To look more in-depth on this topic, I have asked for the advice and expertise of Helen Liu and Helen Lee, both outstanding women in the fashion industry worldwide, and well-informed on the Shanghai fashion and art scene today. Helen Liu, a graduate and visiting faculty of Parson's School of Design in New York City, is a fashion designer and a member of Fashion Group International. She is both an Honorary Advisor for the Shanghai Professional Fashion and Accessory Designers Society as well as a Foreign Fashion Design Advisor for the Shanghai Fashion Week. Helen Lee is an acclaimed designer from Shanghai, and founder of fashion line, insh. Her top quality and cutting-edge designs, combining high-end fashion with her Chinese culture and background, have won her international recognition and awards, including China's "Jeanswest Fashion Award" and Belgium's "Les Etoiles De La Mode" (insh).

A Brief History

After the fall of feudal society in China, modern times brought about modern fashions that greatly contrasted the limited scope and option of fashion in earlier years. Modern times allowed for individuals to choose what to wear according to what they liked, and soon Shanghai became the fashion capital of China, also earning the reputation as the "Eastern Paris" ( Following the encroachment of the West in the late 19th century through the 1930's, Shanghai fashion transformed within an international metropolis hub that was greatly influenced by Western dress. However, during the formation of the Republic of China and as Communism developed under Mao, the 1950's-1970's was dominated by the grass green color military uniform that was worn regardless of ones gender ( After the 1979 economic reforms and opening up of China, fashion began to flourish again as the nation's economy reaped the benefits of an open market. Men and women alike began to customize and personalize their fashion sense to gradually integrate within the international context of a new globalizing society (
Current Trends

Today, Liu explains, "taste and understanding of art and fashion is developing". This follows after a long period of concerns over basic rudimentary provisions for survival, particularly during the Mao era; however, today as Shanghai's economy flourishes and its middle class emerges, more and more locals are beginning to upgrade their lifestyles and increase their education, which includes a keener appreciation and recognition for arts and culture. While the current market in Shanghai remains dominated by Western luxury brands, "international-brand-obsessed" consumers, and many designers accused of merely imitating Western styles, there are some fashion forward, innovative and original local Shanghai designers and brands. Shanghai Tang is a famous fashion line whose designs have reached a wide audience, from Shanghai to New York. Designers such as Han Feng, Qiu Hao, and Helen Lee have received international awards for their work, and their work has been seen in fashion shows all over the world.
Today, a sense of individualism and personalized style is taking over the Shanghai fashion scene. Today, you will find local designers opening shop on Chang Le Road and Taicang Road. Additionally, more and more fashion organizations are being established, including the Creative Bazaar. Established in November 2006, the Bazaar was a series of design shows organized by Aga Zhu, to muster greater support for Chinese fashion designers and showcase their works. Both domestic and international fashion houses were in attendance, including Jooi, Vervia, insh, etc. with 100 or so vendors (Xuan).

Additionally, the construction of The International Fashion Center of Shanghai, to be located in Shanghai's North Bund area, is expected to be complete by the end of 2011. The Center will be Asia's largest fashion innovation park and will concentrate on textile concepts and allow for designers to showcase their designs in a creative space (People's Daily). The International Fashion Center will host six major fashion functional areas, including a multi-functional show site, a reception chamber, an innovation office, a showroom, a condo hotel, and a food, beverage and entertainment area (People's Daily). The Center will also host the Shanghai International Garment Festival and Shanghai Fashion Week.


Today, fashion design in Shanghai still faces several challenges. While many local Shanghainese flock towards international designed luxury goods, local Shanghai designers could be better supported and recognized by not only local consumers, but also local government (TimeOut 142). Lee spoke of her own experience running her boutique: "In early 2000, local people were looking to buy international brands…in 2002, 90 percent of people buying my clothes were foreigners." However, Lee sees a shift in consumer behavior, saying, "Now, this is changing- more local people are paying attention to local designers, and that's with help from international media." Lee adds that it is important to "make people think about making their lives better and more beautiful…when you wear a design, to see it as a piece of art", signifying the importance of integrating art and fashion. Additionally, the local government hosts the Shanghai Fashion Week, which takes place twice a year, but much of the funding goes into supporting bigger and more established Western brands rather than promoting domestic designers (TimeOut 142-143). Liu, who is a frequent traveler and has attended fashion shows in fashion capitals around the world, touched upon a need for a more professional presentation of Shanghai fashion during Shanghai Fashion Week. "New York Fashion Week is very professional and put together, whereas Shanghai's Fashion Week hasn't really met global or international standards yet", said Liu.

Furthermore, Shanghai's fashion scene must aspire to meet at the level of international design. "Shanghai has very regional fashion, yet it has to be in-sync with what will be most attractive to the international scene," Liu explained, "local designers are put aside because they don't have the kind of caliber to be enticing and sustainable…the thing about sustainability is international, the fashion in Shanghai has to be more international." Shanghai fashion must move towards being more internationally recognized. Some of the best and most potential Shanghai designers Liu has seen have already been internationally recognized for their work, similar to Chinese visual artists. "The avant-garde designers of Shanghai have received awards abroad," Liu explained, pointing out Shanghai designer, Qiu Hao as an example. Hao received the Woolmark Prize in 2008 for his innovative designs and applications with Merino wool (Australian Wool Innovation Limited).

Liu explained that Shanghai designers are going abroad to compete in fashion design competitions, but their designs are not yet commercially successful. Lee recommends that integrating art and fashion design is a great way to foster wider support for both disciplines on a commercial level. "Fashion design is more commercial, while art is more about ideas and concepts, so the combination of the two would reach a wider audience," Lee said.

Fashion Design Education

Building a solid interdisciplinary fashion design education that exposes students to the international world of fashion and art will be an important development to the development of arts and culture in Shanghai. However, fashion design education remains tremendously competitive in Shanghai. About 100,000 students may apply to the Shanghai Design Institute, but only less than 600-800 students will be accepted (Liu). Liu says that fashion design education has too many people and too little institutions and quality programs that can support such a massive student body. She suggests that more and more Shanghai fashion design students should look to go abroad, but also understands that many cannot afford the financial burden of studying abroad. Liu did mention that certain design schools that stress international exchange programs should follow the recruitment model of the Central St. Martins College Design program in London. "They have over 100 recruitment stations", Liu said. Raffles Design Institute of Shanghai is a popular design program with an emphasis on international fashion design; in fact, Raffles is the only international design college in Shanghai, according to its website (Raffles). On its website, the school proposed the importance of having quality world-class design education in Shanghai:

"It is known that fashion design has always been the weakest point in China's fashion industry. The design level in China's fashion industry falls far behind international standards. Many companies are depending mainly on copying and imitation and do not have their own styles, which hinders China's fashion design from stepping up to a higher level" (qtd. in Raffles).
Receiving abroad experience may be a key to opening up both the visual arts and fashion design scene of Shanghai to the world. Many successful visual artists and fashion designers have strong backgrounds to meet international recognition. For instance, Qiu Hao attended Central Saint Martins College in London, but also holds a degree in interior design from Suzhou University (Business of Fashion). Additionally, Helen Lee worked in Japan for three years before coming back to establish her store in Shanghai. "I learned about what is quality and what is not quality design while I was in Japan," Lee said, "I've also taken many good things that I've seen from working and traveling abroad, and combined these together with my own Chinese background." Many successful Chinese visual artists, who are internationally acclaimed, have also had experience working or studying abroad, such as Zhang Huan and Cai Guo Qiang.

Liu mentioned that the emerging middle class will also help bolster support for the arts. "Education will help support appreciation of the arts and Chinese culture", Liu stated. Many people may be discouraged to develop their taste for something such as Chinese art because for those with little to no education, it may be even more difficult to understand, and they push it aside. "When you have such a mass of people, only some people will try to understand art, but a lot will not. Because of this gap, Beijing and Shanghai are very cosmopolitan, very internationally influenced, and with that influence, there's more interest to learn and reach out and understand the pleasure of enjoying art", said Liu, "Those with the financial power have the ability to go to museums, travel abroad, etc., but it is really a small percentage of the population." As Shanghai's economy continues to burgeon, perhaps more attention and resources will be directed towards developing Shanghai's arts education and widen the visual arts and fashion design receptive audience.

Media Coverage and Publications

Liu informed me that there are a few resources available on covering the latest in Shanghai fashion, but still there is opportunity to grow. Liu looks towards fashion magazines imported from Japan; however, Chinese editions of Elle magazine and Vogue, to name a few, are also in circulation, but often at a higher price than other publications found on Shanghai news stands. Comprehensive online resources also run scarce, although there is an ever-growing presence in online forums and fashion blogs (when they are not censored). Furthermore, U.S. editions of Vogue as well as other fashion editorials devote a section to arts reviews on books and current exhibitions. However, publications in Shanghai do not have extended reviews or recommendations or a section specifically for arts reviews. Lee believes that media would do well by paying more attention to the arts in China. This may also be a potential area to develop the interdisciplinary bridge between visual art followers and fashion forward citizens.

Integration/Case Studies: Where Art and Fashion Meet

"Collaborations are good," Lee said on visual artists and fashion designers teaming up. Lee joked and explained, "I mean, my husband is an artist!" Lee has worked on many projects with her husband, in addition to the artworks she collects and displays within her own boutique shop. "They make good shop decorations", Lee said on her shop's art collection. Lee also works with artists to develop window displays and interior designs for her store. Lee also includes interdisciplinary arts in her work. For example, her recent collection, Dou hong, is inspired by Chinese "Yue" Opera. Collaborative projects such as these would be an excellent way to foster brand imaging for visual artists and also for fashion design houses. On the other hand, Lee's designs have been featured in the Shanghai Art Museum, in addition to other international exhibition spaces. Featuring fashion designs within an established institution, such as the Shanghai Art Museum and also the Costume Institute in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is also a strategic move in integrating art and fashion to a commercial audience.

Liu also believes collaborations between local and international talents and between visual artists and fashion designers is an innovative way to draw more international and domestic attention to both Shanghai's fashion scene and visual arts scene. Liu states that it is important for both the visual artist and fashion designer to work well together on a project, which means visions and technical skills must compliment each other. "It's like they have to kind of go on dates," says Liu of the visual artist and fashion designer, "Synergy and chemistry must happen." It is a long and arduous process of brainstorming, sketching, and transforming 2D to 3D. Liu stressed that, "Design is not art. It has to commercially viable. Design is more about usage and utility, it has to work on the body, it has to play a function." Therefore, the visual artist and fashion designer must compromise and acknowledge what is best for both sides and best for the project at stake. "It is a process of refinement…not everything works on the body, so both sets of skills [from the visual artist and fashion designer] must be complementary. You want to bring out the best in both people."

There have been several collaborations within the past few years that can serve as models for opening up both the collective fashion and visual arts scenes. In 1998, Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake and Chinese visual artist Cai Quo Qiang teamed up to present Dragon: Explosion on Issey Miyake, Gunpowder on Pleats Please garments.  Cai Quo Qiang utilized his famous pyrotechnics and created gunpowder prints that were designed onto Issey Miyake garments. Another famous collaboration between visual artist and fashion designer was in the Murakami exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2008, when Marc Jacobs, artistic director for luxury brand, Louis Vuitton, collaborated with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Contemporary visual artist, Zhao Bandi, recently designed a fashion line for his Panda Fashion Show, which debuted in 2008. Most recently, the UCCA at Beijing's 798 Dashanzi District presented a Christian Dior show, in collaboration with several contemporary artists, including works by Wen Feng and Zhang Xiaogang. Integrating visual arts and fashion design through collaborative works and exhibitions may be a strong strategic move to tap into a commercial audience and reach out to various demographics.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Liu explained that "location is key." A great difficulty in the Shanghai visual arts scene is how the local government poured massive funding into the creative space at 50 Moganshan Road, but have unsuccessfully met return profits. Liu feels that a major obstacle to this is that 50 Moganshan Road is an isolated creative hub. She pointed to SoHo, where art boomed in the 1980's, partially to the great support of local shops and restaurants that wove between galleries. "SoHo and Chelsea art scenes are all multi-user environments—you have great cafés and great shopping, and you have the Meat Packing District," Liu explained. In recent years, creative spaces have become more and more popular and are also a strategic way of bringing in people of different walks of life into the art and fashion world. Lee disclosed to me that her designs will be featured in a creative concept store that features artwork, a fashion boutique, and a coffee shop, due to open in New York City this coming July. Multi-user environments, such as these, not only attract the art lover audience but reaches out to a widened audience as well.

Collaborations between visual artists and fashion designers will be an important way to open up both scenes and attract wider audiences from both genres. When artist meets fashion designer, such a creative team can produce "a really astonishing, new product that you can show to the world. You show it as an art form and as a design form", Liu said. She encourages local Shanghai fashion designers and artists to work with each other and to also work with internationally recognized artists and designers.

Collaborations could carry out into collective promotions and attract new audiences this way, as well. Promotions such as exhibition openings tied with sales of fashion commodities, or purchasing a fashion item and receiving free admission to upcoming exhibitions, etc.; these types of promotions will increase interdisciplinary awareness and discussion among different crowds of people. There are many successful examples of this: Louis Vuitton established a shop in the 2008 Murakami Exhibition; selling scarves at the MET with visual art from Monet to works by animators; holding design and art competitions that attract audiences from all walks of life. Another promotional feat that is highly popular is the "Limited Edition Series". Inviting visual artists and fashion designers to come in and design limited edition street wear and accessories, like the UNIQLO tee-shirt model, is a strategic way of building brand recognition. Limited edition series are also highly successful because human psyche dictates that most of us like to have something special, unique, and customized, that others may not have.

Within China, and within Shanghai, specifically, Liu points out that the demographics are widely varied. For a visual artist or fashion designer from Shanghai to succeed on both domestic and international fronts, they must find inspiration from their own individual experiences to bring forth to the world a new style, a new way of thinking, a new creative scope. "Life, work, income, where they are from, etc. anchors brand recognition," Liu said, referring to Donna Karan's fashion line, Donna Karan New York (DKNY), as an example. Furthermore, improved quality of arts education and a better-educated citizenry will help burgeon the appreciation and understanding of the arts. Interdisciplinary aspects shared between the visual arts and fashion design in Shanghai will flourish when different artists, from different backgrounds, and different designers, from different backgrounds merge in exciting dialogue and discourse that also involves the inspiration and enthusiasm of the local, international, and commercial audiences.

Works Cited

Interview: Helen Liu

Helen Liu is currently an Honorary Advisor for the Shanghai Professional Fashion and Accessory Designers Society, a Foreign Fashion Design Advisor for the Shanghai Fashion Week, and a member of Fashion Group International. Liu is also Founder and Creative Director for Freshwave Studio and is a Visiting Faculty member at Parson's School of Design in New York City. She is also a Senior fashion show panel judge for Parson's Fashion Design Department, and has been a visiting designer critic at Kent State University and Massachusetts's College of Art.

nterview: Helen Lee

Helen Lee is one of the leading figures in Shanghai's emerging fashion scene. A graduate of China's most prestigious fashion institue, DHU - Lasalle International Design College, Helen's talent has been recognized through awards such as China's "Jeanswest Fashion Award" and Belgium's "Les Etoiles De La Mode."

Immediately after graduating, Helen spent 3 years working with Japanese fashion houses before striking out on her own to start a successful denim brand that targeted the sophisticated, difficult Tokyo boutique market.

Three years ago, Helen returned to her hometown – Shanghai – and founded insh based on her dream of bringing the world an image of Shanghai fashion that moved beyond a colonial 1930's or Communist-era aesthetic.

While other designers in Shanghai derive their designs from Europe's top runway figures, Helen looks to Shanghai's past, present and a vision of its future for design inspiration.

(Courtesy of

Australian Wool Innovation Limited. "Shanghai designer, Qiu Hao wins Woolmark Prize."   2008. Web. 31 May 2009.                                    <>.

People's Daily Online. "Shanghai Starts Construction of International Fashion Center."

People's Daily Online. 30 Apr. 2009. Web. 30 May 2009.            <>.

"Qiu Hao and Helen Lee | Diversity in design, comrades in commerce." Business of Fashion.

17 Jun. 2008. Web. 29 May 2009.

Raffles Design Institute Shanghai. "Faculties/Fashion Design." Raffles Design Institute            Shanghai. 2009. Web. 1 Jun. 2009.                                                                         <>. "Fashion." 2004. Web. 30 May 2009.            <>.

TimeOut Group Ltd. TimeOut Shanghai. 2nd ed. London: TimeOut Guides Ltd., 2006. Print.

Xuan, Zuo. "Trend: Fashion Design in Shanghai." CScout Trend Consulting. 5 Mar. 2008. Web.            31 May 2009.                                                                        <>.

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