Two items from Kathrin von Rechenberg's Spring 2013 collection. Photos: Courtesy of Rechenberg
Munich-born designer Kathrin von Rechenberg has managed to find a niche doing haute couture in Beijing, with her reputation spreading by word of mouth among well-heeled local clients tired of flashy labels.
Until now, Rechenberg has kept a low profile. But on Thursday she launched her Spring 2013 collection at the Opposite House, a boutique hotel.
Her low-key yet high-quality clothing reflects a changing tide in Chinese tastes.
"When I first came to Beijing, it was (about) having brand names like Chanel… But now, I think people are fed up with big name brands, at least my clients. They've already passed through this stage. (Brand names) whether in New York, Paris, it's all the same stuff. Now it's a right time for Chinese designers … and other designers. They are feeling more confident now."
She is also feeling more confident: though Rechenberg has been here for over a decade creating, she has always maintained an off-the-radar lifestyle.
"My clients tell me now, go out, be more public. You should have people come and let them know what you're doing," she told Metro Beijing.
Rechenberg caters to a mature clientele, most who have already developed their own sense of style.
"They don't need to show that they can afford Prada. They're looking for quality, individual items," she said.
She describes her clients as cultivated, independent women, who travel and rely on themselves. They are not the tai tai seen strolling around Shin Kong plaza in velour sweat pants and ostentatious designer bags and shoes.
"I enter a shopping mall and I have a headache," she said. "Leave the shopping malls for rich waidi ren coming through Beijing. That's not what a real Chinese person with taste wants."
"In Shanghai you have more boutiques… Areas in Beijing like Nanluoguxiang were interesting. But it's changing too fast and is now too touristy, it's not a good place for designers to be right now. That's a problem here."
Rechenberg's studio feels almost like a speakeasy: it's hard to find and misleadingly looks small from the outside. Open the door, and you step foot into a beautiful renovated courtyard compound, with a small garden out front, side office space, separate work space, and orderly racks of clothing in the main room, one rack devoted to men's wear, the rest women. A few mannequins, draped in luxurious silk cloths, provide height.
One of the greatest benefits of working in China is the level of the skill of her tailors, particularly the meticulous handiwork they put into the intricate seams and hand-stitched details in all of the clothing. Sourcing silk is easy and cheap, comparatively. Other materials are harder to find - all the wool Rechenberg uses is brought from Germany.
Rechenberg works very closely with her Chinese employees, some who have been with her for almost nine years. The familiarity aids the process and prevents culture or language barriers, and though modest about her language fluency, Rechenberg could be heard talking to her tailors and employees seamlessly in Mandarin.
"A lot of people might say, oh you should focus on this niche, the super rich. Others say, do a cheaper line and open a shop to (attract) more people. So there are two extremes, but the most important thing is to maintain your vision, your style."
One thing never up for discussion in the line is compromising on quality, which Rechenberg says is key to maintaining old clients.
Her pieces are tailored made, and most cost several thousand yuan.
Center of fashion
In the future, the soft-spoken yet articulate designer imagines her intimate studio as a place where people will want to visit.
"I want people to really enjoy this place, when they order their clothes. The goal is to let more people know and let them feel free to come and enjoy it," she said.
"We once had a fashion show here, and we opened doors, and our neighbors were like, 'Oh we never knew this was also the gong chang [factory], where they make some of the clothes,'" Rechengberg said of the space.
She was trained in Paris at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, a long name that means she went to a school where she was trained about couture. Rechenberg trained under recognizable Paris couturiers like the Christians (Dior and Lacroix) and Chanel, before coming to Beijing in 2000.
"The staying part is very easy, I met my husband here," she said, noting she and her husband have three children, a girl and two boys.
"My husband brings the kids to school. When the kids have left, I come here."
Couture for the curvy
"It's really important that normal people can wear my designs. Because normal people are also looking for clothes. On skinny tall people, everything looks nice. They can wear T shirts, and it looks nice," Rechenberg said.
This has always been an isolating feature - inspirational for some - of haute couture. Many can look at it from afar, but few can wear or afford it.
Rehenberg's designs seems more accessible in this way, catered to the empowered Chinese or foreign woman more shapely than straight.
The signature fabric of her clothes is tea silk, or xiang yun sha. The fabric is dyed up to 40 times, then covered in mud, giving the fabric a sheen and paper-like texture.
Rechenberg, who first discovered this marbled material while working in Paris, creates mainly using tea silk, lending her clothing a distinctive Asian aesthetic.
Her hope is that Beijing's fashion sense evolves to reflect more individuality. She dreams that the European boutique-style shop becomes a standard, where clients are consulted and fitted for an individualized style by knowledgeable, passionate salespeople.
"I'm happy I have a workshop here. To have this in Europe would be so much more difficult."