Designer Chu Yan talks about moving past ancient Chinese clothing

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/21 18:28:39

Chu Yan Photo: Li Hao/GT



 

A model showcases a dress from the Xunji collection. Photo: Courtesy of Chu Yan





 

A model showcases a dress from the Xunji collection. Photo: Courtesy of Chu Yan



 

A model showcases a dress from the Xunji collection. Photo: Courtesy of Chu Yan


"True confidence is complete tolerance and acceptance of others while not losing oneself," fashion designer Chu Yan told the Global Times. Recently, she showed off her new 2018 Spring/Summer collection Xunji (Seeking the Traces) in Beijing. While the designer still places an emphasis on ancient Chinese styles, the new collection reveals an obvious bohemian streak while incorporating more modern elements.

Featuring a total of 45 suits, dresses and apparel, Xunji was inspired by the ancient Silk Road that connected Shaanxi Province's Xi'an, the ancient capital of China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to Samarqand, Uzbekistan and finally Rome in Italy. A horse with wings was one of the most commonly used motifs in the collection, since this image often appeared in murals and other unearthed relics on the Silk Road, as well as because horses were the most widely used mode of transportation along the famed trade route in ancient times, according to Chu.

For more than two decades, Chu has been researching traditional Chinese clothing. Although she is not the only designer to do so, Chu's clothing stands out from the crowd due to her luxurious embroidery and the use of muted colors which remind viewers of Chinese ink wash paintings.

Sitting down for an exclusive interview with the Global Times, Chu talked about the road she took to get where she is today, as well as what path she plans to take in the future. 

Felt, not seen

When thinking about Chinese elements in fashion, most people tend to think of clothing decorated with dragons or peony flowers. However, in Chu's opinion, getting Chinese elements right is more about creating a feeling rather than including any particular decoration.

Chu explained that her very first inspirations came from the ink wash paintings of Bada Shanren (Zhu Da), a painter and calligrapher who was active during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. "He knew how to make use of empty space probably more than anyone else," Chu said, adding that she has spent a lot of time studying the ancient artist's works as well as modern art theorists' research about him.

"It's all about the beauty of emptiness and blank space, which is the beauty of oriental Zen." 

Chu explained that the best way to present Chinese beauty is similar to how salt dissolves into water - you can no longer see the salt, but you can taste it. 

"I've seen too many Chinese designs that emphasize appearance but lack soul. That was what we decided to change when we first started our brand [in 2011]," Chu said.

Born and raised in Xi'an, Chu says she was subtly influenced by the history and culture of the city at a young age, although she did not realize just how much until many years later.

Spending her childhood visiting museums and art galleries, Chu liked to sketch the figures in some of the Han (202BC -220) and Tang dynasty paintings because she thought they were beautiful. This, she says, is one of the main reasons that many of her designs mimic Han and Tang styles.

Chu explained that she also enjoys drawing on elements from the clothing of other dynasties and ethnic minority groups, such as the qipao, about which there is some controversy as to whether it can truly be considered representative Chinese clothing since it was once the traditional dress of the Manchu ethnic group.

"Doesn't the qipao look the way it does because Manchu clothes were influenced by the Han ethnic group?" Chu noted.

"And even during the Han and Tang dynasties, Middle-eastern characteristic were absorbed into Chinese clothing... We need to look at the inheritance of Chinese fashion with an open mind. It is the result of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic communication."

For this same reason, Chu said she does not avoid using more advanced techniques from the West to create her Chinese clothing if these techniques can streamline production and make clothing more affordable for people.  

Moving forward

A well-known name in China, Chu earned more international recognition thanks to the 2014 APEC Summit. During the opening ceremony, heads of state were all dressed in clothing of Chu's design.

Yet, Chu said there is still a long road ahead for Chinese designers to make a name for themselves overseas, as international fashion is dominated by Europe.  

Chu pointed to Japanese designers as a group Chinese designers can learn from "because we have many similarities and differences."

Chu said that Japanese designers were able to stand out, in part, due to the economic boom Japan experienced during the 1970s and 1980s. 

"The domination of a country in fashion industry conversation is directly related to said country's international position," Chu said.

She also pointed to the contributions of individual designers.

"Designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo learned from masters in Europe before they came up with their own Japanese style," Chu noted.

She added that they incorporated fresh Asian designs into their clothing, which won the respect of Europeans. On the contrary, Chu said many designers in China have just been focused on copycatting European designs.

"We should learn from the innovation of Japanese designers… Although there was some criticism, this later led to discussion and allowed their clothing to become the focus of attention," Chu said.

Zhou Yue contributed to this story.


Newspaper headline: Innovating tradition



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