LIFE / CULTURE
Chinese Yi designer adds ethnic colors to international fashion
Keeping tradition alive
Published: Jul 12, 2022 07:19 PM
Silver jewelry designed by Longhong Ziwei Photo:Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei

Silver jewelry designed by Longhong Ziwei Photo:Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei

Inspired by the silver beads on the traditional ornaments made by China's Yi ethnic minority, a pair of "small lantern" ear drop earrings are made from finely hollowed silver beads with soft arcs that weigh only 11.7 grams.

Another pair of ear drops, "Star," made from rich layers of disks resembling stars in the night sky, is based on the Yi people's stargazing tradition.

These ornaments tightly bound to the traditional culture of the Yi ethnic group were designed by Longhong Ziwei, who was born and raised in the compact Yi community in Southwest China's Yunnan Province. In 2017, she established her own fashion brand Soft Mountain. 

Since its inception, Soft Mountain has been dedicated to cooperating with excellent Yi artisans. On the basis of respecting tradition, the brand is seeking to protect through innovative contemporary design those traditional skills that are in danger of fading away, Longhong told the Global Times.

The designer has always seen ethnic culture as the source for her designs. 

"There are 56 ethnic groups in China, each of which has its own unique cultural heritage and handicraft tradition. What I want to do is to retain their vitality," she noted.

Step by step, Longhong has introduced her brightly colored ethnic works to the fashion world. In May 2019, international heavyweight fashion magazine Vogue named her one of the seven most cutting-edge jewelry designers in China. In 2020, she brought her designs to London Fashion Week.

Longhong said she believes traditional ethnic culture can play a big role in fashion with the help of local artisans who have inherited their skills through the generations. Meanwhile, providing a platform for these artisans is a practical way to revive ancient traditions.

Yi ethnic designer Longhong Ziwei Photo: Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei

Yi ethnic designer Longhong Ziwei Photo: Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei

Working with local artisans


Longhong said that the most prominent feature of her brand is its insistence on cooperating with artisans from the Yi ethnic group.

After studying art design in London and creating the fashion brand in 2017, Longhong and her team returned to her hometown to find inspirations from local ornaments. They visited local history museums, wandered the streets and found stores selling silver ornaments. 

"Local people are very warm-hearted. Once a grandma heard we were looking for Yi-style ornaments, she rushed to home and brought us her ancestral jewelry so we could appreciate it," Longhong recalled. 

Traditionally, the Yi people wear silver accessories. For instance, Longhong's grandmother is accustomed to putting on her accessories as soon as she gets up every day. 

Longhong has found eight artisans to work with her studio. One of them was even persuaded to return to the village from East China's Shandong Province, where he worked as a construction worker.

Unable to survive through making jewelry for a living, many local artisans in the village gave up this ancestral skill and left to find jobs in the big cities. Longhong said that this livelihood dilemma nearly spelled the end to Yi traditional handicrafts.

Providing a livable salary is one of the ways Longhong has been keeping the traditional skills alive while also achieving her goal of advancing her brand. 

Yi women attend a traditional dance festival in the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. Photo: VCG

Yi women attend a traditional dance festival in the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. Photo: VCG

Entering the international stage


With help of local artisans, Longhong's designs have attracted more and more attention overseas.

In 2019, Longhong received an email from popular British e-commerce platform Net-a-Porter, which called her works brilliant and adorable. The email increased Longhong and her team's confidence and since then the designer has set her eyes on the international market. 

When she attended to the Spring/Summer 2020 London Fashion Week, Longhong took advantage of the opportunity to do a small exhibition called The Pieces We Are at the city's Arthill Gallery. 

On a white wall, black-and-white photos taken by photographers such as Guo Jianliang of folk craftsmen making silver ornaments took visitors to the mountains and rivers where the Yi people live. During the two-week exhibition, people showed great interest in the culture of the Chinese ethnic group.

Longhong recalled that one elderly couple wandered around the exhibition for almost two hours, asking many detailed questions about the ethnic group. 

Longhong is not the only ethnic minority Chinese designers to step onto the international stage. Jin Jingyi, a clothing designer of the Daur ethnic group, has organized a research team to engage in the rescue, protection and inheritance of northern China's ethnic minority clothing.

Jin extracted cultural elements from traditional Daur and Qroqen clothing and turned them into patterns and styles for modern clothing that she then brought to China International Fashion Week.

Having attended London Fashion Week, the fashion stages of France, Spain and the US are now on Longhong's agenda. 

"Foreign countries show a special enthusiasm for the diversity of Chinese ethnic minority culture and value it very much," she noted.
Silver jewelry designed by Longhong Ziwei Photo:Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei

Silver jewelry designed by Longhong Ziwei Photo:Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei