Chinese brocade designer grabs attention by innovating on tradition
Creative designs shine at 2022 CIIE
Published: Nov 07, 2022 07:58 PM
A tiger pattern from the

A tiger pattern from the "Tiger Sniffs the Rose" collection by Chen Liwen

At the Jiangsu exhibition area of the ongoing 2022 China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai, designer Chen Liwen's lifestyle clothing collection "Tiger Sniffs the Rose" has captured the attention of international visitors as it allows them to take a piece of 1,000-year-old Chinese culture with them no matter where they go. 

Although the name of the collection is inspired by English war poet Siegfried Sassoon - "In me the tiger sniffs the rose" - the design of Chen's tiger imprinted clothing was derived from one of China's intangible cultural heritages: yunjin brocade, or cloud brocade.

This is only one example at the CIIE showing how today's young Chinese designers are turning history into fashion that suits global lifestyles.  

Ming Dynasty Hu Bu brocade pattern Photo:Courtesy of He Guanyi

Ming Dynasty Hu Bu brocade pattern Photo:Courtesy of He Guanyi

Cultural resonance

Taking inspiration from hu bu (Lit: tiger patch), a tiger pattern embroidered on clothing that was very popular in fashion during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) among civil ministers and military generals, Chen decided to give the ancient tiger a contemporary makeover. 

Chen told the Global Times that the tiger pattern on Ming Dynasty brocade looks graceful but unapproachable, so she decided to change the tiger to look more like a friendly curious cat by painting its fur patterns in pink and setting it in a botanic garden sniffing flowers with a bird on its shoulder as bees fly around. 

"It seeks to deliver a feel of nature-animal harmony, and harmony with human beings too, but not feel superior or distant. That's what China wants to deliver to the world today," Chen said.

After nearly a year of development, Chen debuted her modern take on silk scarves in early 2022 to celebrate the Year of the Tiger.

While tigers are a symbol of bravery for Chinese people, the designer also sees it as a cultural totem that can be celebrated by many other cultures around the world. 

"We extract the Chinese tiger to put it in new designs that can resonant with global audiences." 

It turns out Chen's designer intuition to turn a Chinese tradition into a world language was spot on. 

Her teammate He Guanyi, who is marketing yunjin brocade products at CIIE, told the Global Times that international visitors said that they would have never noticed the cultural similarities between the way the East and the West see this shared animal totem without having seen Chen's interesting designs. 

At the Shanghai trade expo, Chen offered an expanded "Tiger Sniffs the Rose" collection by showing other tiger-tagged gadgets such as indoor fragrances and stationary, most of which are handy accessories popular among Gen Z consumers who enjoy building up their "young Chinese" cultural identity. 

"When wearing my designed bucket hat with Shu brocade patterns and mixing it with a hip-pop outfit, this is my 'clothing language' that says to people: 'Look, I know what's trending in the world, but I'm a Chinese boy who knows who I am," Lin Xuanze, a fellow Shu brocade fashion designer in Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, told the Global Times. 

Believing that China's guochao [China chic] trend has the potential to self-evolve, Chen told the Global Times that the trend has become a wind vane of style for many young Chinese today. She added that this trend rooted in China's 5,000 years of culture needs to be seen by the world. 

"It is because I can feel the streaming zing of Chinese culture, so I want to translate it through imaginative designs. We must innovate on traditional Chinese culture," Chen said. 

Visitors from the US visit the Nanjing Yunjin Brocade Research Institute booth at the CIIE Photo:Courtesy of He Guanyi

Visitors from the US visit the Nanjing Yunjin Brocade Research Institute booth at the CIIE Photo:Courtesy of He Guanyi

Meeting the future

"Innovate on tradition" is not a theme limited to Chen's designs at the 2022 CIIE. 

The Jiangsu exhibition area displays many other Chinese intangible cultural heritage products such as egg paintings and double-sided indigo dye techniques with modern twists such as digitally processed patterns. Other exhibition areas have brought inheritors of local ethnic cultural legacies such as Sani embroidery to show visitors how modern clothes can be adorned with Chinese ethnic minority aesthetics. 

The expo also has a special area called "Time-honored Chinese brands," which gathers many centuries-old brands from all over the country such as vaunted Chinese medicine and Chinese wine and tea culture companies, who are all showing off their crossover products. 

Beijing-based Chinese medicine house Bai Ta Si has launched a fridge magnet line that depicts real Chinese medicine ingredients, revealing rarely-seen Chinese medicinal ingredients to foreign visitors. 

"Open-minded crossover collaboration is how traditional Chinese brands like us can evolve to meet the future and, most importantly, bring Chinese culture overseas," Jian Mingwei, the director of the Nanjing Yunjin Brocade Research Institute, told the Global Times. 

Aimed at promoting the 1,600-year-old yunjin brocade culture oversea, the company is attending the CIIE for its third time. 

Besides the "Tiger Sniffs the Rose" collection, the institute has so far developed more than 200 traditional patterns that creatively put the iconic "persimmon vine" used in yunjin brocade on items such as ice-cream packaging that became quite a sales sensation when it was launched during the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2022.   

The 'persimmon vine' pattern, along with other ancient patterns such as the peony flowers and tangled branches that were imbued with the aesthetics of yunjin brocade, were once embroidered on the garment of dowager Xiaojing discovered in Ming dingling mausoleum in Beijing. 

Such patterns of rich cultural histories have been preciously collected by the Nanjing research institute. Many of them continue inspires young designers like Chen to further her yunjin brocade innovation.

"Our upcoming project is a collaboration with the aerospace field," Jian revealed to the Global Times.

"But, all of such breakthroughs need to be based on deeper study of our Chinese culture."

Above: Candles from the

Above: Candles from the "Tiger Sniffs the Rose" collection Photo: VCG and Courtesy of Chen Liwen