When style is a 

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“When Hong Kong is a woman, she stands in emancipation, fans her lashes, highlights her lines, clasping her silver handbag under a coat of grey. [She] dismantles an entire truth – Hong Kong, a woman of contrasts.”
– Filmmaker Jean-Claude Thibaut, When Hong Kong is a Woman (2012)

My task in this issue has been to examine the style identity of three of China’s most thriving cities – Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. No easy feat, as after all, from a general industry point of view, they are seemingly similar – booming urban bubbles of young, local collections, fast fashion, and an abundant demand for branded luxury – emergent environments that have created a mishmash of new tastes which are often hard to decipher and scrutinise. However, ultimately a search for an identity is a search for a person. I found myself questioning: if this city were a woman, who would she be? When style is a woman, what does she have to say? So, I set out to find her and ask. The result is three incredibly magnetic portraits told in their own words: wise and elegant women of fashion, who exemplify the height of style in contemporary China, and each generously offered her own perspective to me as a lens through which to view the incomparable, ineffable cities that they call home. These are their stories.
When Beijing is a woman, she stands straight and strong, clutching her exuberant curiosity casually under the arm, like a bright new bag. Fast-moving, straight-talking Beijing is the heart of new China, holding all the reins to its dramatic transformations as she sits perched in the driver’s seat of the world’s most populated country. She is strong and direct, and her foreign suitors trail behind in ever more aggressive pursuit, dazzled by her promises of new wealth and emerging markets. She embodies power and stimulates the senses of the country, usually wearing a neat dress (Jason Wu or Prada, perhaps) and a very, very smart coat.

Angelica Cheung is undoubtedly one of the contemporary fashion world’s most powerful people as well as a fashion icon of Beijing. As Editor-in-Chief of Vogue China, she is both a broker of influence for Western fashion houses entering China through the pages and ads of her magazine, as well as a patron of the arts for talented emergent Chinese designers building new brands at home and abroad. Unlike many fashion editors, Cheung comes from a business background, rather than a fashionista’s training. She studied law and literature in Beijing and sharpened her skills at Goldman Sachs before becoming a journalist. Since the launch of Vogue China in 2005, she has carried it to unimaginable heights, doubling in circulation and now printing four additional issues a year.

Her success is owed in part to her grand vision: an idea of what she hopes Chinese women will grow to be. “I think about what kind of a woman I would like my daughter to become,” she once told filmmaker Aurélie Saada during an interview for Nowness. “It became clear in my mind that if I want my daughter to become such a kind of woman, then I want my readers to become that kind of woman. The clothes are a reflection of who you see yourself as and how you want to live your life.” Here she talks to Glass about just exactly what kind of woman that is.

Angelica Cheung: Like any great city, the fashion and style mindset in Beijing is very diverse. Here, you have the cosmopolitan tribes who wear all the big international brands and high-street brands like Zara and Mango; you also have the department stores and buyers’ boutiques which cater to those who like smaller fashion brands. Then in the “hutongs” and older parts of town, vintage stores, small niche labels and homegrown labels are really taking off too. I think at the moment it’s a very interesting mix.

The Beijing woman is very strong – she is forward and outgoing. Southern Chinese women are strong in their own way, but perhaps they go about it with more feminine subtlety. A Beijing woman is always straight-talking and exuberant. I would say that she is more open-minded in terms of embracing different styles. Compared to other cities, the culture of fashion here is very young and exploratory. Hong Kong has a longer history of exposure to world fashion and that’s reflected in the way people dress there – styles and trends are more firmly rooted. Shanghai is often seen as having a more polished and groomed style. In contrast, the Beijing woman likes to experiment much more.

The great situation women have in Beijing is that fashion is a relatively new arena for them to explore, and they have been put right at the centre of it. It’s really over the past two decades that international brands have begun to reach China, and with a particularly increased vigour over the last five years. All these labels and influences which people in the West have been living with all their lives – they’re all new to the Chinese consumer and they are now pursuing the market powerfully. In this way, the Beijing woman approaches fashion in a spirit of exploration and curiosity. They’re filled with interest and desire for what’s out there.

In recent years, I’ve definitely seen a move away from the big name luxury labels and into smaller, more niche high-end labels. The Beijing woman is starting to want the things that are difficult to get – not the things that everyone else has – whether it’s limited edition or labels that aren’t even carried in China yet. A lot of people come to Beijing looking to find out what style is like over here. In Beijing, you will meet the high-end couture clients who buy from Paris shows and are exposed to fashion very directly. You will meet the increasing numbers of young students and creatives who go abroad to study at Central Saint Martins and Parsons School, and the people who love their niche avant-garde brands or have a real passion for a relatively obscure designer. The scene here is much more varied than it’s given credit for.

When it comes to my personal style, I enjoy keeping things elegant and classic. Working in this industry, you’re exposed to so much and are required to make so many choices in your professional life, that in my personal life I like to keep it simple. I try to look decent and nice, but I’m not too loud. I don’t want photographers chasing after me – that’s for stylists and young editors. Having a full working day and a small child has brought me a whole new appreciation for versatile pieces. The one-piece dress is often a key component in my wardrobe that I accessorize around. I do also have a particular weakness for coats, though I’m running out of space to store them!

I travel so much, it’s becoming hard to identify myself with a particular city. I worked for a large part of my professional life in Hong Kong, and my husband is British, so my family also spends a significant amount of time in London and Hong Kong, but I come from Beijing. I was born here, grew up here, studied here, and am based here now. Nonetheless, I love how fashion and style is so globalised now – even my six-year-old daughter is becoming quite the globetrotter these days! I think that should be embraced.

When Hong Kong is a woman, she carries herself optimistically, balancing on sharp statement heels, and wears her feminine identity proudly on the sleeve of an elaborate jacket. For decades, when the West imagines China it has been Hong Kong that it dreams of, a seductive siren luring travellers into her beautiful urban dichotomies, framed by the doorway to her homeland – the oldest tale of East meets West. She is confident and expressive, open and optimistic. And she has, in the definitive words of Sarah Rutson, “a shoe and handbag collection that will beat any woman in any other city in the world.”

A darling of street style blogs and a front-row fixture of fashion weeks worldwide, Sarah Rutson stands at the helm of highly-influential Hong Kong-based retailer Lane Crawford. Sometimes described as “Chinese Bergdorf Goodman”, Lane Crawford is an institution – not just a small empire of department stores (currently six locations across Hong Kong and Beijing with more in development), but one of China’s definitive style authorities and original grande dame of high-end multi-brand retail: an identity and influence moulded and maintained in part by Rutson herself.

Originally a Londoner, she began her fashion career in her teens as a Marks & Spencer’s shop girl, and later as their head buyer. In 1993, she faxed her CV to Hong Kong, packed her bags, took off on her own and never looked back. Today, Rutson shares her life in the fast-paced commercial city with her husband and daughter, and a houseful of rescued dogs and cats. As Lane Crawford’s long-standing fashion director, she is Hong Kong’s woman in style, a reigning tastemaker to the new Chinese fashion consumer and forecaster of all their desires, sensitivities and trends. Glass tracked her down in the midst of a busy fashion week schedule to get all her predictions and insights.

Sarah Rutson: “By its nature, Hong Kong is a city of fast-paced commerce. It has always been driven by money, investments, and the power of image and branding, all in a very condensed environment. The abilities to define yourself as an individual, to express yourself, and to be informed and switched on, are all very important: they are a part of this city’s DNA. Evolving is a way of life. In that same vein, fashion here is always evolving. It is fast-paced and forward-looking. Hong Kongers are open and forward; they have a very direct, optimistic and pure enjoyment of clothes.

Because there is a culture of dressing up, a woman tends not to say,“When would I wear this?” when looking at something rather dressy. European and American women often think in terms of “not having the lifestyle” for certain looks. Hong Kong women don’t worry about that. They always have the lifestyle. The lifestyle I refer to isn’t just about socio-economic background, but rather in the pure context of style and dressing up, and enjoying the art of clothes and fashion as part of everyday life.

As this is a small, compact urban city, it affects the fashion mindset. You are always seen by someone, there is almost “nowhere to hide”. I have found, more than in any other city in the world, that the Hong Kong woman has a very developed idea of the outward projection of what she wears and how she wears it. She tends to dress up. She is very well polished and finished from head to toe. Even when she’s in a casual look, a Hong Kong woman never thinks of it as “dressing down”. She’ll be in a Stella McCartney pair of shorts or pants, a Givenchy or McQueen t-shirt, and a Sacai knitwear piece, with Eddie Borgo jewellery.

Personally, every item I wear has a chameleon quality. I need clothes that can interact and combine with each other, rather than things that can only be worn one way. I never wear anything that’s so identifiable or iconic on its own that it can’t be flexible within the rest of my wardrobe. I travel too much to have a wardrobe built of individual outfits; I need to create looks that interchange and, more importantly, stand the test of time without being defined by trends – being relevant does not mean you have to be a slave to trend.

A biker jacket is always a key piece for me. My other staples are white shirts, Alaia shoes, and any variation on a tuxedo jacket. I also love costume jewellery. No matter what is happening in trends or seasons, these items make up the everyday backbone of my wardrobe.

It’s funny, people think I’m dressed up at the [fashion week] shows, but in Hong Kong I don’t stand out – this is the way my customers wear fashion daily. I definitely see myself as a Hong Kong woman. I’ve been immersed in the culture and the people for 20 years now. I love this city and everything about it.”
When Shanghai is a woman, she is polished and put-together, with her sharp frame wrapped cleverly in a vintage-inspired dress that steals all the attention. Coy, coquettish Shanghai charms visitors like the heroine of an Eileen Chang novella. Ever since the mid-nineteenth century, she has been a worldly port city that glitters attractively, as subtle and mysterious as the leafy tree-veiled streets of her former French Concession. Shanghai is fresh, sexy and fearless, with a modern day excitement and cosmopolitanism reinvented from her glamorous background.

Formerly at LVMH for 10 years, Nicole Zhang has become a firm figure on the style scene in Shanghai, working as Director of Visual Merchandising for Christian Dior Couture and Prada. Just this past year, she started a new career with the launch of her own eponymous fashion and lifestyle brand. There are many new designers building their own brands in Shanghai – the fashion industry here is fresh and opportunistic – but Nicole Zhang stands out: her experience and sophistication reflect the fashion identity of Shanghai and set her designs apart. Only two collections in, her label is already attracting a great deal of attention.

From her design studio in downtown Shanghai’s Xuhui district, Zhang creates clothes that are aesthetically subtle, with sharp details and a wide range of influences. She has reinvented herself from luxury merchandising executive into one of the most exciting new designers in the city.

Nicole Zhang: “Shanghai is very multicultural and international, perhaps even more so than many cities in East Asia because it has a long and deep-rooted history of being so cosmopolitan. Old Shanghai is often thought of as a glamorous, exotic city, full of foreign neighbourhoods and concessions. Those old images of the city seem to have become more appropriate than ever today. It is hard to find a city in the world today that is more international and exciting than modern Shanghai.

Because of this history of the city, I always think of Eileen Chang (a glamorous 1930s Chinese writer, author of Lust, Caution and other titles) when I think of the Shanghai woman. Shanghainese women are worldly and discerning. They are sharp and shrewd. They are surrounded by so many different influences and this affects and defines their approach towards style, because they are always taking everything in. The Shanghai woman is very sensitive to trends. She is very good at adapting the latest styles to suit her own look. Style here is definitely evolving all the time.

To me, Shanghai style is a bit like a mixture of New York and Paris. And not just because the Shanghainese have a reputation of being a bit stuck up about their city, like New Yorkers and Parisians! The fashion here tends to be more polished than in other Chinese cities. I like that people here have fun dressing themselves, while still caring a great deal about looking proper. Shanghai style is about dressing for different occasions and being able to present a personality with your clothes. Having a personal identity and being known by others is very important to people.

In the fashion scene in Shanghai, there are a lot of people who dress for attention, often styling themselves in an odd way, not necessarily for style’s sake but for the attention and shock value. I always think: at least they care! It may be a case of caring too much, but that is very Shanghai. Traditionally, more than anyone else in China, the Shanghainese have always been known to care a lot about their clothes and appearances.

Of course, there are always the people who overdress themselves like fashion victims covered in brands and logos from head to toe. I think this is the image that much of the West sees when they imagine the fashion and style scene here. There is still a big gap between China and the international fashion world, due to our short history with global fashion and the different understandings of such a huge population. We are not yet competing on the same equal stage, but I always tell people to be patient. I think we will get there.

I like to describe my personal style as “raw elegant”. My key pieces are skinny black denim trousers, basic well-cut t-shirts, and an oversized black leather jacket or a simply cut men’s jacket. I often like to wear a plain long dress with vintage earrings. I also love a good pair of vintage Ray-Ban sunglasses. It´s important to me to have a consistent daily look. I stick to simple shapes with interesting details.

In my new role as a designer, I have a lot of faith in the style identity of Shanghai and the fashion community here. I have many great clients and buyers. In my work, I like creating contemporary images inspired from vintage styles, so perhaps my process is a reflection of this city. I’m very inspired by my life experiences here and the small day-to-day things. I have lived in Shanghai for 23 years now and a big part of me will always belong to this city.”

by Lillian He

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue 15 – Ambition

About The Author

Glass Magazine fashion writer

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