Western styles oriented to Asian inspirationThe West has discovered the East. Again.
This spring, the runways of Paris, Milan and New York overflowed with designs inspired by the Orient.
A soaring, fire-breathing dragon crawled over feminine curves on Roberto Cavalli’s cheongsam redux; its flouncy, golden skit was breathtakingly short.
Blumarine’s Ana Molinari had cherry blossoms blooming on her see-through evening dress. And, Gucci’s Tom Ford paraded a slinky kimono gown thrown over, well, nothing but a bikini bottom.
Makeup artists, too, looked to Asia. In Paris, Tom Pecheux contrasted sheer skin (Shiseido’s colorless Smoothing Veil) with primary colors and red-lacquered lips. And Lucia Peroni, who did the makeup for Blumarine, said she was striving for a 1950s look inspired by the movie “My Geisha” with Shirley MacLaine.
Fashion doyennes at magazines throughout the West, many now dressed in mandarin-collared jackets, high-slit cheongsams and lush kimono gowns, are praising the revival of chinoiserie and japonaiserie as if the movements were new.
In actuality, they need only to flash back to April 1997 ― just ahead of Hong Kong’s handover to mainland Chinese rule ― to see Cosmopolitan breathlessly announcing that fashion had been caught what it called a “Mandarin Moment.”
“Fashion’s gone steamier than a Szechwan noodle shop. Update your wardrobe with spring’s new Oriental-inspired pieces for a mix that’s modern mandarin,” Cosmo advised.
Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar similarly devoted spreads to chinoiserie.
Ironically, designers in Asia have often looked to the West for inspiration. The cheongsam began in Shanghai in the early 20th century as a Western-influenced rebellion against traditional Manchurian dress. And today, of course, there’s no shortage of Western-styled clothing in Asia, along with Prada bags, Burberry raincoats and Armani suits ― the real deals and the knockoffs.
But the West’s love of the East stretches back for ages, ever since caravans traveled what would later be called the Silk Road. As far back as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Persian and Sodigan traders were crossing China’s 7,000-kilometer (4,430-mile) desert expanses to buy silk, spices, fragrances, teas and decorative objects. They took their discoveries as far west as the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean coast.
Marco Polo’s trip to China in the late 13th century ― his accounts of the silks, gardens and canals of Hangzhou and Suzhou ― further intrigued Westerners about the mysteries of the Orient.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, European markets were flooded with Chinese “kraak” porcelain that was made for export during the reign of the last real Ming dynasty emperor, Wan Li. The capture of two Portuguese ships in 1602 and 1604 by the Dutch, and the auctioning of their cargo of porcelain, helped ignite a mania in Europe for Chinese porcelain that would last 200 years.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain’s East India Trading Company further fired the West’s passion for all things Asian with the tea, crafts and fabrics that it brought back from India, Singapore, Japan and China. (We’ll skip a discussion of the opium that the company exported to China in the 19th century, a practice that the Chinese opposed and that precipitated the Opium Wars.)
In France, Chinese decorative art fit in well with the Louis XV-style furnishings and were prized by the aristocratic classes. The bright colors found in Chinese art, as well as the subject matter ― pagodas, latticework, birds and flowers ― fired the imagination of 18th century Rococo period painters, such as Jean-Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher, as well as artisans making furniture, tapestries and garments.
In England, Thomas Chippendale, for one, produced late-18th century cabinets bearing chinoiserie influences.
A century later, in the late 19th and early 20th century, japonaiserie and chinoiserie were all the rage again in Europe and the United States. The curvilinear and minimalist designs of Japanese art fit the Art Nouveau period in the West.
Western fashion designers also borrowed from the East. The tunic, V- neckline, full or rectangular sleeves and dropped shoulders all came from Asian influences
The Art Deco period between the First and Second World Wars embraced exotic Eastern art, decorative geometry (like Chinese latticework) and extravagant ornamentation.
It was during this period, in the 1920s, that the French jewelry company Cartier produced its dazzling Chinese- and Japanese-styled collections. The pieces were all made in Cartier’s workshops, although the mandarin ducks, Buddhist seals, dragons and landscapes incorporated into boxes, clocks, vases, pendants and handbags looked as though they could have been crafted in Asia.
This year, Cartier brought chinoiserie back into spotlight. Its collection, called “The Kiss of a Dragon,” features classic yet modern takes on Chinese pendants, rings, necklaces and earrings. Using the geometric forms of Chinese characters, silk tassels and the shape of the Japanese Shinto shrine gate, Cartier’s collection offers a refreshing addition to today’s fashion-conscious women.
While the West has long appreciated the treasures of the East, Asians have generally found limited inspiration from the designs emerging from Europe and the United States. There have always been exceptions, however, chiefly among the best-educated Asians, many of whom have long prized Western fashion and art.
Today, the Western fascination with Orientalism reminds older generations of Asians of the colonial era, and some find the costumes anachronistic representations of an impoverished past.
In Korea, wearing clothes that have a chinoiserie or japonaiserie look is often considered “eccentric,” according to a middle-aged Korean shopper dressed in a soft gray Jil Sander skirt suit. “Korea was never really part of the European renaissance. Dressing like the Chinese or Japanese doesn’t interest Koreans very much,” she said.
Younger, fashion-conscious Korean professionals often think otherwise. “The Oriental fashion that has been reinvented by Europeans is hip and refreshing in Asian designers’ eyes,” says a 20-something graphic designer.
Reinterpreting the kimono and cheongsam is one matter. Whether it’s ethical to alter the authentic design of the hanbok, the Korean national costume, is another.
The extent that hanbok should be transformed is an ongoing debate among historians, hanbok makers and fashion designers. The public, in effect, has voted: “modernized” versions of the hanbok have never made it into mainstream fashion.
Seo Young-hee, a local fashion stylist, has incorporated classic Korean elements in magazine designs, yet the general response among Koreans so far has been considered as mere “new, artistic attempt.”((UNCLEAR))
Stores dealing with more conservative customers on the northern side of Seoul don’t carry many Asian-themed products. A Cartier salesperson kindly suggested visiting Cartier’s stores in Gangnam.
In the trendy department stores in southern Seoul, the European and American brands that introduced Asian themes rarely display their latest cheongsam or kimono dresses.
Roberto Cavalli’s mini-cheongsam dress can’t even be found here. “We didn’t bring that dress to Korea. There’s no market for it,” the store manager says.
The Blumarine shops stocks soft jersey tops that are banded with tape embroidered with tiny flowers. It’s kind of Asian.
Ungaro has a beautifully feminine but somewhat dowdy halter top and silk skirt ensemble. The salesperson insisted it was the most Asian outfit in the shop, noting the fabric contained colorful Japanese-inspired prints “if you look closely.”
Aren’t there any eccentric dressers who love to wear the latest non-Korean but Asian fashion in Korea?
“Yes, there are, but the number is very small,” said a Gucci spokesperson. “We imported just one extremely fancy, expensive kimono dress. It was sold upon its arrival.”
Perhaps the real revival of Asian fashion won’t take place in Korea until, let’s say, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton suddenly finds the Korean flag inspiring.
by Ines Cho