Elemental design

Updated: 2013-08-04 23:53

By GAN TIAN (China Daily)

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Vivienne Tam recently launched her first jewelry collection in partnership with TSL Jewelry, and the collection betrays her influences and inspirations.

Although the collection is infused with modernity, it is inspired by the Taoist concept of wu xing, the five elements of Chinese cosmology — metal, wood, water, fire and earth — that make up the world as they succeed each other in an immutable cycle.

Elemental design

Vivienne Tam is just a little different from other well-established fashion designers with Chinese ancestry such as Phillip Lim, Jason Wu and Alexander Wang. Gan Tian tells us why.

"Everything is of these five elements, the environment, energy. Our body is also about the five elements," Tam says in an exclusive interview with China Daily backstage at the Beijing presentation of her Spring/Summer 2013 collection.

"Fashion is always about the Western way of dressing, so I thought why don't I introduce this Taoist philosophy to the West, telling them how we dress ourselves and enhance our energy," she says.

Unlike most fashion designers who talk fast and loud, Tam speaks slowly in a low, calm tone. Before she answers each question, she pauses to think for a short while. She speaks fluent English, but switches frequently to Cantonese, throwing in a few Mandarin words, in order to explain the philosophy behind the collection.

The 18K gold collection features strong sculptural shapes to encapsulate the qualities associated with each element.

The Metal series uses circular shapes to highlight the propensity for change. The Wood series uses columns to signify rejuvenation and growth. The Water series represents the ceaseless cycle of life in the shape of curving waves. The Fire series features triangular structures to represent strength and the power of sun, and the Earth series comprises rectangular shapes with 18K rose gold, agate and citrine providing a sense of balance and cohesion with an underlying feeling of vitality.

Tam, born in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, moved to Hong Kong in 1960 when she was 3. In 1981, she went to New York to study. Her bi-cultural upbringing in Hong Kong and studies in the United States have cultivated an East-meets-West aesthetic.

In 1993, she launched her first label East Wind Code, which wowed the Western fashion industry with modern qipao-inspired pieces featuring clean lines, Asian prints and delicate embroidery.

Her works were soon featured in Women's Wear Daily, which is known as "the bible of fashion" and were picked up by museums such as the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The 55-year-old designer recalls that she used to go to the Chinese Department Store during her early years in Hong Kong. "There were no changes. It seemed like souvenirs", and she decided she wanted to transform the traditional Chinese style into something modern.

"In the fashion world, everybody was looking to the Western brands, but I wanted to develop my own identity. I wanted to design something I believe in. I believe in my own culture," Tam says.

To many Westerners, Chinese design is very limited: bright yellow and red, the dragon and the phoenix, Chinese characters, ink-and-wash paintings, qipao or Mao suits. Tam is well aware of that it is more than that.

"There is some difference between how we see our culture and how Westerners see Chinese culture. They live in a very superficial (Chinese) world, Susie Wong, Chinese food, Chinese medicine, kung fu, and so on," Tam says. "For Chinese people, we are living in this culture. Sometimes it is quite hard for us to get away from it."

"Because Westerners only understand it superficially, they can create something very different. That abstract thinking allows them to have more freedom to do something. So my pieces are a combination of Chinese culture and their culture."

She draws a comparison when she first went to the United States and was thrilled to find a Chinese restaurant in the heart of New York. However, she found the food was different. At the end of her meal, she was served with a fortune cookie, inside of which she found a small piece of paper with motto, something she'd never experienced before.

Tam stresses that she is trying to deliver something more than just a flavor of China to the rest of the world.

"The fashion world is fast-paced. It is about surface. But I want to bring something much deeper to the world besides fashion. I want to bring something beyond fashion, something about balance, energy and life, all that makes you better," she says.

Contact the writer at gantian@chinadaily.com.cn.