Dressed for success

Updated: 2013-01-25 07:56

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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Dressed for success

Designer Vivienne Tam has taken inspiration from five basic Chinese cosmological elements. Photos provided to China Daily

One of the first Chinese designers to make a mark internationally, Vivienne Tam aims to create fashion that is both physical and spiritual

New York based designer Vivienne Tam - known as a groundbreaker for fusing Eastern and Western design - has been inspired by Chinese cosmological elements for her latest collection.

Tam, who has more than 30 stores worldwide, has always incorporated Chinese features into her work, sometimes boldly, sometimes subtly. For the coming spring-summer Vivienne Tam line of clothing, due in shops early this year, the designer took inspiration from five basic Chinese cosmological elements - wood, fire, earth, metal and water - for patterns and shapes.

"I want to bring out the Chinese concept of dressing to enhance energy, not just enhance fashion, says Tam. "Women can choose something that empowers them with the right color and shape accompanied by the right gemstone."

Tam keeps in close contact with her Chinese roots on regular visits to Beijing and Hong Kong. A particular favorite for inspiration is the Panjiayuan market in the capital city, a sprawling indoor-outdoor collection of stalls and stores selling jewelry, artifacts, books, paintings, crafts, clocks, knick-knacks, furniture and sculptures.

The Guangdong-born, Hong Kong-raised Tam was one of the first Chinese designers to make a mark internationally, long before people such as Jason Wu, Phillip Lim and Derek Lam came on to the scene.

Tam's early designs, applying Chinese style motifs and embroidery to modern dresses and skirts, were striking and fresh. A Mao Zedong-inspired clothing line from her earlier years is considered to be a significant fashion milestone, now incorporated into the permanent archives of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; her black-and white "peony" print dress is in the permanent archives of the costume institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

"Being a designer is hard work," says Tam, who has been in the industry for almost three decades. "As a designer you have to make sure that you last more than one season - the key to that is making sure that everything is delivered on time and that the quality is good. You have to be disciplined.

"I travel a lot; when my working day finishes in New York then I am on the phone to Asia. You have to juggle a lot, but I enjoy every moment of my work. When I first went to the United States people would ask me if Hong Kong was part of Japan. Now, with the Internet, and more people traveling, there is much wider knowledge."

The designer has benefited directly from the Internet, building a thriving on-line business. There are now a total of 36 Vivienne Tam stores in the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. These outlets feature two new collections annually, for spring-summer and autumn-winter.

There are other projects, too, most recently the Vivienne Tam suite at the new Icon hotel in Hong Kong. The idea was to make the environment as homely and natural as possible with lots of soothing reds and purples, ample natural wood and plenty of plants; it is loosely modeled on the designer's home, in the trendy Chelsea district of New York.

When at home - and on the road, whenever possible - Tam spends an hour each day performing yoga exercises, does not drink or smoke, and follows a healthy, mostly-vegetarian diet. The energetic Tam is also a published author: China Chic, a lavishly illustrated memoir of her journey from a humble background to fame and fortune, also acts as a basic primer on Chinese design and culture.

"What is China chic?" she asks in the book. "It incorporates a balance that is spiritual as well as visual. It is embodied in the Taoist concept Wuwei, a kind of stillness that doesn't go against nature. To talk about chic on that level is to talk about all things Chinese and I am still on my own personal journey of discovering China.

"Growing up in the colony of Hong Kong I had very little formal education about China but I felt something was missing and had a passion to learn. China is the source of inspiration for my design."

Inspired by China's past she may be, but Tam is commercially wise to the ways of the contemporary Western world, particularly when it comes to generating publicity, whether it is making dresses for a Barbie doll collection, endorsing a make of mobile phone, lending her name to a hotel advertising campaign, designing costumes for Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse or dreaming up a butterfly-bedecked casing for a laptop computer.

Another way of promoting the Vivienne Tam label is to enlist the help of stars such as Julia Roberts, who wore a red-beaded Tam dress for premieres of the smash-hit film Notting Hill. Expect to see plenty of celebrities dressed in Vivienne Tam early next year when the spring-summer collection makes its debut. China being so much in the fashion-industry news has also benefited business.

It is a far cry from the early days when she struggled to find a market for her East-meets-West designs. Only determination - and a steadfast belief in her own talent - kept Tam going.

Eventually, after much traipsing around New York department stores in the early 1980s with samples of her Chinese-influenced modern clothing, a buyer showed interest and made a firm order.

"I was very lucky," she recalls of that encounter. "The department store Henry Bendell had an open day for new designers and they liked my work. I still clearly remember the buyer who gave me work. America gave me opportunities.

"I wanted to show it to Americans, and act as a bridge between the two cultures. I love my Chinese culture and I went to the US because I was convinced people would appreciate it. I was true to what I was doing, I was never sidetracked."

China Daily

(China Daily 01/25/2013 page20)