Guizhou fash­ion

A grow­ing num­ber of de­sign­ers are helping to breathe new life into old crafts of eth­nic tribes in re­mote vil­lages of South­west China. Kelvin Chan re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE -

De­sign­ers fo­cused on eco­log­i­cal and cul­tural sus­tain­abil­ity are turn­ing to the old crafts of eth­nic tribes in re­mote vil­lages of South­west China.

Dip­ping a brass tipped tool into a vat of liq­uid wax, Pan Xi­uy­ing painstak­ingly traces an in­tri­cate de­sign onto a white cloth.

At her work­shop in a re­mote val­ley in one of China’s poor­est prov­inces, Pan uses tra­di­tional tech­niques passed down for generations to cre­ate an indigo-dye batik scarf em­bel­lished with pat­terns in­spired by her eth­nic Shui com­mu­nity. But her hand­i­crafts are not for fam­ily mem­bers. They are des­tined for af­flu­ent buy­ers thou­sands of miles away.

Pan’s em­ployer, Hong Kong­based Elaine Ng, is among the grow­ing num­ber of de­sign­ers fo­cused on eco­log­i­cal and cul­tural sus­tain­abil­ity who hope to pre­serve skills of ru­ral ar­ti­sans that are fast van­ish­ing in this in­creas­ingly in­dus­trial so­ci­ety.

“A scarf that is made with 50 hours of love is dif­fer­ent from one made by dig­i­tal print in a fac­tory,” says Ng, whose strat­egy of us­ing ar­ti­sans fits right in with the govern­ment’s push to shift away from low-end, cheap mass man­u­fac­tur­ing to­ward higher skilled, more en­vi­ron­ment-friendly in­dus­tries.

Ngis helping to breathe new life into old crafts of eth­nic tribes in iso­lated vil­lages in South­west China’s Guizhou province.

Ng hopes her project, Un/ fold , run by her de­sign stu­dio, The Fabrick Lab, can pi­o­neer a busi­ness model that might ap­peal to young peo­ple flee­ing vil­lages for eas­ier and bet­ter pay­ing jobs in dis­tant cities.

This fall, she launched a lim­ited edi­tion of scarves, squat wooden stools and hexag­o­nal wooden wall tiles, the lat­ter two dec­o­rated with batik pat­terns nor­mally used only for fab­rics. She’s also work­ing with a Shang­hai com­pany to cre­ate fur­ni­ture that uses ar­ti­sanal fab­rics and wood­work.

Back in the work­shop, af­ter fin­ish­ing her pat­tern, Pan dips the silk and cot­ton fab­ric three times into a vat of or­ganic dye made from indigo plants grown higher up the hill­side. Fi­nally, the wax is melted away to re­veal the scarf’s de­sign. It will even­tu­ally sell for $235 on­line or in bou­tiques in Hong Kong and Shang­hai.

In the next room, two vil­lage women weave fab­ric by hand, us­ing a wooden spin­ning wheel strapped on to one of them. Out­side, the val­ley’s lush green rice ter­races and wooden houses stretch into the dis­tance.

Pan, 47, says she’s ea­ger for more work from Ng and the steady in­come it pro­vides, es­pe­cially since her hus­band died ear­lier this year. She learned batik skills from her grand­mother, but la­ments that her daugh­ter and other young vil­lagers are not in­ter­ested.

“Young peo­ple don’t want to learn (the skills). They want to go to Guang­dong,” she says, re­fer­ring to the wealthy province near Hong Kong where fac­to­ries still em­ploy mil­lions of work­ers from the coun­try­side.

“If peo­ple see that we are doing it and def­i­nitely mak­ing money, then they will want to come and have the pa­tience to learn,” says Pan. “Things that are ma­chine made are cheap but they do not look good,” she adds.

Land­locked Guizhou, 2,000 km from Bei­jing, has rich folk art tra­di­tions. More than a third of its 35 mil­lion res­i­dents are from eth­nic groups in­clud­ing the Shui, Miao, Dong and other tribes known for their skills with batik, em­broi­dery, sil­ver­work, wood­work and paper cut­ting.

Those arts are un­der threat as growth picks up in the province best known for its stun­ning karst lime­stone hills and its fiery Moutai liquor. A new high-speed rail line is open­ing up pre­vi­ously iso­lated towns to out­side visitors, while govern­ment plan­ners are en­cour­ag­ing the tech in­dus­try to make Guizhou a cen­ter for big data.

The province re­ported 10.5 per­cent eco­nomic growth in the first half of 2016, third­fastest among the coun­try’s 31 re­gions.

The re­nais­sance of tra­di­tional ap­parel work­shops is partly driven by a back­lash against so-called “fast fash­ion” seen in re­tail chains like For­ever 21 and H&M, says Christina Dean, founder of Re­dress, a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes sus­tain­abil­ity in the fash­ion in­dus­try. Sim­i­lar trends are at play even in af­flu­ent Ja­pan, which has rich tex­tile and wood­work­ing tra­di­tions of its own.

“By and large, the main­stream fash­ion in­dus­try has be­come so bland, it has be­come a polyester rag,” says Dean. “So we are see­ing more and more emerg­ing brands re­ally re­vive ar­ti­sanal crafts­man­ship around the world.”

Guizhou is at­tract­ing other in­de­pen­dent de­sign­ers. Sharon de Lys­ter, also based in Hong Kong, has scoured its mar­kets for her la­bel, Nar­ra­tive Made.

“This is stuff they have been doing for generations but it re­ally is dy­ing,” says de Lys­ter. She says young peo­ple see no way to make money, so they do not in­vest time and en­ergy in ad­vanc­ing those tra­di­tional crafts.

The cuffs on one of de Lys­ter’s $190 silk shirts have a black and white chili pep­per flower pat­tern by a Miao mas­ter em­broi­derer with cross stitch­ing that pro­duces an iden­ti­cal pat­tern on both sides. The Miao and some other eth­nic groups have no writ­ten lan­guage of their own so they use em­broi­dery to com­mu­ni­cate their myths and folk­lore.

New York-based de­signer An­gel Chang spent a year in Guizhou col­lab­o­rat­ing with Miao and Dong ar­ti­sans for a 2013 cap­sule col­lec­tion. Fash­ion edi­tors loved her biker style jacket, $1,000 but now sold out, in cot­ton damask fea­tur­ing hyp­notic blue and white zig-zags and geo­met­ric birds.

It is a race against time: Only three grand­moth­ers in the Dong vil­lage of Zhaox­ing can weave that pat­tern, says Chang.

“Young peo­ple can­not do it. So you have a knowl­edge that is al­ready in de­cline,” she says. “The cur­rent gen­er­a­tion can­not ex­plain what all the sym­bols mean and the sto­ries in the clothing.”

A scarf that is made with 50 hours of love is dif­fer­ent from one made by dig­i­tal print in a fac­tory.” Elaine Ng, de­signer

AP PHOTOS

Top: Pan Xi­uy­ing of the Shui eth­nic group uses wax to make a batik pat­tern on a scarf in Sandu, Guizhou province. Above left: Hong Kong-based de­signer Sharon de Lys­ter wears a dress by her fash­ion la­bel Nar­ra­tive Made. Above right: A dress de­signed by Sharon de Lys­ter.

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