Eastern Prom­ises

HONG KONG-BORN Vivi­enne Tam HAS BE­COME HIGH FASH­ION’S POSTER GIRL FOR EAST-MEETS-WEST CHIC. THE NEW YORK-BASED DE­SIGNER TELLS Madeleine Ross WHY SHE WILL NEVER ABAN­DON HER ROOTS

Hong Kong Tatler - - Con­tents -

Vivi­enne Tam makes her mark at PMQ

Am­bi­ent bass re­ver­ber­ates around the stark white walls and con­crete floors of Vivi­enne Tam’s new Hong Kong flag­ship, a for­mer car park on the ground level of PMQ. The space is vast and aus­tere, rem­i­nis­cent of a spar­tan New York stu­dio, and adorned only by some steel con­certina shop gates mounted on the back wall and the sar­to­rial flights of fancy that hang from the cloth­ing racks.

The de­signer’s au­tumn/win­ter 2014 col­lec­tion is a bold blend of rich for­est greens, ro­bust rust reds and mid­night blues. But the de­signs also pos­sess an al­lur­ing fragility. Wafer-thin silks are edged with crotchet and lace. Wools are so fine you can see your fin­gers through the sheeny fi­bres. The dra­matic col­lec­tion has been in­spired by the an­cient Bud­dhist cave paint­ings of Dun­huang, and the earthy, in­tri­cate pat­terns trans­form the frocks into works of art. It’s lit­tle won­der that Vivi­enne Tam’s de­signs have graced the cat­walks of the world’s fash­ion cap­i­tals for two decades. But these pol­ished looks and avant-garde brand ethos are a far cry from where the de­signer be­gan.

Raised in Hong Kong in very hum­ble cir­cum­stances, the young Tam would spend her week­ends fos­sick­ing and fer­ret­ing through stalls at the lo­cal flea mar­kets with her mother, sourc­ing scrap ma­te­rial from which the pair would cre­ate their own clothes. For Chi­nese New Year she once wore a dress made from old cur­tains. Fin­ery was a fan­tasy, but the Tam women were re­source­ful. Their pas­sion for style was such that they saw con­straints as cre­ative chal­lenges.

“I’ve al­ways loved dress­ing up, mak­ing my own clothes,” rem­i­nisces the de­signer. “When I was a child I would braid my hair dif­fer­ently ev­ery day and, even in pri­mary school, I would make all my own bags and crotchet my own head­bands. I did ev­ery­thing my­self. My mother taught me that when you have lim­i­ta­tions, you are of­ten very cre­ative.” Tam lauds her mother as her style icon.

On the morn­ing we meet, the de­signer

looks ev­ery bit as strik­ing as her cat­walk cre­ations, with dra­matic red lip­stick, lu­mi­nous pale skin and bluntly cut black hair parted se­verely down the cen­tre of her scalp. But, like her clothes, Tam also pos­sesses a fragility—an ethe­real fem­i­nin­ity and quirky, girl­ish charm. She clutches my hand with both of hers as we greet each other and is in no rush to let go as we ex­change niceties. “Vivi­enne loves to chat,” I’d been warned, play­fully, be­fore the in­ter­view, and Tam’s dis­arm­ing cu­rios­ity and friend­li­ness is im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent.

Vivi­enne Tam is one of only a few in­ter­na­tion­ally suc­cess­ful Hong Kong brands amid the throng of up-and-com­ing de­sign­ers at the for­mer Po­lice Mar­ried Quar­ters. The com­pany that runs the premises, PMQ Man­age­ment, ap­pealed to Tam to take a space con­fi­dent that her name would draw a steady flow of cus­tomers, traf­fic that would also ben­e­fit neigh­bour­ing de­sign­ers.

Tam wasn’t al­ways the fash­ion dar­ling she is to­day. When she tried to launch her ca­reer af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Hong Kong Polytech­nic Univer­sity, she found her home­town less than re­cep­tive to her East-meets-west de­sign ethos. The Chi­nese aes­thetic was not con­sid­ered “fash­ion­able” and Tam’s clothes em­braced many el­e­ments of tra­di­tional Chi­nese dress, al­beit fus­ing them with mod­ern, Western de­sign sen­si­bil­ity. New York, how­ever, was will­ing to lis­ten.

“I left be­cause there was no place for me here,” she says. “Everyone said, ‘You’ll never be suc­cess­ful, no­body will buy from you.’ I was so dis­cour­aged. I’m not the norm; I will never be the norm. But I want to chal­lenge my­self. When everyone says no, I say ‘yes, I’m go­ing to do it, I’m go­ing to make it hap­pen.’

“Through­out my ca­reer, peo­ple have al­ways told me, ‘Don’t go too Chi­nese. Chi­nese is not fash­ion­able.’ When I tried to open a shop here in the 1990s, everyone told me I wouldn’t suc­ceed, but I did it any­way. You have to be true to your­self. Stay fo­cused on who you are and never change. Form your own iden­tity.”

Tam’s prod­ucts are made in Hong Kong and on the main­land. Those three words, “Made in China,” once car­ried a stigma so strong that Euro­pean buy­ers tried to con­vince Tam to have sep­a­rate col­lec­tions made in Italy for Euro­pean cus­tomers.

“‘Made in China is very dif­fi­cult. Let’s make your de­signs in Italy,’ they said. So I went to Italy and I tried to work with them. It didn’t feel right so I stopped and they were so mad at me. How can Ital­ian work­ers work a Chi­nese pat­tern? It wasn’t right for my strat­egy. I want to pro­mote ‘Made in Hong Kong’ and ‘Made in China.’ Chi­nese clothes made in Italy don’t tell a story.”

Tam is now work­ing on ex­pand­ing her store foot­print into the main­land. Iron­i­cally, how­ever, her Asian de­sign aes­thetic makes her fu­ture Chi­nese part­ners ner­vous. “I talk to so many po­ten­tial part­ners in China and they say ‘Vivi­enne, when you ex­pand your col­lec­tion into China you need to change. You need to mer­chan­dise dif­fer­ently.’ Peo­ple are only look­ing to the West; they don’t want to buy Chi­nese fash­ion.’ For me, if you mod­ify for your mar­ket, you lose your iden­tity.”

While the main­land’s busi­ness brains may be cau­tious, its con­sumers cer­tainly are not. Main­lan­ders now make up al­most 50 per cent of Tam’s cus­tomer base. “I am true to my­self and my cus­tomers feel that.”

That’s not to say Tam sits back and lets the mar­ket come to her. She’s par­tic­u­larly savvy when it comes to so­cial me­dia and re­cently an­nounced a part­ner­ship with a Chi­nese mo­bile app, Wechat, to en­gage Chi­nese con­sumers. The part­ner­ship en­abled fans to add the de­signer as a con­tact in or­der to par­tic­i­pate in real-time group chat dur­ing her spring/sum­mer run­way shows in New York and to re­ceive pho­tos and voice mes­sages from Tam as the shows were tak­ing place. She also launched a con­test for Wechat fans to win front-row seats at her shows.

As far as Chi­nese style goes, Tam be­lieves the mar­ket’s in­creas­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion bodes well for the suc­cess of her cre­ative, artis­tic de­signs. “Chi­nese style is no longer about bling bling and be­ing flashy. Un­til now they have been look­ing for big-name la­bels to show off. But I think the younger gen­er­a­tion is more com­fort­able with them­selves and has far more con­fi­dence. They don’t need big-name brands to feel stylish.”

The younger gen­er­a­tion is now a key tar­get for Tam. One of her rea­sons for tak­ing the space at PMQ was to place her brand in the midst of a younger crowd. The Opera Girl mo­tif—an anime brand mas­cot re­cently de­vised by Tam—has been ex­tremely suc­cess­ful in en­gag­ing younger shop­pers, and is pop­u­lar with par­ents buy­ing clothes for their chil­dren. T-shirts and bags with the cutesy doll mo­tif have been run­ning out the door.

So can we ex­pect to see a sec­ond-tier la­bel? “Yes, we’re work­ing on that. This store at PMQ will give me some kind of in­di­ca­tion and some ideas. I want to have lots of kids’ stuff. Everyone loved the Opera Girl. So I thought, ‘My God, we have got to make more things for the younger cus­tomers.’”

As far as fam­ily goes, the sin­gle Tam counts her brand as her child. “This is my baby. The clothes are my ba­bies,” she smiles, ges­tur­ing to the room of vi­brant gar­ments. “Maybe I could be a good mother but I don’t think that’s my role; it’s not my mis­sion to raise kids. This is what I love to do.”

youth­ful piz­zazz Clock­wise from top left: Four looks from Tam’s new col­lec­tion; Tam in her PMQ store; the de­signer’s anime Opera Girl mo­tif

draped in drama Mod­els bring to life six looks from Tam’s bold au­tumn/ win­ter 2014 run­way show in New York

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