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
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