1998 / 10月
Marlene Chen /photos courtesy of Pu Hua-chih /tr. by Mark Caltonhill
Kind-hearted and beautiful Cinderella was changed from a dust-covered girl into an elegant princess by her fairy godmother's magic.
Although no one has seen a fairy godmother or a magic wand in real life, with 20 years of experience behind them, Taiwan's fashion designers' skills have improved so much that you can now lose yourself under the magic of their wand and discover your own inner Cinderella.
With the Mid-Autumn Festival almost upon us, the sun floats high overhead, sale signs hang from the walls of department stores, discount banners stick to clothes shop windows and advertising leaflets bristle from every letter box.
Answering the call, shoppers flock to the streets, searching on heaped shelves and packed carts, beneath signs proclaiming "half price," "70% off" or "special offer," for those garments they resisted buying when fresh on the market, at the same time carrying off a few attractive autumn woolens.
August and September not only buzz with discount sales, they also herald the start of the fashion show season. New styles for the coming autumn and winter are reported almost daily in the media. In department stores, between national and international brand names, local designer labels reveal Taiwan's latest trends.
On a mild weekend evening, beneath mellow lights in the Sherwood Hotel's banquet hall, a roomful of fashionably-dressed people float on gentle music. The 60 or 70 seats arranged along both sides of the long, narrow walkway are all occupied, and many guests stand against the walls. The audience's gaze follows the spotlight focusing on models' bodies as they sway back and forth to the music's rhythm. Camera shutters click incessantly.
Fashion designer Isabelle Wen is presenting dark-colored short blouses with medium-length skirts and trousers, simply tailored to produce neat, feminine styles.
Going from strength to strength
"Fashions are a Western creation; suits and ensembles are like English, a common language throughout the world," says Isabelle Wen, designer of delicate, androgynous and liberating styles for women. Taiwan's fashion industry began with the economic boom of the 1970s, and although it has developed rapidly it is still a little way from maturity.
Nevertheless, all those designers who started early on and are still in business today have their own share of Taiwan's market. Some have even extended feelers onto the international stage. Shiatzy International Co. headed by Shiatzy Chen and Dumu Enterprise Co. under Pun Dai Lee are both celebrating their twentieth anniversaries this year. More than a dozen other designer labels have been on the Taiwanese market since that early period.
"Remember, at that time, designer labels were still a rarity, and even the name was enough to make department stores afraid because, although a designer name meant quality, it didn't necessarily appeal to the masses," observes Lin Chen-ying, who has produced his own brand for ten years. In this short time, following continued expansion of the consumer market, and differentiation of that market into various categories of consumer, designer clothes have actually become indispensable to department stores.
New faces, new strengths
Since its conversion from the subdued Rebar Department Store more than three years ago, the Id嶪 Department Store, with its emphasis on meeting the needs of metropolitan women, has sought to attract consumers' attention by setting up "liberated zones" and inviting newly emerging designers to take up residence. As one such "liberated zone" designer, Paul Shen, says, having three or four new designers in one small sales area, each with their own distinctive style, is a very effective way of selling.
This new generation of designers on the whole represents the winners of the Taiwan Fashion Design Award organized by the Taiwan Textile Federation for the last 12 years. After winning first prize for Young Designer at the second annual awards, Paul Shen went on to carry off the gold medal at the inaugural Fashion Design Competition for Young Designer of Asia, held in Taiwan the following year. This led to an invitation from one of the judges, Pierre Cardin, to take up a post as assistant designer at Pierre Cardin's design center in France. Under Cardin's personal teaching, and after a period of advanced study at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Shen returned to the ranks of Taiwan's clothing designers. Two years later he started his own label.
Stephanie Dou, who took first prize at the fourth annual awards and also went on to participate in numerous domestic and international design competitions, later worked with textile manufacturers until in 1995, after the opening of the Id嶪 Department Store, she presented her own label for the first time.
In 1995, having been influenced by changes in feminist ideas, Ms. Dou presented new feminine styles which were tender and intelligent, contrasting greatly with the masculinized women's styles of the 1980s with their padded shoulders and waistless bodies. Influenced by the return of Hong Kong to mainland China, in 1997 her designs included flowers embroidered on heavy woolen cloth representing the fruits of China and Britain. "In the past few years a number of antagonistic elements have been in conflict, so the designs that have emerged also have a very dramatic feeling," Stephanie Dou explains.
Dou's clothes are popular; commissioned designs for theatrical costumes, gold jewelry, company uniforms and casual wear for popular celebrities pile up at her door. At present she makes between six and eight thousand garments each season. For Dou's mother, a traditional dressmaker, this is almost unimaginable.
Master tailor and wife
Over 20 years ago there was no such profession as "fashion designer" and certainly no such thing as the Taiwan Fashion Design Award. Those people who wished to wear up-to-the-minute clothes generally had to have them custom-made by a dressmaker. Currently very popular in Taiwan, Shiatzy International is even opening a store in Paris. The company was started by the husband-and-wife team of manager Wang Yuan-hong and designer Shiatzy Chen from their beginnings in a Taichung dressmaking shop.
Then a 17-year-old young woman who took pride in her appearance and had started to study dressmaking, Chen became an apprentice in her uncle's shop and spent the next four years perfecting her skills. Once she had finished her apprenticeship and met her life's other half, Wang, the couple jointly started a dressmaking shop, initially taking tailoring commissions from drapery stores. In time, this became a factory in Taiwan's rapidly developing garment industry. With their own factory, in 1978 the couple moved from Taichung and set up Shiatzy International .
At more or less the same time, in Taipei's Ching-kuang Market another tender seedling was sprouting onto the clothing world. Pun Dai Lee, who had just returned from Hong Kong, was offering imported goods for sale in her small commission shop. Elsewhere, Fuhsing Trades Arts School student Lu Fong Chih was dreaming of going to study in France. "At the time it wasn't common for students to have part-time jobs," says Lu, "but in order to earn my tuition fees I made some batik clothes and sold them, sale-or-return, in Pun Dai Lee's shop."
As business was good, they decided to extend their working relationship and set up Dumu Enterprises. Lu Fong Chih took responsibility for design, Pun Dai Lee for production, management and marketing.
"The garment industry in Taiwan was just taking off in the 1980s, and except for custom-made clothes the rest weren't the least bit fashionable," Lu Fong Chih recollects. As a result, business was very good to begin with, but in 1984, after working together for three or four years, the two separated to form their own companies. Pun Dai Lee continued Dumu Enterprises, producing Verde Jeans, whilst Lu Fong Chih set up her own designer label. Pun Dai Lee remembers clearly, "A decade or so ago things really eased up in Taiwan as punitive tariffs, exchange controls the ban on travel to mainland China were lifted."
Designer clothing comes of age
Although designer clothing gradually appeared on the market, the number of retail outlets offering these products was small. Over a decade ago, Parco, a large clothes store in Hsimenting, provided space to Pun Dai Lee, Lu Fong Chih and others. As Pun Dai Lee remembers, "The area even had a small exhibition stage."
Just then, department stores started to enter the scene. Sesame Department Store, forerunner of today's Sunrise Department Store, was a relatively small store located some distance from both the eastern and western downtown districts, in an area of non-commercial buildings such as a gas station and a school. In order to give the store a distinctive character, the general manager of the time, Hsu Li-ling, hit upon using local designers under a slogan of "predicting fashions." As Hsu, herself a clothes designer, says, "Because my own products were being hit by factory-made imitations, we emphasized a policy of local designers, and by combining our strengths, sought to bring some order to the market."
Hsu Li-ling gave the better sites to local designers, a strategy markedly different from that of the main department stores who at that time gave such space to those manufacturers with the best track records. This gave the Sesame Store, and its successor the Sunrise Department Store, a distinctive style of its own. Hsu also drew up a scheme for the Designer Gallery, a designer clothes store at the corner of Tunhua South Road and Chunghsiao East Road which was to serve as a bridgehead for local designers.
Isabelle Wen, originally a window-dresser at Sesame, Lin Chen-ying, who had previously worked for garment manufacturers as a tailor, Chen Li-min, who had managed Parco, and others-all influenced by such increasing support for local designers-soon joined their ranks and started their own labels.
Fashion creators vs. imitators
As well as operating at such large retail outlets, Pun Dai Lee also established a designer shop, el boutique Verde, in Mingjen Alley behind what was then the Evergreen Tokyu Department Store on Tunhua South Road. In addition to selling her own items, she also sold clothes designed by Lu Fong Chih and Li Kuan-yi. Later on, a number of other designer clothes shops opened in the same alley, making it into something of a fashion district.
Starting a designer label is far from simple, however. In addition to requiring talent, a designer has to keep an eye on the industry and follow market trends. As Lin Chen-ying explains, sometimes a designer will produce a very popular style only to have it immediately copied in a mountain of imitation products. Because of the large quantities produced by factories, their cost base and selling price are much cheaper than those of the designer, so in fact, those which really make money are the factories. "To be successful, a designer must travel a long road and live a long life," Lin says with resignation.
Pun Dai Lee is a typical example. With her deep love and respect for her father, even as a small child she wanted to dress like him. As a result, when she first presented her new label some ten years ago, the first thing she thought of was making matching clothes for parents and children. "It was fortunate that that year the then Minister of Economic Affairs, Vincent Siew, issued a call for vertical integration of industries, so I worked together with Ruentex Industries, Tai Yuen Textile Company and other textile plants using newly produced denim material to make the same styles of clothes in both adults' and children's sizes." Pun Dai Lee explains.
"Children are the most finicky. If clothes aren't completely comfortable they want to take them off straight away." This became the biggest challenge for Pun, who had not made children's clothes before.
After operating for a number of seasons, the sales performance of Pun Dai Lee's label, Verde Jeans, was pretty good. Nevertheless, because the range of sizes was too broad and the number of products too large, management problems crept in. On top of which, as several garment companies also introduced similar styles of leisure wear from overseas, Pun Dai Lee's operations became extremely difficult. The two buildings she had bought with the money earned earlier with Lu Fang Chih were now lost. Nevertheless, Pun Dai Lee has once more returned to the specialist women's clothes market and, bouncing back from defeat, continues to forge ahead.
Compared with those factories which imitate fashion trends, designers are not just a source of creativity, they must also bear the risk of acceptance by consumers. A designer name tag might guarantee the article, "but it does not guarantee the success of that product in the market place. Designers can also become 'box office poison,'" as Stephanie Dou puts it.
Bringing order to the fashion world
For a number of reasons some designers have gradually pulled out of the fashion business, whilst others have stayed in. The clothing market has gradually taken shape over the last 20 years, and a new order in popular fashions has emerged.
Until little over a decade ago, Taiwan's main fashion shows were separated into shows of cotton garments at the end of winter and of woolen garments at the end of summer. Hsu Li-ling, who frequently attended these shows with manufacturers, went on to use this accumulated experience and now organizes two new-season clothing shows at the Grand Hotel. Individual designers have also started to present their main collections each season.
Time moves on and things change. Shen Man-kuang, Chen Shu-li and other famous models have already long retired from the catwalk, and some formerly well-known shops and department stores are no longer in existence. Nevertheless, foundations have been gradually laid as more designers, clothes stores and specialist boutiques have gained a foothold.
Along with this maturing of the designers, what Taiwanese people want from their clothing is no longer just warmth and neatness. "Clothes are no longer just bought at new year or other special occasions. For people today, clothing is perhaps a kind of pastime," says John Bo Wang, who has a similar background as winner of the Taiwan Fashion Design Award. Last year, when Michael Jackson performed in Taiwan, girls came specially to buy Wang's clothes, wanting to dress up and go wild on the dance floor right in front of the stage.
Some people take this dressing-up further and are increasingly concerned about brand names, thinks Lu Fong Chih. After the easing of market restrictions, more and more well-known international brands entered the domestic market, thus raising consumer standards and indirectly influencing local designers. However, "wearing famous labels is like taking drugs, it's easy to sink deeper and deeper." Lu Fong Chih talks with the authority of experience, saying that actually the label and price are not what is important, what matters is whether the clothes suit each other. Perhaps "settling on one particular designer's product is the safest approach," as Isabelle Wen suggests.
It is possible to discern clues about a person from their clothing. As Lin Chen-ying says, "The way a person dresses is closely linked to the way they think, their background and their occupation."
After Lin graduated in clothing design from Shih Chien College, he worked for a master tailor from Shanghai specializing in Western styles. His main role was to act as a bridge between the master and his clients. Starting with the cloth the clients brought with them, and after full discussion with the customer, Lin would sketch a design which he gave to the master to make up.
Lin Chen-ying gained first-hand knowledge of the tailor's exquisite craftsmanship and, more importantly, Lin explains, "from the process of dialogue with the client, I learnt that a designer must have contact with customers to properly understand their requirements." This is why Lin Chen-ying generally responds to invitations from department stores to lecture to consumers, and even organizes mini fashion shows at retail outlets, meeting face to face afterwards with customers.
This input from the customers' point of view is not the only method. Sometimes the designer can catch consumers' attention merely with his or her unique style amongst the sea of clothing.
Isabelle Wen had been a student of the great Chinese painting master Ou Hao-nien for eight years. Even though her paintings were continually improving, she discovered that they "increasingly resembled the teacher's style." It was then that she got the idea of switching to clothing design.
She frequently incorporates transient feelings taken from everyday life into both her designs and fashion shows, retaining much of their intensity. Last year she held a show in the Huashan special economic zone and, even though the exhibition hall was in a state of near-collapse and filled with the smoke of mosquito coils, she still managed to create a romantic, tranquil and elegant atmosphere which was, indeed, a crowning achievement.
Isabelle Wen rarely makes contact with her customers other than through the medium of her clothing. She even went so far as to move her company off the main drag and down a back alley. As Wen puts it, "Holding a fashion show is when I hand in my homework-that's the end of my season's work." It's also the time that she starts on the next season.
When a designer deliberates over a work, "it's like a sculptor being careful about form, color and material, except that in making clothes one has to closely pattern nature, to produce an object that best matches the proportions of the human body," adds Stephanie Dou. In order that what one wears also complements one's personal style, one should pay attention to one's own life and take the state of one's life as the starting point because, "If Taiwanese people pursue a European Renaissance style, they for sure cannot outdo the French."
Perhaps this is why local designers frequently use traditional Chinese elements, a distinctive characteristic of the work taken by Taiwanese designers onto the international stage.
With 20 years of experience behind them, next spring Shiatzy International Co. will open its Paris branch, continuing with the Chinese styles they have long presented. Twenty years ago Shiatzy presented an improved chi pao. Influenced by the film The Last Emperor, ten years ago they created an awe-inspiring imperial effect using Qing style beadwork and embroidery, silks, satins and velvets, in brown, gold and purple colors. This year Shiatzy are using cotton and linen with hand-drawn designs to create a Zen-like poetic quality.
Hong Li-fen, whose designs similarly encapsulate Chinese styles, worked with a number of artistic organizations after graduating from Shih Chien College in 1977. These included the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, International New Aspect Cultural and Educational Foundation, U Theatre and the Jessie Fan Dance Group. Her work demonstrated the creative possibilities of modern artistic clothing.
With her fervent love of artistic expression, Hong reckons, "Fashion design can be considered an art form." As a result, she was always looking to unearth clothing's full potential, which led to her discovery of the silk gauze which she calls "Hong silk."
Today, Hong silk can only be found at a single textile mill in southern mainland China. Hong Li-fen, who has participated in each step of its manufacture, is completely captivated by both the manufacturing process and the finished article. "They spread unfinished, white silk cloth on the ground and dye it with natural plant extracts. They then expose it to the sun's rays, after which they spread mud from the middle of the river over it," Hong explains radiantly. "It's the same method that has been passed down since the Ming dynasty. They even still apply the dyes with a brush made with hair from a horse's tail."
With the addition of "Hong Li-fen" to Hong silk, a completely unique garment is born. In 1994, having been awarded a special scholarship for technical exchange with France, she went to study there, also participating in the production of Chanel and Dior fashion shows. With these widened international horizons, she has expanded onto the international stage, actively participating in Paris and Milan clothing exhibitions.
Starting from within
Many of Hong Li-fen's domestic customers are celebrities from the world of literature and fine arts. Chen Kuan-chung, publisher of the Hong Kong magazine Extra, says seeing Hong silk was like "revisiting my childhood home." Poet Tu Shih-san reckons Hong's clothes are suitable to be worn by spirits as well as by people.
Is it really possible for spirits to wear clothes?
"When someone dresses up too much and becomes too separated from their inner self, then they no longer resemble themselves," Isabelle Wen rightly says.
Who are you? What kind of attire suits you? Through the various styles and colors of clothing on the market, or even a particular resonance with a designer's products, perhaps you may move towards a discovery of your true, inner self.
Haute couture and fine music-a veritable feast of clothing gets under way. (courtesy of Shiatzy)
From downtown market to parent-and-child outfits and Dumu fashions, Pun Dai Lee has seen every phase of Taiwan's fashion world.
"When I first started out, I hadn't thought about my collections or even my theme," laughs Lu Fong Chih.
Many designers also make costumes for performance art groups. These outfits were designed by Lu Fong Chih and Pun Dai Lee 19 years ago for the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. (courtesy of Lu Fong Chih)
Having won the ROC Young Designer Award, Paul Shen is now striving to create his own market.
Signed by Pierre Cardin, this design was drafted by Paul Shen whilst working as assistant designer for Cardin in France. (courtesy of Paul Shen)
Isabelle Wen, who makes garments reflective of herself, reckons that when dressing up one must start from within.
Nowadays fashions tend to express ideas rather than intricate details. (courtesy of Isabelle Wen)
Hong silk, completely natural from silkworm to store. (courtesy of Hong Li-fen)
Hong Li-fen, who's always on the move between Taipei, Paris, Milan and New York, hopes to be remembered for Hong silk.
Are you still yourself once you're dressed up? Through fashion designers' magic you can probe the mystery of clothing.