A Distinctive Asian Touch in the Haute Couture Universe

A Distinctive Asian Touch in the Haute Couture Universe

While the presence of Asian faces in the Haute Couture arena has historically been limited, a new generation of ambitious and young Asian designers is reshaping the narrative.

Dating back to 1868, Haute Couture remains a legally protected heritage, exclusively certified for a select few designers with ateliers in Paris.

The unique value of a Haute Couture design lies in the premium fabrics meticulously handcrafted with precision, skill, and elegance in every needle and fold. Each year, only fashion houses approved by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (Parisian Couture Union) and endorsed by the French Ministry of Industry can bear the prestigious labels of “Haute Couture” or “Couturier.”

While the public has become accustomed to dazzling Couture presentations from Western fashion houses, talented designers from Asia have long been making their mark in the Couture world, gradually altering the perception of the fashion elite about the talent coming from the East.

The Glorious Empire of Asian Handicrafts

In 1977, Hanae Mori made her mark as the first Asian member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, showcasing her inaugural high-fashion collection in France. Following her, Issey Miyake and Kansai Yamamoto successfully brought the essence of Japanese culture to the Western fashion scene, astonishing the world.

Portrait of Japanese designer Hanae Mori | Source: Vogue

Issey Miyake is renowned for pioneering innovations in technology, such as the Pleat Please style with permanently wrinkle-resistant folds, garments crafted from materials like plastic, metal threads, and traditional Japanese handmade paper. On the other hand, Kansai Yamamoto is remembered as a master of the Basara style (akin to Western Maximalism), leading the charge in introducing Japanese Kabuki theater culture to the global stage.

The rich tapestry of Asian handicrafts encompasses a wide range, including ceramics, textiles, jewelry, gemstones, paper, leather goods, and various household items. The global market for handicrafts in Asia is valued at approximately USD 100 billion, with China and India being major exporters to European countries.

In Asia, the concepts of “art” and “craftsmanship” are inseparable. While the West emphasizes constant innovation with handicrafts, craftsmanship in Asia is viewed as a means to preserve cultural heritage and traditions. The colonial period and the influx of Western goods have led to movements and protests against imported products, advocating for high tariffs on foreign crafts.

In 1918, political activist Mahatma Gandhi used Khadi fabric as a vital part of the Swadeshi movement, aimed at boycotting the use of imported products and materials. This movement helped India combat poverty by creating local employment opportunities. Today, the tradition of weaving and dyeing Khadi fabric is passed down to subsequent generations, contributing to the preservation of traditions and history while fostering sustainable development for handicraft villages in India.

If India has Khadi, Cambodia boasts a tradition of silk weaving dating back to the 13th century. The Cambodian silk fabric, soft and washable without fading, is not only used for traditional scarves, loincloths, and attire but also for creating modern clothing, adding a unique touch to the nation.

A design incorporating Suminagashi dyeing technique | Source: Weebly

In Japan, the art of handweaving and dyeing also experienced a brilliant period. For instance, the suminagashi-zome dyeing technique (placing fabric on a mixture of starch and pigment to create intricate patterns) originated during the Taisho era, faced a decline after World War II, but is gradually being revived by a research group at Kyoto University.

Vietnam, too, is a country rich in handcrafted products, from woven carpets and traditional indigo-dyed bags in the Northwest region to renowned embroidered products and silk from regions like Hanoi, Thai Binh, and Hue. Jewelry and metalwork are mainly produced in Da Nang (Ngũ Hành Sơn region). With nearly 2000 years of history, Vietnamese lacquerware and other handicraft products have established a solid and growing presence in both domestic and international markets.

What Sets Asian Haute Couture Apart from Europe?

One of the notable milestones in Asian Haute Couture is the success of Chinese designer Guo Pei, who became an overnight sensation after presenting her collection at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week in 2016. Her legendary golden-thread embroidered Omelette dress, weighing 25kg, gained global attention when worn by Rihanna.

The Omelette dress embroidered with golden thread by designer Guo Pei | Source: The Guardian

Designs by Guo Pei and Hanae Mori are not just aesthetically pleasing but also serve as declarations of the rich history and culture of East Asia. Hanae Mori, incorporating patterns deeply rooted in Japanese spirit, integrated kimono fabric into her designs to honor the country’s traditional attire. Guo Pei, drawing inspiration from historical feudal stories and mythological symbolism, reconstructed numerous Eastern elements such as porcelain patterns, phoenix and dragon motifs, and royal insignias.

Asian Haute Couture goes beyond aesthetic value; it embraces sustainability through groundbreaking innovations in technology and materials. Pioneers like Yuima Nakazato, with the unique Biosmocking technology allowing designers to transform fabric shapes, and the integration of traditional Japanese Kimono culture techniques like lacquer painting and natural indigo dyeing, exemplify this commitment. Park Sohee contributes to sustainability by using recycled banana fibers and recycled crystals in her designs.

In contrast to Haute Couture designers often opting for luxurious and rare fabrics, Asia boasts creative minds finding inspiration in everyday materials. Tomo Koizumi, for instance, remains loyal to the widely available polyester organza, commonly found in Tokyo stores. He especially loves using surplus fabric from various Japanese workshops, creating unique and vibrant color palettes.

Asian Haute Couture not only captivates with its aesthetic brilliance but also with its dedication to cultural preservation, sustainability, and resourcefulness, making a distinctive mark in the global fashion landscape.

Is Asia Truly Lagging Behind?

Despite the undeniable talent and creativity of Asian designers, Asia has yet to establish a dedicated empire in high fashion. Asian couturiers only receive true recognition when they showcase their Haute Couture collections during Paris Fashion Week and garner attention from the Parisian Couture Syndicate.

One reason for this might be that Asian designers from countries like South Korea, Japan, and China often operate independently. Moreover, an unpleasant truth persists in the fashion industry for decades: people with darker skin receive fewer opportunities and privileges compared to their white counterparts.

Designer Tomo Koizumi with his creations | Source: Business of Fashion

The mentality of looking outward has also posed challenges for Asian designers over the years. While China is expected to become the world’s largest luxury market by 2025, recent shifts in Chinese consumer perceptions, driven by the Guochao trend, favor local brands, designs, and culture. This represents a notable change from the previous inclination towards Western luxury brands.

According to Professor Daniel Langer of Pepperdine University, factors like superior service and quality, traditionally considered hygiene factors in the luxury world, now need to resonate culturally and demonstrate an understanding of the market’s cultural depth.

In this scenario, Chinese brands and designers have an advantage. They not only participate in the Guochao movement but also contribute to its creation. They can cater to the cultural needs of the Guochao consumer wave in a way Western brands cannot.

Another bright spot amid the challenges is the Asian Couture Federation (ACF), where representatives promote the finest high fashion talents in the region. Vietnamese designer Nguyễn Công Trí, for instance, is the first Vietnamese designer to join the federation.

The ACF has been successful in establishing connections with other fashion councils and organizations, such as the British Fashion Council and the Korean Fashion Design Council. It initiates projects to provide more commercial opportunities for its members.

However, for the ACF to truly rival the Parisian Couture Syndicate, Asian couturiers need to collectively contribute to the establishment of high-end fashion standards in Asia. This includes preserving and developing craftsmanship in the region, a crucial factor in couture designs. Similar to how Chanel at Le19M focuses on precious craftsmanship workshops like Barrie, Lesage, Lemaire, and Massaro.

Guochao: The wave bringing value to domestic luxury goods ‘Made in China’ | Source: FirstClasse

In fact, to preserve traditional craftsmanship, many Asian countries’ governments have implemented practical policies. The International Support Center for Traditional Craft (SACICT) in Thailand, for example, supports local initiatives. SACICT invites Bangkok-based designers to collaborate with traditional craft artisans to create new products while maintaining traditional techniques and materials, thus expanding the Thai handicraft industry.

Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, through the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, supports traditional craft villages through market research, organizing craft village product exhibitions, and connecting designers with traditional artisans to inspire new product ideas.

In conclusion, returning to the definition of high fashion – precious fabrics, artisanal craftsmanship, flawless production, and hundreds of hours of work for a design – these are criteria that Guo Pei, Tomo Koizumi, and Yuima Nakazato consistently meet. Moreover, economic development in the region has attracted significant financial investment, enabling young talents to realize their grand ideas. Therefore, while the creation of an Asian Couture empire may not happen overnight, it is indeed feasible.


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