By Connie Wang
Up-and-coming fashion designers often work at least a decade apprenticing in the shadows of someone else’s label before they’re able to set off for themselves. But nevertheless, there she is: 25-year-old Snow Xue Gao, standing in the middle of her debut collection at New York Fashion Week, watching as a sea of influential editors, consultants, and buyers examine the clothing she had just finished making. Ever since Rihanna wore a blazer from Gao’s senior Parson’s collection last year, interest had been steadily building. So was the pressure.
Gao is nervous, but buoyed by recent shows of support. Star stylist Rachael Wang came on board for this collection, and The New York Times named her a designer to watch. The source of the knot in her stomach now is whether the product matches the hype. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a hit: It’s good. Playful deconstruction is something Gao is becoming known for, a mash-up of ‘20s-era Shanghai formalwear and ‘80s-era Wall Street suiting that blends silk dresses and woolen blazers to surrealist effect. The silhouettes are aggressive, but not overly avant-garde. They are showpieces, but do not require downing a cocktail before leaving the house in them.
During any other season, the story of a just-graduated wunderkind already making waves at Fashion Week would be unique. But this season, Gao is just one of more than a dozen young Chinese designers who have quickly ingrained themselves with unprecedented speed. Out of the 140 designers showing on the official CFDA calendar, 20 are either from China or have Chinese heritage. That’s 14% of the total roster, no small percentage considering the industry’s reputation for white-washing. Outside of the official calendar, there are at least 11 more with organized shows. That means there were 31 Chinese designers showing this spring ’18 season at NYFW, a 200-plus percent increase from previous years.
It’s not that Chinese Americans haven’t been part of the upper ranks of the fashion establishment — Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, and Anna Sui are pillars of the American fashion scene. But these new talents — people like Calvin Luo and Jarel Zhang, and the designers behind PH5, Babyghost, and Laurence & Chico — are something new, in part because of the sheer number of them, but also because of the way they have been able to launch fully fledged brands that can afford to pick up the $200,000 cost of hosting a fashion show, despite their age and experience.
Take, for instance, influencer favorite Claudia Li, who has become known for oversized separates — like what the Amish would wear if they went shopping at Barneys. She first launched her label in 2015 with money from her family, and despite the fact that the business isn’t yet profitable, her work is critically acclaimed and has earned her placement on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.
Chinese-American Kim Shui is another example. She first debuted her Valley-Girl takes on shearling, lace, and leather in 2016 within a multi-label show, and has since won a slew of design awards. Shui’s presentation at Fashion Week was so packed that security had to block the door when the room reached occupancy.
There is a palpable buzz surrounding these designers, especially since they do not have ties to the fashion establishment, have famous parents, nor bold-faced designers as public cheerleaders. Despite their inexperience, they have impressively sophisticated platforms (most have fully functioning e-commerce sites, something even legacy luxury brands like Chanel do not have). Given that Fashion Week has a notoriously high barrier of entry, their success at effortlessly soaring across it seems more like a harbinger than a fluke. They’ve figured something out that has frustrated talented young designers for decades, that’s for sure, but they’ve also rode in on a perfect storm. Because of a few factors — the allure of an American education, the staggering wealth of a growing class of Chinese citizens with children entering the workforce, the unique blend of openness and tolerance that still defines New York — the conditions were perfect for a sea change.
Snow Xue Gao does not speak in empty bon mots and hyperbole that tend to characterize other designers who come from money. She has a practical, get-down-to-it confidence that belies her limited experience. Gao’s family owned a profitable factory in China, but it had nothing to do with clothing. She fell into fashion design when a teacher first suggested to her in secondary school that she pursue a career in the arts, which required lower grades. Upon graduating from the Beijing Institute of Fashion and Technology, she decided to get her master’s degree abroad. “For me, it was simple,” Gao tells me one afternoon in her studio, two weeks before her presentation. “I didn’t want to learn French! English was already hard enough. But I wanted to go to New York because the market is bigger.”
Just like many American designers use Paris as way to legitimize their business and finesse their craft, designers from China use New York as a way to advance their companies. If Paris is the fashion capital where designers can dream, New York is the one where they can make money. That early focus on business is not uncommon among this new guard.
“New York is more commercial,” 22-year-old Calvin Luo says. He dropped out of Parsons during his sophomore year to build his own line, initially financed by his parents who work in finance. Luo applies menswear techniques to his womenswear collections, and reworks button-ups, hoodies, and trench coats into surprisingly alluring separates. They are edgy but not raunchy, and reflect a growing affinity for streetwear-tangential luxury among international consumers.
But if an American wants to buy Luo’s clothes, she’s currently out of luck. Only one New York City boutique, Bigger Code, will carry Luo’s label later this fall. Though he hasn’t penetrated the American retail market yet, Luo tells me that his clothes are selling well in China, and they’re planning on making a trip to Paris next season in order to sell to European retailers. “Paris is the dream,” he says. “But first we do New York.”
Luo was officially on the schedule this New York Fashion Week for the first time this season, and Vogue Runway published his collection in its gallery, a major affirmation for young designers. Though the original purpose of Fashion Week is to allow retailers an opportunity to identify the inventory they’ll fill their stores with, Luo is okay with that part of his U.S. business remaining secondary. Showing at NYFW provides him with the cache he needs to catapult his brand upward. His business partner, Linyao Guan, says that the amount of press he’s received, and the fact that he’s presented during NYFW, makes him an attractive investment.
The combination of a sensitivity for Chinese consumer sensibilities and the approval from the New York fashion establishment is an incredibly powerful combination of assets for investors. Gao also launched her brand with financing already intact. After briefly interning at Jason Wu, Gao partnered with James Cui, a Chinese-American investor with deep relationships in production and manufacturing, to start up her own line. Within a few months, Gao and Cui mutually decided the partnership was misaligned, but remain friends. “Now, I do this company by myself, and my family finances it,” she says.
Though Luo and Gao relied on family money, both easily found outside funding, which is a notoriously difficult task for emerging designers. Today, proving that you understand Chinese consumers is a valuable asset. There is so much interest within China to connect the Chinese and American fashion markets, that the Chinese government has been funding initiatives to establish synergies between the two countries. “There is significant government funding to support designers,” says Andrew Serrano, the VP of global fashion at management company IMG, which is working with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group on future NYFW endeavors. “Local authorities [establish] real financial support for brands to further establish their business locally and then also support their international growth plans. For Chinese designers, NYFW affords them a certain cache when they return home that they can use to promote their brand ‘as seen at NYFW.’ This has been a valuable marketing tool.”
Just this past week, Chinese shopping platform JD.com announced plans to attract luxury brands to the e-commerce site while underwriting the 3.1 Phillip Lim show, and Alibaba Group signed a deal to introduce U.S. designers including Robert Geller and Opening Ceremony to China’s largest consumer platform, Tmall. “We’ve found that New York has a special allure to the Chinese market,” says Paul Lee, from management corporation Suntchi, a division of Alibaba Group. “New York is not only a fashion capital, but it also has a spirit of open mindedness and a strong collaborative spirit. We were seeking a collaborative partner, so of course we’d choose New York.”
The investments that are pouring into the United States from China right now mirror the influx of Chinese students attending American schools. Among China’s wealthy families, an American education is seen as much as a symbol of achievement as it is a way for their children to avoid the ultra-competitive college entrance exams within China.
According to the Institute of International Education, there were 328,000 international Chinese students with the F1 student visa studying in American universities in the 2015 school year, 5.5 times the number of students in 2000. This trend is reflected within fashion design schools. Out of the five major American fashion design schools, all but one confirmed that the proportion of international Chinese students have increased over the past years. The Fashion Institute of Technology reported a 420% increase in Chinese students enrolled between the 2016 school year and 2011. The Rhode Island School of Design saw a 518% increase in the same timeframe, and Savannah College of Art and Design saw a 125% increase. Parsons School of Design was not able to provide exact numbers, but a spokesperson confirmed that they’ve seen an increase of applications to their fashion design programs from Chinese students over the past few years. (The Pratt Institute declined to comment).
However, upon graduation, work visas can be incredibly difficult to come by, even if applicants already have jobs lined up. According to immigration attorney Corey Lee, roughly 200,000 applicants apply for 60,000 H1-B visas a year, which means 75% of applicants are denied entry. It’s proven to be a frustrating hindrance towards keeping Chinese talent in the United States, and is unaffected by an applicant’s wealth.
But, those in creative industries like fashion design have another option. If they can prove their current success, they can apply for an O1-B extraordinary ability visa, of which both Gao and Luo were issued. “You’re supposed to be the top of your game. If you were published in some great magazine that’s widely circulated and well-known, win an award, and display commercial success, you can qualify,” says Lee, whose firm has seen a dramatic increase in O1 applicants.
If you are a mediocre designer, extraordinary status is near-to-impossible to prove. But it’s arguable that talented designers can ensure they qualify by paying their ways via professional PR teams to seed press mentions, and lawyers who can make the claim that their successes are remarkable (Gao did not have a PR team in place when she applied for her O1, but Luo’s helped him gather enough press after his first show to apply for his). While Lee works with many O1 applicants with shallow pockets, he also has clients who have spent money to up their chances: “These younger people’s parents have spent a lot of money for them to stay on student visas, and paid a lot of money for college. If the goal is to create a life here, it doesn’t feel like that big of a deal to shell out more money to continue to be here.”
The New York Fashion Week schedule has always been compositionally more varied than any other, with luxury designers showing alongside mass retailers, indie brands, and celebrity vanity projects. But this season, the decampment of some heavy-hitters has given elbow room for new designers, shaking up the lineup even more. “Big brands are moving out and there are a lot of new brands happening. It’s a good time for us,” says Gao. “Something is changing.”
But what hasn’t changed is the insistence that Americans judge work based on its merit, even if objectivity is oftentimes more a myth than a reality (especially when money comes into play). But, that stereotype has made New York more attractive a city for young Chinese designers than London, Milan, or Paris.
That was certainly true for Phillip Lim when he started. “Here, there’s more of an entrepreneurial spirit; If you have an idea and a collection, you get yourself a date and you show. It goes back to the cliche that in America, anything is possible,” he said. Chinese designer Taoray Wang has been showing at NYFW since 2014, and echoes the sentiment. “New York is such an open, great city. It’s got a wonderful attitude to every designer, and welcomes talent.”
The story of the Chinese wunderkinds at NYFW is not only an illustration of the American dream, but of China’s as well. Despite the recent slide towards nativism among populist segments of American citizens and anti-Chinese-trade rhetoric coming from the White House, new designers still sense that there’s something special about America. “I feel like my decision was the best decision. Where you’re from doesn’t mean anything,” Gao tells me, pouring me tea from a clay pot.
Behind us, a team of interns, sewers, producers, and artists chatter in Chinese and English while they work — Gao tells me that knowing how to speak Mandarin has given her access to a deep informal network of ethnic-Chinese Garment District workers, which can be a huge benefit. The bilingual workers include both young design interns and older pattern-makers, who represent two generations of Chinese immigrants coming together to revitalize their adopted homes. It’s early evening on the Wednesday before Labor Day, but no one seems ready to head home yet. They’ve got a little over two weeks before showtime, and there’s lots left to do.
“Here, everybody treats you the same as anyone else,” she says, settling back into the chair. “In the end, it’s only about your work.”
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