Immediately after Angel Chen’s catwalk show at Milan Fashion Week, the designer flew back to Shanghai, because 48 hours later she was launching her capsule collection collaboration with H&M. It’s a significant milestone in Chen’s career as she is the first Chinese designer to collaborate on a designer-capsule with the fast-fashion giant, joining a list that includes Balmain and Versace.
First things first however, she had a spring-summer 2020 collection to show and it was as audacious and explorative as we have come to expect from Chen, featuring iridescent python pattern jacquard tailoring, Hawaiian prints, cute iguana-shaped bags, and her more familiar sporty street-style shapes, in lightweight nylon and parachute dresses with asymmetric drawstring shaping.
Milan is one of the most important fashion capitals in the world and the whole atmosphere is more mature. I think there is space for me here and I feel proud to present Chinese culture and being a Chinese designer on the international fashion platform.
This is the fourth season the Central Saint Martins’ graduate has shown in Milan following two seasons on the London catwalk, and she has found the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (CNMI) so supportive that she has moved her PR and sales offices to the city.
“Milan is one of the most important fashion capitals in the world and the whole atmosphere is more mature,” Chen said after the show. “So, when designers are being more creative and energetic, people watch. I think there is space for me here and I feel proud to present Chinese culture and being a Chinese designer on the international fashion platform.”
Like the British Fashion Council in London, the CNMI has been reaching out to China in recent seasons, introducing designers through the Vogue Talents showcase in Milan – a showroom of young international designers scouted by Sara Maino of Vogue Italia – as well as signing a partnership with Tmall. As part of its “China Cool” project, the Chinese e-commerce giant sponsored Shushu/Tong’s Milan catwalk show.
London College of Fashion graduates Liushu Lei and Yutong Jiang, founders of the Shanghai-based label in 2014, gave a ballerina spin to their collection inspired by the tragic Danish fairy tale The Red Shoes. Their collection offered a Victoriana vintage vibe with corsets, bloomers and frothy little dresses accessorised with baroque-design acrylic headpieces that prettily framed the face.
Each of the Chinese designers showing in Milan has a strong and distinctive voice, and Shuting Qiu’s message was notably vibrant and loud. The designer, who recently graduated with an MA from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, showed part of her BA graduation collection in New York. The experience of presenting a full-length solo fashion show for the first time in Milan was daunting.
“In New York I was one of four designers selected for the VFiles show and they organised everything,” she said. “However, in Milan, with the support of the CNMI, this was my first solo show and much more challenging.”
Her maximalist use of colour, pattern and intricate embroideries caught the eye of Vogue Italia’s Sara Maino and the CNMI chairman Carlo Capasa. “She has a personal point of view, a definite style with a lot of handcraft interpreted in a modern way,” said Capasa at her show. “I think this is fresh. We like to have fresh stories in Milan, and she is one of the freshest coming from China.”
Her flamboyant aesthetic and craftsmanship have got her noticed: “I describe it as modern couture,” she said, having taken three days to hand-embroider one jacket. “From the beginning the press feedback has been positive. They say my work is original and has a very strong identity.”
However, it was not all plain sailing for young designers. Luca Lin and Galib Gassanoff, the Milan-based Chinese-Azerbaijani partnership behind Act No 1, received lots of encouragement from Vogue Italia but found Italian press support for their three-year-old Milanese label lacking. “Vogue Italia has been great and American Vogue shot a piece from our second collection for their section on Designers to Watch,” said Lin. “However, compared to the press in Paris and London, the press here is less supportive of young [home-grown] designers and very critical. It’s a lot of pressure.”
The two designers met at the Future Fashion Academy in Milan and worked for big brands before starting their label in Luca Lin’s hometown of Reggio Emilia where his Shanghainese family emigrated in the 1980s. Lin’s parents’ collection of Chinese art and furniture inspires their collections, which are a multicultural fusion of the designers’ Chinese and Azerbaijani roots. Their work experience and the quality of their design and production is testament to a different design background.
“British art schools push creativity, but here it is more structured: about quality, commercialisation and how you are going to sell,” says Galib Gassanoff. “If you pushed the creativity, they would calm you down.”
Nevertheless, their collections which feature Chinese fine art watercolour prints, ruffled dresses and Italian tailoring won them the “Who Is On Next Award” in Rome in 2017. “We tripled our sales after that: the editors started shooting more pieces and that gave us credibility with buyers,” says Gassanoff.
Today 40 per cent of their sales are in China: “They like our ruffles, sweatshirts and tulle and take some of the Chinese watercolour references too,” says Lin. “The young generation have started looking at their roots and heritage, and in their street style you see them wearing pieces that represent their culture.”