Fashion's eastern promise
As we enter the Chinese New Year today - specifically the Year of the Rooster - to mark the occasion our reporter meets Gemma A. Williams, the Irish woman shining a spotlight on China's emerging design talents
The work of a curator can range from archiving to researching or - in the case of fashion curator Gemma A. Williams - handling blood-stained Alexander McQueen gowns. In one of the more niche corners of the industry, she has managed to carve out a successful career working on the likes of 'Savage Beauty', the seminal exhibition detailing the life and work of Alexander McQueen.
Produced by The Costume Institute and initially hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, it made history as the museum's most popular fashion exhibition ever - with the Met staying open until midnight for the first time to meet demand. Its phenomenal popularity extended across the pond when it came to London's Victoria and Albert Museum, making history there too, with the V&A opening 24 hours a day in its final weekend.
"One of the most memorable aspects was getting to work directly with the objects - especially the early collections, which he had personally designed and created," Williams says. "I love the visceral power that an object holds and we could see the literal damage, the stains and stresses on the garments. For example, we saw the specks of blood on the razor-clamshell dress Erin O'Connor wore on the catwalk during the VOSS S/S 2001 collection."
As well as working hands-on across high-profile fashion exhibitions, Williams has championed the fashion talent of the Far East - an interest that was piqued in 2013 when she was curating a Vietnamese fashion exhibition for the British Council. Since then, this diverse line of work has introduced her to designs from Japan to Georgia. However, it's China that most fascinates her, resulting in the publication of her glossy anthology Fashion China.
Yes, 'niche' may be her forte, but Gemma A. Williams might just be one of our most successful fashion exports you haven't yet heard of. While she cites the influential designers Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto as pioneering the Asian design movement during the 1980s, it is the emerging designers in cities such as Shanghai that Williams believes to be at the forefront of east meeting west today.
"I have been attending Shanghai Fashion Week for the last three years," she says. "It's a very dynamic organisation, which really supports independent designers, and I'm very excited about the possibilities for the fashion week and my role there.
"Shanghai is an incredible city, one of my favourites to visit. The independent fashion industry is quite small - it is really only in its infancy over there - and the landscape and their fashion week are not yet comparable to the main fashion capitals. However, the Shanghai Fashion Week organisation is committed to positioning itself as the key Asian fashion capital to take over from Tokyo internationally, and I think this is quite realistic, with time."
The world of fashion wasn't the initial choice for Tipperary-born Williams (35), who completed a BA in Communications at the Dublin Institute of Technology. "I think the concept of being able to tell a story through dress was ultimately what drew me to it," she says. "The complexities around fashion and dress are pretty absorbing, and I loved this idea of dress as a medium of communication."
While working on her dissertation, she became involved in 'Hats: An Anthology', the definitive millinery exhibition curated by celebrity milliner Stephen Jones. After, she took a post as an image researcher for the Museum of Modern Art Antwerp's exhibition on Jones' collaborations, where she worked alongside photo- graphy legends Peter Lindbergh and Nick Knight.
Since then, Williams has set up her own boutique fashion-curation consultancy, Fashion Narratives, where her diverse client list enables her to work on more obscure projects as well as the big-hitters such as 'Savage Beauty'. "I have been developing educational content for the Condé Nast Center of Fashion & Design, which opened in Shanghai in early 2016. I also spoke at Tbilisi Fashion Week about the relationship between fashion and online. Digital is transforming so much of how the field works; it's an unprecedented time of change in which curation seems to be key. I've also started consulting for Shanghai Fashion Week."
Shanghai's fashion week may be niche, but China's overall fashion industry is booming. The Chinese population has an insatiable yearning for fashion and luxury goods; estimates vary, but it is thought they were responsible for 20-50pc of the world's luxury-goods consumption in 2015 (indeed, closer to home, Brown Thomas has sought to employ Mandarin-speaking staff to cater for this market). It is the talent of Chinese designers that is making Europe's fashion pack sit up and take notice, though. Williams thinks the growth of the industry harks back to China's own heritage of producing luxury goods. "China has an incredible history of luxury and quality products. I feel that, more recently, Chinese designers are tapping into this sumptuous tradition. They have so much to offer - not least because they are playing catch-up on a global stage - but by their very nature, they go that extra mile to challenge expectations."
The merging of this powerhouse of talent and centuries-old tradition is now being noticed outside of the country, and global retailers have come calling. "Lane Crawford [an influential department store with branches in China and Hong Kong] and [New York store] Opening Ceremony are stocking Chinese brands. Dover Street Market, newly relocated in London, has taken on Chinese talents such as Renli Su and LVMH design-prize nominee Xu Zhi." Williams adds: "Angel Chen [born in Shenzhen] has already collaborated with companies like Airbnb, Adidas, H. Lorenzo, and is now stocked in Urban Outfitters. It's a very vibrant time to be part of this new wave of Chinese design."
William's own fierce interest in Chinese design culminated in her 2015 book Fashion China - a modern-day anthology of China's top working designers. The list was curated by a panel that included supermodel Liu Wen and editor of T Magazine China Lucia Liu. Williams then had the task of interviewing and profiling each designer, the resulting book a lesson in modern Chinese design heroes. Featuring vibrant photography of each designer's work, it is an indispensable reference for those looking to explore what is probably fashion's most exciting emerging market.
It's not just China where Williams sees potential; back home, Ireland is busy building its own reputation in the design world. Based in London for the last decade, Williams has seen first hand the attention Irish fashion talent now commands. As part of the Design & Crafts Council's breakthrough design initiative ID2015, she worked closely with some of our promising new designers. "I was lucky enough to curate the output of some really exciting emerging designers as part of 'In the Fold', commissioned by ID2015. It featured graduates including Caoimhe Mac Neice, Richard Malone and Michael Stewart, and it's interesting to see what paths they choose along the way."
Most recently, she covered Berlin Fashion Week for Vogue Italia while also working on an exhibition of fashion from Ireland and Japan, due to open this year at the National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny. Her research will take her to Tokyo next month, and she has already confirmed a line-up of some of Ireland's most exciting fashion designers. It may not draw the crowds of the Met in New York but it will no doubt be a must-see.
And while she may be fixated on the design trajectory of up-and-coming places like Ireland and Shanghai, it is Williams' own career that will certainly be one to watch.
5 Chinese designers you should know
American Midwest boy meets Chinese girl, and a cult clothing label is born. Joshua Hupper and Qiaoran Huang both honed their skills at the hallowed Parsons School of Design in New York and then at Diane von Furstenberg. They founded Babyghost in 2010 and the brand has since garnered acclaim for its take on streetwear with a sensual twist. Think delicate mesh and lace married with combat boots, heavy duty parkas and louche tees.
Liu Min is the design force behind Ms MIN, the Chinese label that is a lesson in refined simplicity. With lengthy, elegant silhouettes and understated colour palettes of oat, cream and black, this is clothing that is powerfully feminine - the perfect working wardrobe for the modern woman. Ms MIN has already been snapped up by large retailers such as Lane Crawford.
Feng Chen Wang
Feng Chen Wang is a London-based label injecting the current menswear circuit with a raw energy and conceptual aesthetic. Originally from Fujian in China, she studied at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London before launching her eponymous line. She fuses high-tech fabrics with unexpected materials such as wired cables to create her boldly futuristic garments, taking inspiration from the way we live now.
Chinese designer Yirantian Guo had already launched her own label before graduating from the London College of Fashion in 2014. Since then, her pared-back aesthetic has gained her critical acclaim from the likes of Vogue Italia, which named her as one of the top 25 talents of 2015.
The Renli Su brand muses on the concept of time and memory, and produces clothing rooted in craftsmanship. Raw tweeds, soft velvet and crumbled cotton are the types of evocative textures she uses to create loosely tailored separates designed to stay in your wardrobe for many years to come.