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Native Designers Roundtable: A Discourse on Gown

Native Designers Roundtable: A Discourse on Gown

We invite five local designers across generations to discuss their views on fashion today, its evolution, taboos and the state of education on the subject.

Questioning the purpose of fashion and examining its evolution each season has become a bit of a tradition. Coperni spraying a dress on to nude Bella Hadid right on the runway at its spring/summer 2023 show inspired a whirlwind of op-eds about fashion shows, some of which unfavourably compared the young brand’s showmanship to Alexander McQueen’s. And, before the the conversation had a chance to get cold, it was picked up again when edgy Stockholm-based brand Avavav (known for its campy monster boots) staged a show at Milan Fashion Week where the audience threw trash at the models.

But the conversations – no matter how silly – are necessary in a healthy society. And amusing though listening to media veterans (as well as starry-eyed nepo-editors) engage in quasi-philosophical fashion polemics may be, sometimes it’s more enlightening to eavesdrop on a discourse between designers, uplifting their experiences and opinions while removing commentators from the narrative. 

So, to comment on matters such as the purpose of fashion, representation in the industry and education on the subject, we invited five local designers representing three generations – couturier Barney Cheng, Prestige 40 Under 40 honourees Celine Kwan and Derek Cheng, and Yat Pit’s On-Ying Lai and Jason Mui – to sit down with us for a chat.

Fashion designer Celine Kwan
Local fashion designer Celine Kwan

“It’s important to speak about diversity in fashion, encouraging designers from different walks of life, different genders, different financial backgrounds and different ethnicities,” says Kwan about the topics fashion should be touching on. “Another topic all designers nowadays must consider and talk about is sustainability: we can’t forget the environmental impact we have as an industry. As designers, we can’t pioneer our way in fashion without taking responsibility and accountability for what we put out to the world.”

That last point is supported by Barney Cheng, who says, “Real sustainability, improvement of supply chains and production facilities to reduce wastage and carbon emissions should be part of the conversation, along with ethical sourcing and production, more thorough supervision of ethical and fair compensation of materials and crafts produced by artisan groups in underdeveloped countries.” 

The founding pair of the avant-garde local heritage-inspired brand Yat Pit also concur, though their framing of sustainability comes down to mindful production and consumption. “Having the items go on sale already means you’re not producing mindfully,” says Mui, who adds on the subjects of spirituality and positive impact, “We’re trying to make things that are more inspiring and positive. We produced this T-shirt that has an ancient Hawaiian mantra, which says, ‘Forgive me, I’m sorry, thank you and I love you.’”

Derek Cheng, one-half of
Derek Cheng, one-half of menswear brand

Derek Cheng, one half of the menswear brand Ponder.Er that was recently a LVMH-prize semi-finalist, recites his and his founder Alex Po’s original vision for the brand. “We’ve always advocated on gender issues and genderless fashion. We’ve always questioned how society defines masculinity, because we feel as if there aren’t enough conversations about how society portrays men.”

It’s clear the designers we spoke to find social issues to be imperative points that need to be addressed by the fashion industry. So, does engaging in such a discourse make fashion inherently political? “It naturally is – it reflects what’s happening in the world and mirrors the present society,” says Kwan, “However, I don’t necessarily think fashion needs to be political, as some designers’ goals are simply to create beautiful clothing or practise their craft.”

Barney Cheng believes fashion should be no more political than art. “Some positive messages can be conveyed through fashion, such as raising awareness and supporting different causes,” he says “and some fashion items became iconic through their association with political movements throughout history, such as the pants the Suffragettes wore.” At the same time, he says, fashion shouldn’t be used as a means of influencing people’s political views or promoting biases against minorities. 

Barney Cheng
Local designer Barney Cheng

“Because at Ponder.Er, we shed light on very specific issues, it naturally makes the brand somehow political,” says Derek Cheng. “And some people, like my parents, don’t feel that passion should be related to politics. But fashion is naturally related to politics, because it’s related to how people dress and express themselves.”

Lai and Mui’s position on the topic is less direct. “As a designer and artist, being political isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind,” says Lai, “Our designs could be perceived through a political prism by the audience, the same way art could.” Mui takes that point further, saying, “You could call what we’re doing political in the sense that we’re trying to shift people’s minds. Yet, even that isn’t 100-percent true, because our work is simply a reflection of our minds and interests.”

Taboos in fashion is another topic often discussed by people who are far away from designing themselves. In an age in which society is as transparent and accepting as ever, are there any taboos to be concerned about? To Barney Cheng, it’s a no. “There are no more taboos in fashion in our times. Fashion seems to have become one of the most free forms of art and expression.”

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On Ying Lai and Jason Mui of Yat Pit
On Ying Lai and Jason Mui of Yat Pit

The younger generation, however, disagrees. “Cultural appropriation is a big taboo,” says Kwan. “We should not let our platforms evoke negativity or hate.” Yat Pit founders agree to an extent. “It depends on the audience’s reference points,” Mui argues, “currently there’s a lot of spotlight on what a designer created or how the model wore it, but nobody is talking about the way the audience perceives things. It’s so easy to jump to conclusions these days.” As an example, he mentions Comme des Garçons’ autumn/winter 2020 menswear show, which featured white models with cornrows. “It was so easily misinterpreted. Because if you understand the research, then you might understand the artist’s point of view.” 

But what about the institutions that are supposed to create these roadmaps for fashion designers to succeed without making the mistakes of their creative forebears? “Fashion schools should teach business,” say Mui and Lai, who both studied in London. “As a young designer trying to grow your brand, you have to do everything, from making clothes to managing money,” Lai says, with Mui adding that he hears that some fashion business programmes are closing down because there aren’t enough students. “That’s why they should merge programmes like these with fashion design.”

Kwan, who studied at Central Saint Martins, has a more positive view. “I spoke to a few students recently, and they mentioned they now have lessons on digital fashion-making, meaning they’re training in software like CLO [a 3D fashion design software] to create digital patterns and garments,” she says, “I didn’t have the option to learn CLO when I was in school, so it’s reassuring to see that fashion schools are adapting to the ever-changing fashion industry.”

Fashion as an art of self-expression rarely tolerates single answers or presents an unambiguous picture of the world. Instead, its power lies in inspiring conversations like these, in which the participants’ views may often differ, and sparking hours of reflection. 

(Header image: Couture by Barney Cheng)

Source: Prestige Online

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