A new generation of tastemakers puts Beijing on the fashion map.
When 17-year-old Charles Wang came home with a shaved head, his mother sobbed. In mid-1990s China, people dared not shave their heads, especially in families scaling the ladder to the middle class. This was the haircut convicts received when they entered prison. “It’s a shame to the family!” his mother wailed.
The next morning, Charles walked into his high school in Jiangsu province in eastern China. Everybody looked at him. Teachers came running, whisked him into a classroom, and scolded him. But through the closed door Charles could hear his classmates wildly whooping their support.
Today, you’ll find Charles, now 30 years old, surrounded by deconstructed cashmere dresses and elegant calf-length linen coats in Dong Liang Studio, the Beijing boutique he cofounded in 2009. It was the first shop in Beijing dedicated to selling the work of Chinese designers, and it put Charles at the forefront of a homegrown fashion movement that is seeking to do nothing less than define Chinese style. The student who once ditched his school uniform tracksuit pants for shredded jeans has grown into an entrepreneur who is helping to create a China where his younger self wouldn’t be seen as an outcast.
On a gusty March afternoon during Beijing Fashion Week, I visited Dong Liang, which was then located on an ancient alley called Wudaoying. Darting for cover from swirls of dust, tourists stumbled over from the Lama Temple; fashionable young people flitted into cafés or retro housewares shops; and grandfathers on bicycle carts called out offers to haul away recyclables they would later resell. Once an imperial military garrison, Wudaoying is one of the oldest remaining hutong alleys radiating out from the Forbidden City in labyrinthine old Beijing. Most hutongs have been torn down in recent years to make way for skyscrapers. Today, many residents of the alleys’ old, ceramic-tiled homes are migrant workers seeking cheap rent, or hipsters yearning for a more traditional life.
When Charles arrived at the shop, an hour late, wearing skinny black pants and a long black belted coat to ward against the ubiquitous dust, he was all apologies. He had spent much of the day criss-crossing the sprawling city to show his feng shui master possible new locations for the shop. When he and his business partner, Nam Lang, opened Dong Liang, Wudaoying had only two restaurants, both expat-owned, and no stores at all. Now the hutong is so popular that the shop’s rent quadrupled in one year.
In his small, minimalist space—decorated with vintage chairs, a weathered doctor’s satchel, and laboratory flasks filled with white peonies—Charles seemed at home. The soundtrack flowed from French indie rock to 1940s Cuban boleros. Charles puttered, scanning mannequins and racks for garments needing minute adjustments. He exuded the timeless style he’d been developing since the age of 10 when he started shopping for himself: He wore a deep-blue button-up shirt with tiny beige polka dots, and casual gray leather shoes. Never sneakers. “My partner, Nam, says, ‘In design, taste makes everything,’” Charles told me. “But in China still, a lot of people don’t know what is beautiful, what is ugly.”
Through Dong Liang, Charles is teaching people about what is beautiful. A design-minded entrepreneur, he is the ultimate curator of Chinese design. Dong Liang shoppers—many of whom work in media, culture, and finance—are sophisticated, dressing to stand out from the masses. Charles cultivates a stable of designers whose work is characterized by impeccable quality and an understated classic aesthetic: cashmere leggings from Shanghai designer Uma Wang, elegant sheath dresses by Ricostru, distressed leather handbags by Ben, and He Yan’s printed geometric minidresses. (See “Who’s Who in Beijing Fashion.”)
These designers are pioneers, showing the way for a country just embracing the power of style. Chinese celebrities wear “terrible clothes,” Charles said, because they grew up without any culture of fashion—everyone dressed alike. But it wasn’t always this way. “Before the Communist Party took over, people really had good taste. Everyone dressed delightfully,” he said. “Correctly.” Imperial law had prescribed dress for centuries: Court members wore bright silk embroidered with dragons; commoners wore drab hemp robes. For the four decades between the final emperor’s dethroning in 1912 and the Communist takeover, Chinese were able to freely express themselves sartorially, with everything from Western styles to cheongsam gowns. “After that,” Charles said quietly, “fashion was broken in China.”
Once Mao Zedong took power in 1949, the Communist Party banished anything smacking of Western culture or imperial “old society.” During the Cultural Revolution, dress turned dark. Militaristic. Women wore dull, asexual garments, and men wore uniforms or Mao suits. As with art, books, musical instruments, and antiques, clothing that was deemed bourgeois was destroyed.
Then, beginning in the 1980s, when Charles was still a child, the Cultural Revolution was swept aside in the race toward a modern, more capitalist economy. As China dove further into the global market and Chinese models strutted on runways abroad, a renewed interest in fashion began to percolate. Charles witnessed the transition at home. Charles’s father, whose own father had been sent to prison for being a teacher during the Cultural Revolution, rose from a job as a factory worker to a position of international salesman by the 1990s. When work took him to Southeast Asia, he bought jeans for his rebellious teenage son, and encouraged him to think for himself. By the time Charles’s father was earning enough to buy Hugo Boss suits abroad, his neighbors no longer shunned him for being bourgeois. “Most of them were jealous,” says Charles with a dry laugh.
Charles left home in 2000 to study English and investment banking. After two years of late-night calls and client meetings throughout Asia and the Middle East, he quit his finance job. That’s when Nam, whom Charles knew through mutual friends, approached him with the idea of starting a business together. Charles saw a rapidly growing group of wealthy consumers eager to distinguish themselves. He also knew that young Chinese designers were returning to Beijing from premier fashion schools abroad, bringing back a new independent spirit. Charles used his business acumen and design sensibility to create a sort of headquarters for the emerging designers he handpicked. “We are just like a bridge,” he says. “One end is the designers, the other end is the market. We try to connect them.”
On a chilly sunday, I headed to Jianwai Soho, an upscale cluster of high-rises with shops at ground level, to meet pixieish Vega Zaishi Wang, one of the most promising young designers at Dong Liang—and in China. Wearing a military-style black coat and black scarf, Vega, who studied at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, described her target customer: “Independent. A tough girl. She knows what she wants. She has her own opinion—she’s clear about what she’s doing in her life.”
Vega’s cerebral pieces have proven popular with Chinese women of all ages. Yet she ignores customers’ tastes when she designs. “We need to educate them to know what is real fashion—to let them follow us,” she said. Her latest collection, black-and-white silk pants, dresses, and blouses dotted with red hearts, was inspired by the idea of a lost child- hood. Vega pulled out her MacBook to show me her first commercial collection, “Loneliness Stays Forever.” The exquisitely tailored pieces, nearly all black and white, blended menswear, London punk, and geometric asymmetry. I could understand why, during Vega’s first photo shoot, a celebrity in the studio next door saw the collection and bought every single piece. Two months later, Charles found Vega and brought her work to Dong Liang.
One of Charles Wang’s favorite designers, Zhou apprenticed under his Dutch professors before breaking out on his own in 2007. Zhou’s menswear is marked by unusual fabrics and playful touches, including a structured take on overalls and gleaming, peacock-inspired jackets.
I asked Vega why she came to Beijing. “[The city’s] underground culture is the best in China,” she said. “We have artists and a lot of rock singers. Fashion can’t live without music.” She, like other young designers I spoke with, said she felt a sense of solidarity, rather than competition, with her peers. They share the challenges of producing in China, where finding suppliers and manufacturers willing to work with small brands is arduous. And while each designer’s style is unique, they have a common aesthetic, according to Timothy Parent, an agent I spoke to later who represents many Dong Liang designers. “Chinese designers generally do much more natural clothing—more flat cuts,” he said. “They don’t really build a shape around the body. They make garments that flow with the body. It’s very down-to-earth. Very androgynous. Even if they’re trying to do Western style, they still approach it from a Chinese perspective.”
You won’t find many of these designers in Beijing Fashion Week shows, however. Most say that the events would be a waste of their time and money. China has no wholesale fashion buyers, so the shows won’t bring store orders. The designers who do participate often have good guanxi—Communist Party connections. I attended half a dozen shows, most in luxury malls, hotel ballrooms, and convention centers. At Fashion Week’s end, Charles invited me to a red-carpet bash in Beijing’s hottest art spot—a decommissioned East German factory— now called the 798 district. In the unheated metal cylinder, everyone was bundled in coats and perched on folding chairs beyond a security line, or else standing and craning to see. We waited for an hour. Then two hours. I wondered when the crowd would get antsy and split. But everyone lingered patiently, and finally a group of models paraded a collection on the runway. When the show ended, after 11 p.m., the crowds stood shivering outside, hailing scarce cabs, swag bags dangling from outstretched arms.
Charles told me that the Chinese fashion market will take years to fully evolve. For now, most of the people who attend these glitzy shows probably won’t head to the industrial outskirts of town where Dong Liang’s designers tend to work. But he has big dreams. “I want to see more designers who can go to the big fashion weeks: Paris, Milan, New York,” he said. “I want Chinese design to be part of international design, [so that] when everyone talks about fashion, they cannot ignore us.”
Over the Qingming festival holiday, when Chinese people traditionally visit ancestors’ graves, I stopped by Dong Liang again. The store was packed. Charles was in personal-shopper mode for a VIP customer. He helped her into a long linen hooded coat by Ricostru over a black Vega Wang tunic, then a black trench coat with vinyl sleeves by 24-year-old wunderkind Leo Kong. Charles cooed, in English, “You’re a fashion icon!”
The next day, I went to posh Sanlitun Village to see Dong Liang’s closest competitor: Brand New China, a sleek boutique selling the work of dozens of Chinese fashion and industrial designers. It is the brainchild of Vassar-educated media magnate Hung Huang, the pub- lisher of iLook, China’s trailblazing fashion magazine. Hung, who is sometimes called “China’s Oprah,” can afford a space exponentially larger than Dong Liang in the city’s priciest neighborhood, amidst outposts of Martin Margiela, Alexander Wang, and Balenciaga. In just over a year in business, she is turning a fast profit. Charles had coveted her store’s location and size—and after searching for many months, he and Nam eventually decided to relocate Dong Liang to a larger commercial space in a neighborhood called Central Park in the Central Business District. With plans for further expansion, Charles was optimistic. “This is like a wave,” he said. “We’re here from the very beginning. We are in this field at the right time, with all of these good designers. Years from now, when people talk about [Chinese] fashion, these designers and this kind of shop will be part of history.” A
Photos by Jasper James. This appeared in the September, 2012 issue.