It’s the sort of scene played out on reality TV shows across the globe—a panel of well-coiffed judges weighing in on contestant Yueming Meng’s progress throughout the show while flashbacks to his various designs stream across the screen. Meng stands erect, hands clasped, listening intently; the camera cuts to a close-up of his face, which exudes a professional calm. But beads of sweat around the hairline and a slightly clenched jaw belie an inner anxiety. The judges for the season finale of China’s Master of Fashion (also referred to as Fashion Master) conclude their assessments, and Meng is announced as “Most Promising Designer.” He breathes in a gasp of relief, surprise, and elation; his fingertips go to the inner corners of his eyes, pressing back tears of excitement.
Meng was drawn to fashion before he even knew the words to describe it. Growing up in a rural town in northeast China, fashion was not a part of the local landscape. He was first exposed to it in middle school, when he saw a fashion magazine.
“Looking back, I still don’t know where [the magazine] came from. It wasn’t something that was relevant to life in the countryside, didn’t have a practical use,” he recalls with a laugh.
It was love at first sight. He was enamored with the colors and textures, with the world represented in the pages. Since he could remember, his mother had made all the clothes for his family, buying fabrics and working them through the sewing machine in their living room. Immediately he connected the two—the clothing in the magazine, although it was wildly different from anything he had seen before, must also be made by people.
“I didn’t know the term ‘fashion’ or ‘fashion designer’ and had no idea how to access this world I saw. But I knew I wanted to move towards it somehow.”
Today, Meng has arrived. Being featured in the inaugural season of media giant CCTV’s Master of Fashion series has brought his brand KSIEZYC to national attention, connected him with mentors in the industry, and provided seed funding to build his fashion line (though he declined to reveal how much). And it’s sent a message to the world that China may be ready to step into the fashion spotlight.
Filmed in Beijing, the show was watched nationwide by over 20 million viewers per episode—roughly seven times the number of viewers that the U.S. show Project Runway had at its peak. Similar to Runway, on Master of Fashion promising young designers from around the country apply to compete on the show. A select few are invited to join, and every airing focuses on a different fashion challenge. (Albeit with a patriotic twist—many of the challenges on Master of Fashion focus on how to incorporate traditional Chinese arts into modern designs.)
Something Old, Something New
China’s classical arts—calligraphy, ink paintings, porcelain—hold less interest for the country’s younger generations than they do for their parents and grandparents. But China’s sartorial prowess has a long history. From ancient times, people inhabiting China were weaving fabrics and tailoring garments. Archeological digs have unearthed artifacts like sewing needles whittled from bone, and perforated shells used to adorn clothing. Despite this early start, domestic fashion culture regressed to a stage where, from the 1920s to late 1980s, the entire country shared a standard uniform. This bland affair would become known as “the Mao suit.”
The countrywide standardization was connected to the communist ideology sweeping the nation in the mid 2oth century. China had seen much war and incursion by foreign powers. Much of the population was impoverished farm folk; they saw communism as offering a way out of their hardscrabble existence.
There were class battles, where the former elite (intellectuals, artists, landowners) were humbled to “become one with the masses.” At the same time, women’s societal standing was elevated. The traditions of having multiple wives and foot binding were made illegal; it was declared that “women hold up half the sky.” A great “equalizing” was happening across all social strata, which was also witnessed in people’s dress.
A utilitarian and androgynous garment, the two-piece suit came in a tight palette of gray, olive, or navy. Material options were cotton, polyester, or wool. In the United States, clothing trends shifted decade to decade (scantily short flapper skirts, wide bell-bottoms, and ballooning shoulder pads among them). In China, the image during the same time period remained unchanged for everyone—a sea of muted and somber shades.
Wearing this national uniform faded in the 1990s, when the nation began to reap the economic benefits from politician Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” policies that affected trade, international relations, and much more. Heady economic prowess meant the luxury of choice was injected back into society, including different options for clothing. China’s initial forays into the global world of fashion were led by the state. In 1993, for example, when Italian designer Valentino visited China to celebrate its first international fashion fair, he was received like a head of state. Then-president Jiang Zemin greeted him, and People’s Liberation Army soldiers assisted with runway logistics, marching goose-step as they transported gowns.
Master of Fashion
Looking at China from the outside, one might imagine that contemporary designers feel tremendous pressure to overcome negative assumptions about the cut of their cloth. Given the outdated assumptions about China, an international audience may suspect designers’ creative potential or their stance on quality standards.
At least for Meng, such concerns don’t weigh heavily on his mind. “Actually, working in the Chinese market now is a great opportunity,” he says. In his early 20s, Meng has a boyish charm. With a head of curls, a quick smile, and a white linen shirt, Meng looks relaxed as he sips a hand-poured Americano. Indeed, with the size of China’s consumer market, many fashion brands dream of getting a foothold here.
“[In terms of China’s manufacturing reputation] I don’t think of my designs as having to emerge from a shameful shadow. Sure, there is a lot of fake stuff, even today,” he admits. “But that’s not what I do. My fans know that; my fans are the people who don’t buy fake stuff because they don’t care about displaying a logo.”
Indeed, unlike their parents, Meng and his millennial market didn’t grow up running from poverty. They don’t need to signal that they’ve reached a certain social standing. Instead, they want to express individual creativity and personal values. That requires a greater variety of native offerings, local designers who know how to articulate what it means to be stylish in China today. Meng’s aesthetic is a casually cool, unflustered preppy look. Something that can be worn to the office but carry through to an evening dinner with friends. Something with personality—and that’s what the new “Made in China” moment is all about.