The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Spring 2015 Exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass, has the fashion world looking to the East.
The exhibit, a collaboration between The Costume Institute and Department of Asian Art, will explore the influence of Chinese aesthetics on Western fashion, guiding viewers through the centuries using art and film. More than a hundred haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear gowns from Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, and Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent, among others, will be on display, including works from Vivienne Tam, best know for her cross cultural style that helped bring modern Asian fashion to the global runway.
“Embrace different cultures,” Tam declared. “It’s a beautiful collective journey.”
“I’m excited to see the art directing of Wong Kar Wai [Exhibit’s Artistic Director], the lighting, the colors, the texture, the atmosphere, the spirit," she told NBC News. "With Andrew Bolton’s [Curator in the Costume Institute] artistic touch, it will be incredible. Each piece he selects is so beautiful and tells a story. I always find his exhibitions fascinating. He’s the best fashion curator in the world. It’s a dream team.”
Born in Guangzhou, China, and raised in British Hong Kong, Tam’s trips to China as a student instilled a lifelong fascination with Chinese culture. The fabrics, arts and crafts, and perfumes convinced her to use her skills in dressmaking as a vehicle for expression.
“My design is a bridge to bring Chinese culture to the world because everyone looks to China [for] manufacturing. I look at the Chinese paintings, the culture, and how I grew up...it’s so inspiring. Why don’t I look within myself,” Tam said.
In the 80’s, Tam moved to New York, after graduating from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, as she saw the market in Hong Kong for Asian designers was almost non-existent. New York, she says, gave her the freedom to pursue her passion in clothing design. It “felt like home” to her.
"In order for you to see further, you have to climb up another story"
Determined to prove Asian designers had something to contribute to the fashion world, Tam landed a buyer and kick-started her career. She went on to debut in New York Fashion Week, Spring/Summer 1994, among the first few designers to make a showing.
“It was incredible. I was so scared, but once I did it, I got rid of my fear. Like the Chinese proverb, ‘In order for you to see further, you have to climb up another story,’” recalled Tam.
The following year, she gained international recognition with her “Mao” collection, among the items on display at the Met. Her 1997 “Buddha” collection, another on display, would also garner attention. Tam demystified the East, creating something that spoke to audiences around the world.
Her style has since evolved to Chinoiserie - a European perspective of China in the 17th and 18th century, which Tam finds “so humorous and ornate” and describes as “the dream of the orient, a fun fantasy.” Her recent Fall/Winter 2015 collection is an “urban romantic” take on the concept.
“Different things mixing together creates magic” she said.
Tam, who has dressed U.S. celebrities like Julia Roberts, Taylor Swift and Asian celebrities like Gong Li, and Ziyi Zhang, sees her initial stake in the American market now expanding eastward. Many of her latest customers, she says, come from China, reflecting new trend. “Chinese only wanted to wear Western clothes," Tam recalls, "but now it’s changing.”
“You keep doing what you’re doing and people can feel it and see it.”
“During Chinese New Year, I saw displays in Barney’s, Saks 5th Ave with qipao (a traditional Chinese woman’s dress), dragons, lanterns, and lucky cats," she said. "I find it very encouraging and am happy to see that reflected."
With the Asian market on the rise, Tam sees an increase in Asian and Asian-American designers like Jason Wu and Phillip Lim as reflecting the consumer’s growing interest in different cultures.
“Designers are catering to the consumer’s tastes, and more designers are now embracing their culture. I’m glad to see that more designers have the opportunity to raise their voice in the industry,” she said.
For Tam, embracing one’s identity and being persistent is essential to her ideals. Much of her career, she says, was spent fighting those who wanted her to change her to fit in with the mold. She resisted, she said, and pushed ahead, until she'd found her own voice.
“Your identity is something people come to you for - something special, something unique that gives hope.” Tam said. “You keep doing what you’re doing and people can feel it and see it.”
China: Through the Looking Glass will run from May 7 to Aug 16.