Go East, Go West

Bedazzling tigers onto your sweaters: one of many ways to demonstrate fierceness. A look from S/S 2011 Louis Vuitton. Image courtesy of Vogue and composed by the author.

Oriental chic! Chinese discos! Zebras, and pandas, and tigers, oh my! Okay, so the reviews for Louis Vuitton's S/S 2011 show didn't have quite so many exclamation marks, but you get the general idea--editors loved the campy, sequin-toting "China Girl", and Studio 54 veterans everywhere were ecstatic at finally having new clothes to do the hustle in. While I myself was not a fan when I first viewed the collection on Vogue.com, I must admit that the kitschy designs have since won me over.

Clash of the Aesthetics. Image courtesy of Vogue and composed by the author.

Now normally, liking a collection wouldn't be a problem, but I can't help but take issue with how designers tend to slap together a variety of Western conceptions of Asian culture and pass it off as "Oriental". It's like claiming that the orange chicken you get from Panda Express is authentic Chinese cuisine--of course it's still delicious, but it fails utterly in capturing the various cooking methods, flavors, and character of regional Chinese cooking. The Louis Vuitton S/S 2011 collection was the Panda Express of Chinese fashion, and unfortunately for us, Marc Jacobs followed a path that has already been trampled on by many of his predecessors.

My raving and ranting stems mostly from the fact that I recently went to visit the exhibition Echoes of the Past: Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting at the Berkeley Art Museum, and I was struck by how much of China's rich cultural history is underrepresented in the world of fashion. Like many designers, the painters in this exhibitions (known collectively as the Four Wangs) used the works of the old masters as a departing point, then added their own touches to the mix: a bold brush stroke here, a tendril of mist there, or even a fresh new bloom of wintry flowers. Their philosophy is perhaps best summed up by Wang YuanQi, who said that "if one knows how to open and close, rise and fall, whenever the veins and connections turn or halt, wonderful scenery will naturally appear."

Landscape in the Manner of Jiang Shen by Wang Hui. Image courtesy of BAM/PFA.

Looking at the paintings, you almost feel as if you're looking through a window at a world that has been blanketed by a fine layer of silver cobwebs. Delicate mountain peaks fold over themselves to hide lonely fortresses, and clusters of trees provide a stark contrast to the feather light shadows. Mysterious would be one way to put it, but there is a marked difference between the mystery of these paintings and the coy, come-hither secrecy of the ladies at Louis Vuitton.

Landscape by Wang YuanQi. Image courtesy of ARTstor.

Comparing the two different forms of art is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, but a large part of me wishes that more designers would use paintings like those of the Four Wangs' for their inspiration. Marc Jacobs had the opportunity with his last Louis Vuitton collection to turn the fashion world's vision of Chinese culture on its head, but instead we'll have to live with more cheongsam collars and panda motifs. Here's to hoping that a new year (Chinese New Year, that is!) will bring out a more diverse interpretation of Asia's rich history.

Echoes of the Past: Qing Dynasty Chinese Painting will be on display at the Berkeley Art Museum until June 30, 2011. Tickets are free for UCB students.

Aimee Shimizu
Assistant Blog Editor


  1. I agree


  2. or they could look into authentic "chinese fashion" for inspirations, like the modern qi-pao (traditional form-fitting silk dress), all the way to tang-dynasty huge/flowy dresses that highlighted feminine curves and grace. someone shud host an exhibit on that... =D