Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 30 – The Fashion Figure (Octo CHEUNG)
The final show of Season 01 is with the fashion designer Octo Cheung, who epitomises the phrase 'East Meets West'. The most intriguing part of her story is the mystery behind her ultra high-profile private client.
OC: We just only have one chance. And this chance will be history. So that means your mistake will be history.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host Oscar Fuchs.
So it's the final episode of the season, which started way back in August of last year. That's only eight months ago, but sometimes eight months can feel like a lifetime. And looking back today, I can somehow see how this podcast has been an exercise in describing the experiences of East meeting West. Across these 30 episodes, we've been looking at aspects of life in China, sometimes through an expert's lens, and other times more through an outsider's lens, but on each occasion in a way that helps an English-speaking audience experience how one culture speaks to another through its human stories.
Today's episode is with Octo Cheung, who is a Hong Kong born fashion designer based in mainland China. Before this interview, I was wondering how Octo's story would fit into the East meets West fabric of the series. But as you'll hear, not only does it fit, it ended up being one of the best examples. Octo's experiences delicately weave together the elements of culture and identity that define her life and her work. And when you hear about her special private client, you will recognise how fashion is yet another language we can use to interpret the dialogue between China and the outside world.
OF: Well thanks so much for coming today, Octo.
OC: Thank you.
OF: It's great to have you. I'm here with Octo Cheung, and Octo is a fashion designer and Co-founder of AirOgo.
OF: And I'm not going to ask you too much about it, because I can already see what your object is. So let me ask you the first question, which is, what object did you bring?
OC: So today I brought my company's innovative product, which is an AirOgo "pilloon" jacket. "Pilloon": this is a word that is a combination of 'balloon' and 'pillow'. So have you ever thought about a jacket which has a travel pillow insert in the collar?
OF: OK, so you can hear Octo unfurling her jacket right now.
OC: Yeah. So Oscar can see the beautiful jacket. You can see a pump. You blow it. And then you can sleep with the heat-generated mask. You put your hood on, and you can sleep anywhere you like. Even on the street, on the bench, in the park, plane, train, or anywhere you want.
OF: That's great. It's a mixture of a jacket and basically a sleeping bag.
OC: Yeah, yeah, it is.
OF: Well, I'll definitely have to include an image or two on social media so people can actually see what this looks like. it's quite hard to describe, I must say. So thank you so much for bringing that in Octo, I guess that leads me to ask you the most obvious question which is, what is your background?
OC: Actually, I studied in Hong Kong when I was young. I start from 17 - something like that - fashion design. And after university, I went to a brand called G2000, which mainly makes occasional wear. Suits, suits and suits. And so actually I feel very tired when I'm doing very ordinary design, so then I started to apply for an award called the Hong Kong Young Design Talent Award.
OF: 'Young Design Talent Award'?
OC: And this is a very difficult award, because it's architecture, graphics, interior design, fashion design, industrial design, so many design fields, but just only two people can get the scholarship of HKD250k. So that's why… Luckily I got it, in the end.
OF: So that allowed you to go where?
OC: Of course, my dream place: London.
OF: Oh nice. I didn't pay her to say that, I promise.
OC: Right, yeah.
OF: And so you studied there. Where were you studying?
OC: So I studied a master's degree at the London College of Fashion. I could meet so many colleagues from all over the world. For Asians, mostly they are more demure. They are very down to earth and they are they didn't talk too much about what is their thinking, inside. And for Europeans, they are very outgoing. They very much like to express themselves. I can say an example is, I have an Italian colleague, who is my very good friend. Mostly, Italian guys or Italian women, they are seductive. And then that means that their clothing somehow shows their sensuality from the inside: very tight waists, very tight hips, to show the natural streamline, the natural curve of the woman. And for the men, showing their masculinity. So this is what is their culture. But in China, or in Asia, we use clothing to hide our sensuality. You can see straight lines, and they don't want to explore their body outside. It depends on the culture, we really don't want to show what we are thinking to the outside.
OF: Interesting. Which is I guess, in direct contrast to the Italian culture, for example.
OC: Yeah, yeah. Because of the background of Hong Kong: East meets West. So I use the Western cutting, but you can see the thinking is Chinese philosophy. I started to realise that I needed a good investigation, or a good study, of my own culture. Because in Hong Kong, when I was studying, mostly they tend to be much more Western. Actually it's a very big difficulty for Hong Kong people, especially those are 30-something in age.
OC: Or 40-something age. We didn't know much about China.
OF: You have, like, a split personality, almost.
OC: Yeah, yeah. I think for me, the first time I realised that I am Chinese, is when I went to Paris when I was 20. There, there weren't many people who knew the difference between Hong Kong and China. And somehow I would say "I'm from Hong Kong", and would keep claiming that I'm from Hong Kong, and they said "Oh, China", and asked me many things that actually i didn't know.
OF: Isn't that funny.
OC: Yeah. Yeah.
OF: It is about what you yourself do. How you define yourself. But then it's funny because the outside world can also define you.
OC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
OF: So you have to really think "OK, well what the hell am I?"
OC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Somehow I was struggling with this at that time.
OC: And for now, I would say I'm Chinese.
OC: And after reinterpreting it, you take your own culture to the next level. And I think this is the responsibility of a designer in this decade.
OF: Right. So from what you're saying then, did you go from London straight to Mainland China? Or did you come back through Hong Kong?
OC: I came back through Hong Kong. And then I started to realise that I needed to know more about China, and I started working as a designer there, and started my design journey in China.
OF: And I know that where you ended up was in childrenswear, right?
OF: So let's cut forward to that experience. What was it like to design childrenswear in China?
OC: Actually, the brand that I was working in is the biggest brand in China. So the company is called YeehoO. "Yeehoo", just like the sound that babies make. Why childrenswear is very difficult is because of the restrictions in China. The restrictions in China, I can say, are the most difficult restrictions in the world. Because maybe the colour fasting is not good enough, maybe the string is too long, and can be a danger for kids…
OF: Oh because the string can strangle…
OC: Yeah, yeah. Something like that.
OF: Interesting. And that's funny. So actually, the rules in China are stricter than in Europe and in the U.S?
OC: Yeah, yeah. And then the customer here is like "You can't have this on my baby, because my baby is very pure. And my baby's an angel", something like that.
OF: Right. So if it's too risky, then it's simpler just to disallow it.
OC: Yeah disallow it.
OF: OK. Well, we skipped over one part of your career. During this part of your career, you got a very important client, didn't you?
OF: Now, let me make clear to listeners. We're not allowed to say who this client is, right?
OF: It's a female.
OF: Someone who's very high profile.
OF: And if someone tries to guess, you will not tell them if they are correct or wrong.
OC: Of course, that's the thing, I cannot tell.
OF: OK, so having said that, let's talk about your experiences with this client. So what was it like working with this client in terms of the access it allowed you, and the designs you were able to make?
OC: I think I'm very lucky to be chosen to work for her as a designer for around five years. Yeah. So the events are very important visits to the highest person in each country. And when she met the person in that country, I made the clothes for her. And the clothes are designed according to each country's culture, and combined with our own Chinese culture.
OF: Amazing. So can you give an example? Like, when did you assimilate these two cultures with a fashion design?
OC: Actually it is a very difficult process. Every decision you need to make is very precise. And you need to have a lot of investigation: investigation of the scenery, of where she goes; investigation of the people she's going to meet; the culture in that country, or the things in that country which are not allowed, or which is not…
OF: The things that are taboo, which you can't wear?
OC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
OF: Right. So I'm just thinking like, if there was a country where there's a certain bird which is bad luck, you can't have the person wearing an outfit which depicts that bird, right? Just as an example.
OC: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you're right. Normally it's not birds, but flowers. You can see flowers, they have so many meanings in most countries. So mostly, I will use my own culture to apply to the design, like the printing, embroidery, and also the coloration. Let's say there's a country where mostly their colours cannot be too bright, in that ceremony we would use monotone colours, like black and white, and maybe emerald, very dark green, or deep blue to present our own clothes. So with different scenery, we would have a different choice of colours. Like when when you're going to a hot country, bright colours would be a good pick. And also, you need to be in contrast with the people who will sit or stand next to you. So you need to guess what the people who will sit and stand next to you would wear, and then you need to think about a good strategy for her to look unique, being elegant and showing the beauty of China.
OF: And you say 'the beauty of China' so do you incorporate specific traditional Chinese designs into the clothes as well?
OC: Yeah, of course. This is our responsibility, of course. So we need to combine 苏州 [Sūzhōu] embroidery, and also we can have some brocade which weaves our lucky symbols inside.
OF: Right. Well, maybe if it's possible, we should have some photos that describe these little design elements.
OC: Yeah, yeah, of course. Some of them - part of the details, close-up, we can.
OF: OK, good. You know, I talk to many people about different styles of communication, be it in talking, in writing, you know like painting and dancing. But this is, you know, where you're communicating through clothing is something which I don't understand myself. I think it's fascinating.
OC: Yeah, it's a very difficult touch. And it's very different. Actually, presenting an artwork somehow is very personal. But for clothing - or presenting the design details on clothing - you are manipulating an international language. Somehow you can put your language on your clothing. So that's why I use a lot of experience to study different cultures around the world, and then try to develop a new presentation of a contemporary language on clothing.
OF: I guess that's the positive side. What have been the challenges, then, in working with such a high profile person?
OC: Mostly it's the stress. You cannot do anything wrong, of course. And every clothing I made, we just only have one chance. And this chance will be history. And you cannot change history. So that means your mistake will be history.
OF: Right. But then do you have a consultation, where you can talk with the client and they can tell you if you're going in the right or wrong direction?
OC: It's not very straightforward. Some decisions will be lost in translation, and somehow you need to guess what the client likes, which is the most difficult part in this job.
OF: Well, let's leave this example and we can now talk more generally. Because when you talk about how you guess what a client want, that must apply to any client. So how do you go about guessing what they want?
OC: Actually, every person has a different method. For me, I would read through the research first. You can see the silhouette, the colours, and the design or the cutting that she mostly likes. And somehow I will have another underground guess, because I'm very addicted to horoscopes. And this helps me come to some decision, or to guess, what the client will like.
OF: So I'm Leo.
OF: So if I was your client then, what would you assume for a Leo?
OC: Leo, the representative symbol is the sun. And so Leos mostly like to be in the spotlight.
OF: Oh, no. This is gonna be embarrassing. Keep going.
OC: Actually, I admire Leos very much. They love being on the stage. Somehow they they want to be a king or a queen.
OF: Which one am I?
OC: And you like something which shows your identity. The woman who is Leo… I don't know why, they like animal prints. Most of them. So they like leopard print, tiger print…
OF: Oh, leopard and tiger, right.
OF: Let's try one more example then. If there's any specific star sign that you like to design for, which one would it be?
OC: Alright that say Pisces.
OC: Pisces, Pisces. So Pisces women mostly like romantic things. So you can say chiffon, and ruffles, tiny details which have more embroidery on them. You present her like Goddess in Greek times, maybe she likes it. But of course, it's not just only the sun sign in Pisces. People because different people have different presentations of their horoscope.
OF: Yeah. So I guess what you're saying is, you'll meet them in person, but you'll come in with a little bit of extra knowledge with that horoscope.
OC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right.
OF: How funny. OK, well, in terms of how you manage people, then - apart from maybe going to the horoscope side - how do you find working particularly in China?
OC: So I want my company to be a very lightweight company. You don't have so much hierarchy, flat enough to make things happen.
OF: Yeah, I mean, obviously, you've had such a long career. But now this is really the first time that you are in control from top to bottom, right?
OC: Yeah, yeah.
OF: And do you feel that you enjoy the management side as well as the design side? Or do you think, at heart, you still prefer the design side?
OC: I was inputting too much time in investigating design in the first 10 years of my career. And now I think I need to move to the next level, balancing the creativity and also the commercial side.
OF: Well, good luck with everything.
OC: Thank you.
OF: But let's move on to Part 2.
OF: Question 1, what is your favourite China-related fact?
OC: I loved Chinese history when I was young. All the first kings of each dynasty destroyed the previous dynasty. And you feel that it's time to make some change. And if it's long-lasting or not, we didn't know. But change is the miracle word.
OF: Right, I understand. So basically, when it's the first king of a new dynasty then they are the ones who are responsible for getting rid of the previous dynasty.
OF: And then only history knows how long this new dynasty will last, but it's all about creating new things, right?
OC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Maybe that's why I became a designer. I like to create things.
OF: How interesting. Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
OC: I've a favourite phase, but it's very hard to translate into English. I try I try. 厚德载物,行稳致远 [Hòudé zǎiwù, xíngwěn zhìyuǎn]. That means to be good in life you need to have a good personality, you need to be kind to attract things towards you. But you need to walk steadily to walk far. When I translate it into English, it looks a little bit stupid.
OF: What's your favourite destination within China?
OC: I think where I am, Shanghai. Shanghai is very pretty of course. What do you think, Oscar?
OF: Well, I'm a bit biased as well. But you know, I like to travel as well and explore new places. So living and travelling, I think are two separate things.
OF: But yeah, for me it's always nice to get home to Shanghai.
OC: Yeah, yeah. Shanghai, I think the culture is different. Actually, some of the old Hong Kong culture was influenced by Shanghai at that time.
OC: So you can see so many poets who lived here, and some of the famous political people. It contains so many different types of people. So that means Shanghai is a very good city for you to connect different ideas, and then you can find your own way.
OF: Yeah, I agree.
OF: And I guess that's where it's similar to Hong Kong. They've historically both been very open, outwardly-looking cities.
OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
OC: My answer is very ordinary. Food. So of course in London, you had a very good Chinatown. Because many Hong Kong people went there and opened restaurants. But when you're in Paris - I also lived for a while in Paris - Chinese food in Paris is terrible.
OC: But of course, the Vietnamese food there is very delicious.
OF: Right, right.
OC: So it's different.
OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
OC: What surprised me is the way you use WeChat Pay. Maybe you just spend $1 to buy an onion in the market, you can just pay it. So I'm very surprised. And I think the electronic development here is really pretty awesome.
OF: Yeah, I agree. OK, next question. Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat to drink to hang out?
OC: The best restaurant I really like is called Highline, which is on the sixth floor of the Ascott. And the best drinks is Sober Company…
OF: Sober Company?
OC: ..Which is one of the 50 best bars in Asia. And it was opened by a Japanese person.
OF: Oh right. OK, let's move on. What is the best or worst purchase you've recently made?
OC: It's Taobao.
OF: Right. But what about the actual thing you bought? Like, do you remember, was there a really good thing, or a really bad thing?
OC: You can find anything there, even if you're applying for a visa. I think it's such a miracle, because you want to apply for a visa - like for Vietnam, or somewhere - you can just send your passport copy, and then they send you a real actual paper visa, directly to your home.
OF: Wow. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
OF: OK, can you describe this?
OC: It's an illustrated human, and the hands are moving like a fan, and firing many hearts from them.
OF: That's very cute. What's your go-to song to sing at KTV?
OC: I think most Hong Kong people like Eason Chan.
OC: Yeah. We can find lots of Hong Kong culture in the lyrics. So the one I love is called… Can I say it in Cantonese this time?
OF: Yes, of course.
OC: 歲月如歌 [Sui Yuet Yue Goh].
OF: OK, I will try and find that one. I can't speak Cantonese though, so that's going to be hard for me.
OC: I'll send you, I'll send you.
OF: OK. And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you use?
OC: SCMP, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. But also I will watch 腾新 [Téngxīn]. I like to investigate the difference between media which are not in the same place. Yeah.
OF: Right. Well, thank you so much, Octo.
OC: Thank you Oscar.
OF: And good luck with the new venture.
OC: Thank you. I hope it will be a big hit all around the world, yeah.
OF: Well before you leave, out of everyone you know in China, who do you recommend that I interview next?
OC: Right. I'm recommending a very good guy called Douglon. He's from a very interesting family. He's doing a very good business, it's a small island next to Shanghai.
OF: Great, well I'd love to go to that island, sounds fascinating. And thanks so much, I look forward to meeting Douglon.
OC: Thank you.
OF: And with those final words, that's a wrap on Season 01 of Mosaic of China. Thank you to Octo for giving up her time, and thanks to the other 29 guests as well. As you can hear, the guests contribute a lot to the programme, not just with their stories, but also with preparing their object, in sharing extra images with me for social media, and in nominating somebody for the next season. This has been a real team effort, so thank you sincerely.
And speaking of team effort, I want to give a proper thanks to the three people I mention at the end of every episode. Firstly, there's Milo de Prieto, who helped to guide me through the setup and to create the sound of the podcast from day one. He also helped to edit down the first half of the series, and taught me how to do it so that I can handle the second half by myself. Secondly, there's Alston Gong, who got me set up on the China side. Thanks to Alston, the podcast is up and running on 喜马拉雅 [Xǐmǎlāyǎ] and on 微博 [Wēibó], and again, he taught me how to do it before passing over the baton at the start of the year. And if Milo helped to create the sound of the podcast, then Denny Newell is the one I need to thank for creating the look of the podcast. Denny designed the logo and the individual tiles for each guest, and as I have zero skill in graphic design, I don't think he stands a chance in handing over those responsibilities to me anytime soon. So I'm sorry, Denny, you're stuck with me.
There are so many others who played a part in this. I want to thank the teams at Unravel, Podfest and IPWS, all three of these organisations helped me find the courage to jump into this project. And finally to the individuals who helped at various points along the way, including Rebecca Kanthor, Clara Davis, 朱梦洁 [Zhū Mèngjié], Josh Ogden-Davis, Jessica Gleeson, Nestor Gounaris, Gabby Gabriel, Dave Bennett, Vaché Petrossian, Kiran Ragireddy, Shannon Martin and Curtis Baker. I know I've missed out some people there, so if you're one of them, please give me a sharp kick when you next see me.
Finally, and most cheesily, I want to also thank you for listening. There have been times when doing this podcast every week has been tougher than I anticipated, especially in the last few months where first China and then the rest of the world has felt like it's been chewed up and spat out. So thank you all so much for listening and for engaging with these stories. It has been a pleasure for me to be with you, and I'm looking forward to doing it again next season. Before that, I'll be back next week with a special end-of-season episode in which I'll also let you know what to expect over the next few months. See you then.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.