China steps into New York Fashion Week breach
Chen Peng is only 26 years old and yet his wildly original puffer coats have already adorned the likes of Rihanna and Lady Gaga. He's showing his latest collection in New York in a bid to conquer the world.
"Everywhere," he tells AFP backstage at his fashion show when asked where he would like people to buy his clothes in the future. "You can buy it everywhere -- that is my dream."
Trained in London and inspired by Alexander McQueen, Chen set up his eponymous label in 2015 and is one of four Chinese labels brought to New York Fashion Week by Tmall, a platform of e-commerce giant Alibaba believed to command more than half of business-to-consumer transactions in China.
If New York's bi-annual style fest is plagued by US talent fleeing to Europe, a calendar on the rocks and the catwalk under threat, then Chinese designers are only too happy to step into the breach and max out their share of the North American market.
On Wednesday, Tmall sponsored the first "China Day" at New York Fashion Week in a bid to introduce Chinese designers to US buyers, editors and influencers.
It is the fruit of a five-year strategic partnership between the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Suntchi management company, giving CFDA members access to the Chinese market and Chinese brands to the United States.
Chen won rave applause on Wednesday in Chelsea for his catwalk collection of giant puffer coats, puffer-style flower hats and ornamental handbags in the shape of a dog, colored bubblegum pink, blue and yellow.
The Chinese New Year, next week, will usher in the Year of the Dog.
The one-size-fits-all coats are so enormous they're almost free standing, engulfing elfin models. If they looked like fat suits they were so instantly fun, glamorous and chic to be met by immediate oohs and aahs from the crowd.
Chen called his collection "It's You" and said it was inspired by a petite client in New York who told him how warm, confident, unique and practical she felt while out walking her dog dressed in the largest possible size of one of his coats.
Among the other labels were Peacebird, a youth label with annual sales of US$1.6 billion and 4,500 retail stores in China, whose show was a throwback to the 1980s, all tracksuit bottoms, school uniforms, dungarees, and a collaboration with Coca-Cola.
Another was sportswear label Li-Ning, set up by China's gold medal-winning Olympic gymnast by the same name in 1990, which showcased a collection inspired by the Olympics, featuring street and sportswear for any client in any country given a distinctive Chinese twist.
Tmall, part of the Alibaba Group that has 580 million active users -- 80 percent of them under 30 years old -- is heavily invested in see-now, buy-now fashion and streamed the shows live to their customer base, with many of the clothes instantly buyable.
It was not remotely put off by the likes of Tommy Hilfiger decamping to Milan for the fall/winter 2018 season, Proenza Schouler staying away in Paris, or Rihanna and Kanye West sitting this catwalk season out.
"New York is the fashion capital of the world and it is the perfect place for us to forecast local brands and to get international exposure," Jessica Liu, president of Tmall Fashion and Luxury, told AFP, calling the US financial capital "very open minded."
Tmall offers what she calls a new retail experience, allowing consumers to purchase products, communicate with brands directly and see the show live online.
While Chinese designers have long shown in New York, there has been a growing uptick in recent years and this China Day is unlikely to be the last.
"Expect a lot more," said CFDA President and CEO Steven Kolb when asked if New York Fashion Week can expect more. "We have a lot of ideas and we a lot of work to do."
But Chinese labels are at pains to stress that the strategic partnership isn't just about US brands tapping into the huge money-making potential of China.
They expressed a desire to shake the West out of any complacency with regard to putting Chinese fashion in a box and a determination to show off their own creativity.
"We want to use our Chinese lens to interpret our culture," said Feng Ye, general manager of Li-Ning's e-commerce department.
"We have a deeper understanding of our own culture and we can showcase how we are bridging the gap between East and West."