Back in Hong Kong for the past few months, designer Vivienne Tam talks to Jing Zhang about home, health, wellness and how fashion will fit into the new normal.
“I haven’t spent such an extended period of time in Hong Kong for years,” says Vivienne Tam. “Since I came back, every weekend I’ve been hiking in Tai Po, Sai Kung, all around the mountains, or hanging out in Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town.”
Tam, who founded her brand 25 years ago and is one of this city’s most prolific fashion names, has reconnected with her Hong Kong home in the past few months. Despite the pandemic, the protests and the crushing pressure of both on retail, she’s discovered more inner peace with a change in lifestyle, and during long walks along the waterfront.
“Hong Kong is so beautiful, especially at night around the harbour,” she says, “I’m not just talking about the skyline, but also the city’s small neighbourhoods, like all the graffiti in Western District, and at night when young people go roller skating and the older ones are dancing.”
Tam graduated from the Polytechnic University’s first-ever fashion design course, but it was her first trip to the US in the early 1980s that set her on a path to becoming one of the world’s most recognisable Asian names in fashion. Moving to the US and starting her brand in New York was a game-changer that would see her East-West hybrid style flourish as she became a pioneer of China-chic aesthetics.
The years passed and she was a regular on the New York Fashion Week circuit, as well as doing special shows in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. Celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Jessica Alba lined up to be dressed by her. As an emblem of feminine, Asian-infused style, she was emboldened by partnerships with Mandarin Oriental, Disneyland, Hewlett Packard and, most recently, the Forbidden City in Beijing. There’s also an upcoming collaboration with Aimer, China’s biggest lingerie brand, on a collection called Red that will launch in December.
Today, fashion is in the midst of a reckoning. And Tam is in full embrace of what the industry must turn towards – not only to survive, but also to thrive. “We’re at a time when we have to be more conscious … We as designers all ask ourselves ‘why?’ It has to be meaningful. I want to make clothes that give joy and positive energy to people besides making them feel comfortable and beautiful. In society, we all feel that much more connected with nature – and fashion needs to follow more of this kind of message.”
She’s started using recycled and offcut fabrics now from her own previous collections, and she’s making pretty designer masks that match her ready-to-wear – a modern adaptation for fashion in the time of Covid. As Tam has had the time to ponder and introspect, she’s steely and adamant that “design can be a vehicle to bring a positive message”. Amid the turmoil, there’s something quite cathartic and serene about the current spirit, she postulates: “People are reconnecting to nature more, the sky seems somehow more beautiful and blue.”
Tam easily gets carried away each time we talk about all the places she’s been visiting and rediscovering: “All these little old villages, with the little shops, temples, and little islands and coves like Wong Shek, accessible by a little boat from Sai Kung …You can feel like you’re outside Hong Kong … and still, the new energy of urban neighbourhoods makes me really appreciate this city.”
Born in Guangzhou, Tam moved to Hong Kong at the age of three and remembers being creative with her own style early on. She was hand-crocheting her hairbands, decorating her stationary boxes and adding little embroideries on to accessories. In primary school, she and her mother would design and create outfits together, buying fabrics from Sham Shui Po, Fa Yuen Street and the like, then stitching them with a sewing machine at home.
“I loved that feeling with my mother,” she recalls, of making those special outfits for celebrations like Chinese New Year. The family didn’t have money, but these unique bespoke pieces would come to mean the world. In that sense, fashion has always held a deep, emotional significance for Tam. It was never just about fabrics, factories, silhouettes and sex appeal.
This year marks the brand’s 25th anniversary, a significant milestone, but Tam says it’s also a turning and changing point. “People’s habits and concerns have changed and we all have to change. It depends on how you want to survive.”
After the death last year of her partner, designer Scott Crolla; the reconnection to nature and to her Hong Kong home, as well as the importance of physical and mental health, are not without significance. “I’ve had time to really think about what I want to do … I want to start a new line based on wellness that will include outfits for hiking, yoga, tai chi – athleisure and the wellness lifestyle.”
Launching next spring or autumn, Tam’s new line will use more sustainable fabrics and be more green, and she hopes to expand into clean cosmetics and skincare. “This is a really important time to do this,” she says. Tam also completed a collection to celebrate the 600-year anniversary of Beijing’s Forbidden City – a cumulation of inspiration trips, delving into history and further exploration of Chinese beauty. The big celebrations (including her fashion show) in Beijing this year were cancelled because of the virus.
As the main fashion designer chosen to interpret the famed historical site into her creations, it goes to show how Tam’s modern take on Chinese aesthetics has proved powerful enough to ensure 25 years in a fickle industry. The consistent use of high-tech fabrics with traditional embroidery or motifs are defining elements of Vivienne Tam’s style – an enduring New-Old, East-West hybridism.
For the forthcoming autumn/winter season, there are plenty of Chinese influences, culminating in a padded, hooded, hero coat in a painterly print of blue and beige. Tam used a mood board that included old paintings, images of stories and legends, decorative prints and patterns – on the clothes this is manifested in mix material fabrications, laces and chinoiserie prints.
A curving pattern of yellows, oranges and mustards are morphed from designs in ceilings of the Forbidden City. This long-time pursuit of China chic (she also famously published a book of the name in 2000) has landed her a place in the fashion annals. And whether it’s incorporating vintage Hong Kong icons, red taxis and the famous neon lights of the city, or the ancient Silk Road, cave art and Ming vases, Tam gives contemporary twists to more classic Chinese motifs and designs.
It’s a precarious time politically, too, right now: Between Hong Kong, China and the US “there’s so much tension”. But, she says, there’s also “a real exploration of how to be more positive and creative in this time. I’m hiking every weekend. I’ve become healthier and more focused, even though like everyone else in the world I have my worries.”
Some of that positivity can be attributed to that fact that Tam is in the middle of the Deepak Chopra 21-day Abundance Meditation. It’s giving her “so much power and awareness, and making [her] listen to [her] heart more … it’s really been quite helpful”.
It’s ever more important to foster mental and physical fortitude, to come out better on the other side. And new ideas – and new ways of looking at things – might be just what we all need, Tam argues. Her advice to young designers now focuses much on having a clear and positive purpose. Although it’s impossible for a do-over, we can all reassess and reprioritise. Much of fashion is going through the same thing, not just Tam. Reset. Adapt. And Grow. And for this designer, she’s actively choosing to look at the silver linings.