China in vogue

Updated: 2011-09-02 09:03

By Mark Graham (China Daily European Weekly)

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China in vogue
Style guru Anna Wintour wants to encourage more US brands to open more stores in China. "I think American brands are a bit behind coming to China compared to European brands." Provided to China Daily

How Country captured the fascination of the world's most powerful fashion player

When American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour visited China for the first time late last year she was blown away by the energy, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. Wintour, regularly described as the most powerful individual in the fashion world, wasted no time in dispatching Vogue's top photographer, Mario Testino, to Beijing and Shanghai, in a bid to try and capture the China zeitgeist.

China in vogue
Supermodel Karlie Kloss features in the bumper September edition of US Vogue, which has a special China focus.[Provided to China Daily]

The results can be seen in the latest issue of American Vogue, which devotes a large section to stunning images of key people in China's fashion, music and art scenes, along with supermodel Karlie Kloss.

Says Wintour in her editor's letter: "When I returned home, I knew that this country that I'd found so entrancing - I'd never been anywhere that restless and ceaseless in its pursuit of the new - could act as a powerful and compelling backdrop for a September fashion story."

Throughout a long career in fashion world, which began when British-born Wintour left school at 16, the style guru has become renowned for being able to spot the latest trends, staying a high-heeled step ahead of industry rivals.

Wintour is not easily impressed, or moved, usually pictured at fashion shows with a deadpan expression, eyes hidden behind huge sunglasses, but she was clearly astonished to see, first-hand, how China has become a major player in the fashion world. The management consultancy McKinsey has predicted that the luxury business could be worth $27 billion annually within four years, almost triple the current estimated figure.

"Everywhere you go there is this great drum roll that started five years ago of 'what do you think about China?,' " says Wintour explaining her decision to visit the country and devote a major magazine spread to its fast-growing fashion industry.

"I think in a way American brands are a bit behind coming to China compared to the European brands and I wanted to encourage them all to visit and open stores here. It is hard for me to give advice to the designers back home if I haven't seen it for myself.

"I spoke to people in China about the possibility of encouraging the right Chinese designers to possibly come and represent their clothes in the United States, or Europe. I think there is a lack of knowledge of what people are all doing in China at the moment.

"We have the access and the authority that is completely unlike any other magazine. A designer, or brand, will come to us first with a question or if they have a position they want filled, or whether they should be expanding their brand to China or they want a model for their campaign."

No false modesty there, understandably so given that the magazine, and its iconic boss, are so powerful within the industry, a fact that the general public became aware of through the film The Devil Wears Prada. Based on a book written by a disaffected former Vogue staffer, it depicts an aloof and domineering fashion magazine editor.

China in vogue
Wintour (second from left) tours the catwalks of the world. [Provided to China Daily]

There was no trace of that prima donna attitude on display during the real-life fashion queen's debut Beijing visit, where she was accompanied by just two staff members, who each had their own duties to carry out rather than tend to the boss's needs. But, during a question and-answer session with young Beijing fashion students, Wintour's frosty response to muddled questions made it clear that fools are not usually suffered gladly.

Wintour, 61, also displayed flashes of dry humour when asked - for the umpteenth time, no doubt - if The Devil Wears Prada, where Meryl Streep plays the lead character, is true to life. "I found the movie highly entertaining and it's true, of course, that I beat all my assistants, lock them in a cupboard and don't pay them!"

More seriously, the grand dame of fashion had thoughtful and astute musings on the future of the industry in general and China's future role.

"It used to be that young fashion came from London and that has totally changed I think New York has become a true leader in every sense in terms of fashion and shows and professionalism," she says.

"China is a great manufacturing country and people are proud of what this country has achieved, but I think it is also important to change the view of what Made in China means. It also has to stand for design talent and quality and innovation."

A number of overseas Chinese designers have had a career boost from gaining the much-sought-after blessing of Wintour, most notably Taiwan-born Jason Wu, who designed the inauguration ball gown ball for American First Lady Michelle Obama, and New York-based Phillip Lim, Alexander Wang and Derek Lam.

She says: "I am not always right but the important thing is always to be honest - designers have a lot of press and friends rushing back stage to tell them they are wonderful. That is nice to hear but it is not always the most constructive way to try and develop a business.

"I think it is best to tell the truth but it is also not constructive to completely knock somebody, so we try and explain what might be changed or what the collection is lacking.

"I always say to young students that you have to get out and about, fashion reflects the culture; a great photograph can tell you just as much as what is going on in the world as any headline or television report that you may see. Go to the galleries, read books, travel, all of that will come back to reward you."

Wintour acted on her own advice while in China, visiting the major sights galleries and stores, meeting all the movers and shakers in the fashion and art world and having intimate dinners with a select few. The editor is, famously, an early riser, often fitting in a pre-breakfast game of tennis before a day of back-to-back appointments

China in vogue
Actor Daniel Wu and actress Fan Bingbing feature in the September edition. [Provided to China Daily]

That hard-working approach is one reason Wintour has stayed at the very top for so long, handsomely rewarded by her employers for producing a monthly magazine that generates consistently high revenues. The most influential individual in world fashion has the very best seat at catwalk shows in Paris, Milan, London and New York, the ability to make, or break, careers and a passion for work that is undiminished by four decades in the business.

This month's China-focused issue, which showcases designer clothes from the autumn-winter collections, is a whopping 700 pages. The China section features American teen model Kloss pictured against a backdrop of the Great Wall near Beijing, the Bird's Nest Stadium, the Bund in Shanghai and various studios, galleries and hotels.

Also shot by photographer Testino were notable China celebrities, including jewelry designer and socialite Wan Bao Bao, actress Fan Bing Bing, racing driver and blogger Han Han, actor Daniel Wu and members of the rock band Queen Sea Big Shark.

All the photos and words will have been personally pored over by the perfectionist editor, a meticulous approach that was captured in the documentary The September Issue, which traced the development and production of the magazine's annual flagship edition.

Adds Wintour: "I think I have the best job in the world am the luckiest person in the world."


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