Modernizing Tradition

kunalThe cool set that tramps its way nightly into the bars on Shanghai’s Bund is ditching its Ferragamos for Feiyues. How could a simple, white sneaker that was born in China in the 1920s, symbolizing the elevation of mind and body, suddenly become such a fashion icon?

In 2006, a small band of French sneaker and urban culture enthusiasts chanced upon the cheap Feiyue. They decided that its simplicity was the perfect antidote to the high-tech footwear that the big multinationals were churning out. Working with new materials, revising the form without jettisoning the original vintage charm, they created a range that is now the rage from Paris — where one style retails for EUR 89 (USD 124) — to Sydney, where Bondi beach lifeguards recently wore the shoes at Australia Fashion Week.

It is a story that i s being repeated across product categories, as China becomes increasingly proud of its cultural traditions and fuses them with modern objects. In the field of design, China holds arguably some of the richest traditions in the world. Today, designers and creators, Western and Chinese, are digging into that spirit with a fervor that has rarely been seen in contemporary times.

When designer Jenny Ji returned to Shanghai after her fashion education in Milan, she was sure that she was going to bring a unique Chinese sensibility to the clothes she would design. From the peacock feathers which adorn Shanghai homes, to the Double Happiness sign, to Peking Opera masks, to the traditional blue tiger design that she’s used in an exclusive line of mother and baby wear, Chinese symbolism sets her collections apart and on fire. At her studio on Changle Road, she showed me a shiny military-style jacket embroidered with beads. “My parents always wore this uniform,” she said. “I took the basic design, changed the shape, added beads and made it feminine.”

In Beijing’s hutongs, some homes have withstood the advance of the bulldozer. Among them is the siheyuan (courtyard home) of Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Lin Heung Shing and his art historian wife Karen Smith. It took a fair amount of work to restore the 3,500 square foot home, as they recreated design details from imperial Beijing, painted the pillars red like those in the Forbidden City, and kept the century old pomegranate trees in the courtyard, even as they added a modern cedar-lined sauna.

Xintiandi’s designer Ben Wood has an even more ambitious project on his hands now, as he restores and recreates Lingnan Tiandi, an area five times the size of Xintiandi, in Guangzhou’s Foshan city. Foshan is one of China’s four famous ancient towns, and this project takes forward the idea of refitting historic architecture with modern interiors and turning them into entertainment, nightlife and shopping hubs.

When Yiliqi, the son of a Mongol and a Manchurian, founded his first rock band in Beijing in 1996, he was hardly conscious of his roots. His first band, Qingpi (meaning Slacker) was a grunge band; two years later, he founded T9, inspired by Rage Against The Machine. But quite soon, getting angry on the stage and writing about drinking, frustration and fear of the future seemed passé to young Yiliqi. He remembered his father and his grandmother singing traditional Mongolian songs to him as a child. Traveling back to Xilinhot, his hometown in Inner Mongolia, he met Obsorung, a famous singing teacher, who taught him Mongolian overtone singing, a technique with which a single human voice can simultaneously produce two or more clearly audible tones. He learned to play instruments like the Tobushuur and the Morinkhuur, and assembled a new band, Hanggai, which interprets and plays only Mongolian folk music. Last year, they toured the US, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark, and they remain a popular fixture in Beijing.

As this story of a China rediscovering its cultural confidence gains momentum, do look out for more surprises, fresh concepts and innovations. Business can do nothing but profit from a resurgence of cultural pride.

Reproduced with permission from China International Business magazine. 

Date: October 25, 2010