UGLY: the new black
by Delilah Sheraton
Beijing has long been the political, economic and cultural centre of China. However, where clothing has been concerned, Shanghai and Hong Kong have always outranked the capital city in terms of style. When everyone was donning suits of egalitarian blue and scholarly brown, so as not to clash with the red banners of propaganda in Beijing, the cosmopolitan cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong were churning out haute coutre faster than Jackie Chan could make a movie.
In terms of fashion history, Shanghai holds the record for cutting edge threads. The Shangri-la period of the Roaring Twenties influenced designers as far as Paris with its hallmark of elegance: the qipao. The city built its moda by absorbing various influences of style, infusing it with something Chinese, and creating a look all of its own. For instance, the impossibly tight bodices and thigh-flashing hems of the qipao, first produced in the shoppes of Shanghai, rightly aided the city in assuming its nickname as "The Whore of the Orient".
Paris? New York? No! It's Beijing!
Where Shanghai dropped off the fashion charts, Hong Kong quickly picked up the slack. Through its imperial slavery and capitalistic freedom, the prolific port has stood as a gateway to the global garment industry. Today, leading retailers such as H&M and Forever Twenty-one glitter with the gold and sweat of substandardly paid labourers. And beyond its brilliantly expendable workforce, the city has spawned several of its own models of chic. The intrinsic connection between popular music and trendsetting is undeniable. Largely due to Canto-pop, the rise of the orange streaked mullet, over-gelled half-hawk, unnecessary sequence, rhinestones, feathers, and lace, usually recognized overseas as FOB-wear, can be traced directly to the catwalks of Hong Kong.
Although Shanghai and Hong Kong have long been the staples of style in China, there is something brewing in Beijing. Matching the international economic development fervour that has thrust the country upon the world stage, Beijing is catching up in terms of its attire. Wildly acclaimed for his forward socialist thinking and morality in concept and thought, Hong Kong-based designer Alan Chan remarked, "In the years to come, Beijing's influence will match that of London, New York, or Tokyo." Yet not every city can pull off something hot and innovative in this cultural era of post-nuclear, over-done-bohemian-punk-hipster-euro-trash. Just look what happened when Melbourne gave it a shot: Kylie Minogue. Disgraceful!
However, there is something taking shape in Beijing where other cities cannot hold a firm grasp. Perhaps the most finely talented in the art of reproduction, it's not surprising that the theme in fashion this fall in Beijing, hails from the 2003 trend spotted on the catwalks of Milan. It's what fashionistas around the globe have coined as "pure ugly". Taking their ques from the West, Chinese designers have perfected the motif of hideousness with every exquisite detail. From polka-dots to stone-wash, the ugly look runs rampant in the streets of Beijing.
There is a certain reverse pressure in designing something purely ugly, as the owner of Lovely Butterfly in Your Fashion Rainbow Boutique (stall #999 at Xidan Mall), Li Wen Hao noted. "In order to keep up with competitors, we try to make clothes that don't just look ugly, but that feel ugly, too." Li stated. The Beijing-based designer definitely pulls off distasteful vogue with her latest fall collection, which includes zipper-stirrup spandex denim capri pants (380Y), baroque collared blouses with shoulder-padded princess sleeves (499Y), and asymmetrical peasant skirts lined with fluorescent faux fur (770Y), to highlight just a few eyefuls of horror. Li said the main principles of her designs are "ostentatious, unflattering to the form, and supremely ridiculous; that's what makes it so hot."
The future look of Beijing?
With shoppe owners like Li and others selling slip-on canvas beach shoes faster than they can attach a fake gem, it's no wonder that something ugly is a must-have in everyone's wardrobe this season. It's the new black. And just like any contemporary trend, it's important to get it right so as not to look out of synch at the next cocktail party. The essence of ugly isn't as easy as throwing together something paisley and plaid. As Li Wen Hao advises, the key to fashion in Beijing is that, "Before you go out, don't just ask yourself, 'Is this ugly?' but 'Is this ugly enough?'"