As temperatures across China plummet (with snowflakes hitting even Hong Kong – this last occurred in 1975, mind you) enjoy some Bel Paese honeyed delish dolce vita. From Loren to Bertolucci to Gucci to Fendi, this boot-shaped (could it BE any more befittingly Bel) nation has style down to and on a tee: Italians do it better. Even within the Beijing dolce (and some Gabbana, still) design scene.
Swooshing ‘n swirling around in China’s visual arts scene, The Fashion Dragon flies from Tom Selmon’s trending trannies to trends transcending any time and location with Beijing-based docu-maker Alessandro De Toni and The Trendscendent, an online bilingual English/Chinese magazine dedicated to exploring Italian excellence, discovering new gems of craftsmanship and unfolding some captivating creativity. Beijing is playing its Full House hand — or increasingly Fuller; come on, you know you watched it — when it comes to upping its inspirational style stakes. No, I am hereby not taking you into the deep and dark dresscodes of China’s mafia – the triads, to be ironically yet politically correct — gambling their nights away in any given Beijing hutong hidden mahjong “hall”. I am, however, putting my chips on some serious mamma mia Italian style.
The Trendscendent brings us a team of people who believe that excellence stretches way beyond any plain product or bare brand, but is instead about the people, stories and places standing in the opera wings. The core idea here is that authentic genius is rooted in personal paths, stories of passion, tradition and territory. Italy for many Chinese remains a world of mystery waiting to unfurl itself. This particularly trendy team hopes that precisely these stories can help connect a new wave of sophisticated Chinese consumers to the hidden marvels of Italian creativity and craftsmanship.
And who am I, The Dutchess — kidding, to come between an Italian and his wise words of style. Italy is still a slow-paced and relatively traditional country, and even in times of economic recession the dolce vita vibe survives. A lively society plus an appreciation for history, the arts and sweet landscapes shape the contemporary aesthetics. Genuineness, superior materials and fine craftsmanship contribute to create a self-pampering experience which stretches from the appreciation of food to the perfect cut of a blazer. “When you talk about Italian style, you nowadays talk about a global creature, made of elements of reality and myth,” says De Toni. Hence, you a prima vista photography-loving feisty temperamental fox, take it away!
(I do feel I should add that the man’s in fact really sweet’nlow-natured, but that feisty fox-ness just rolls off the tongue like an ambrosial truffle salad through a Domestic Goddess’s fingers. If there is such a thing as a truffle salad; the concept of cooking is obviously quite foreign to me; I stick to Chianti. Enough rambling on my part: A buon intenditor poche parole. Google – as did I.)
1. De Toni, not really a photographer despite the fact that you love playing with photography. You’re more of a documentary maker who juggles between research, journalism and visual arts. Go on. Please.
De Toni: “My love affair with China dates back to primary school. Back at my family home, I still have a folder with Chinese pictures, cutouts from old magazines and books, as well as a map of China I sketched when I was 10. I guess it was this wish to explore different worlds and to play/work with other cultures, mixed with the love for a good old-fashioned challenge, which pushed me toward China. Last but not least, my fascination for the language played a major role as well.
After years of commuting between Italy and China as a trend researcher, Beijing in 2008 became my home. I have been working as a video producer, developing my own documentaries as an author and writing about creativity in China ever since.
The Trendscendent, then, actually kicked in rather recently, after years of watching my Bel Paese from afar.” [Cue “tears”. Not mine, though.]
2. How do you pinpoint that quintessential Italian style; wherein lies its attraction to the global fashion ‘n design tribes?
De Toni: “These elements are the quintessence of timeless artifacts, condensed stories that can survive any change of season and go beyond the idea of fashion being simply an ephemeral [“short-lived”; yes, I do indeed carry a hardcopy thesaurus in my Rotterdam-style computer bag; in no way “passé”] trend. A good artisan’s craft carries a story which cannot be built in a day by some marketing team. [Neither was Rome. Si, I am hilarious.]
Italy is a treasure trove of hidden gems, long lasting family businesses and personal adventures traversing the world of creativity. These are often small stories that live in the shadow of the omni-known big brands. We meet craftsmen who focus on the pleasure of creating beauty rather than invest time and money to spread the word, people who create the topmost lines for many a major Italian brand from inside the old fashioned family-owned workshop.
Who do we tell these stories to, you ask? Worldwide we see a growing interest toward products that are authentic, exclusive and full of storytelling, all the while traveling off the beaten mainstream path. China is no exception. Over the past decades, after an overflow of big international brands, there’s a growing niche of urban mature consumers who value identity more than status and crave unique products.”
Topnotch Italian quality from inside the old fashioned family-owned workshop. Grignola leather.
3. Speaking of that client. Can you elaborate slightly on that concept of the “current Chinese consumer”? Through your lens, of course. Is the Mainland really moving from big Gabbana fashion bling to a more personal/artisanal COOLAB thing?
De Toni: “I’ve witnessed one or two scandals about upscale foreign brand retailers selling fakes in China over the past year, a general outrage over the heavy taxes imposed on luxury brands as well as an increasing awareness of the dynamic hiding behind the mainstream fashion business. In terms of Italy and China, one news item from the Bel Paese hit frontpages here: One documentary had revealed that many a fancy fashion item sold at skyrocketing prices across Chinese cities, was actually produced in a little Tuscan town where hundreds of Chinese-owned illegal sweatshops are exploiting cheap labor. [Well, this gives a whole new ring to that ancient “veni, vidi, vici” eh.]
Chinese consumers are overall getting more conscious and the expansion of alternative shopping channels such as Daigou and the development of WeChat stores [no sweat, my dearest Western puppies; WeChat is already traveling West… and by Jupiter, ‘tis convenient] are opening the doors for small research brands as the ultimate frontiers of authenticity. The bling bling years of frenzy economic boom seem to slowly fade and young people here are gradually exploring their own identity, re-discovering the value of simplicity, quality and personality. And Italy is a recurring destination when Chinese think about a laid-back world of comfort, beauty and self-exploration.
On the other side, Europeans/Italians are increasingly aware of China’s global rise and obviously this draws a bigger interest towards “items” other than the common China clichés. Although many still look at China and Chinese style with some slight suspicion, among connoisseurs, names such as Ma Ke or Ran Fan are starting to catch some eyes and ears, Chinese designers are invited to join the Salone del Mobile (Milan’s world-famed interior design fair) and there are those Chinese creatives like Xie Dong who already have built up long lasting relations with certain Italian premium brands like Driade or Frau.” [Now that has more of a true-non-triad-sounding “veni, vidi, vici” vibe to it.]
“Zen and the art of turning technological junk into slick contemporary jewels” Paola Mirai@The Trendscendent
4. Evolution meets China Fashion; what say you? Plus, what about China and its design scene inspires you as Man From Visual Arts? [As many of you already know, the “(visual) arts” thing usually sounds sickening to me. Yet in De Toni’s case, I say it in a non-gagging legit with a capital L kinda way. Sick.]
De Toni: “I’m not a “what’s hot and what’s not” kinda Man. However, what I definitely have enjoyed seeing across China — and I expect to see more of it in the future — is the progressive recovery of a discreet Chinese aesthetic, closer to the world of nature, the intimate poetry of an ink wash painting in direct opposition to the loudness of booming cities. At the same time, I see a growing interest towards fine craftsmanship, which I think is definitely very much needed after so many years of China being the world’s factory. Again, to quote a few names in line with this trend that I personally favor, I would mention Vega Zaishi Wang, Fake Natoo and Norlha, but also Rechenberg and Neemic, foreign-founded brands but influential players on the local scene. [We’re definitely thinking along the same lines here.]
We live in a globalizing world and I don’t feel I’m getting inspired by one specific place; the world of your imagination has no borders. China inspires me because it’s a land of possibilities, it has a rich creative tradition which is slowly being rediscovered and, at the same time, the nation continuously ingests new inputs from abroad, sometimes creating copycats, but at other times metabolizing them into fresh hybridizations. It’s a playground for experimenters, where the rules and standards of beauty are more flexible than in Europe — for example.
Finally then, the local art scene is something which has always fascinated me and I have just started work on a documentary about modern China through the eyes of young contemporary artists. To quote a few names of artists who have really left a mark on me, I’d have to mention Ren Ri and his amazing beeswax works, Geng Xue and her use of porcelain, as well as Chen Tianzhuo and his play on/with religious symbols.” [Seldom silencio on my part. Listening and learning like The E-ger beaver I am.]
5. The Trendscendent, The Future?
De Toni: “Well, there’s a lot boiling up at The Trendscendent. The magazine is constantly looking to expand its network of bloggers and style ambassadors and we may have a few new sections coming up very soon. In addition, we’ve recently started acting as a communication agency as to help talented Italian craftsmen and creatives to reach an international audience. Last but not least an e-commerce platform is on the way.
2016 should be a pretty busy year at The Trendscendent, so stay tuned and spread the word!” [Done ‘n dusted, De Toni.]
A fresh wind blowing through is always a good thing, especially when it’s a whirlwind bringing a global gust together with local leaves. Or, as Donatella Versace once put it: “Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas.” E vero!
PS: For more information about Alessandro De Toni – 李俊豪, just Man Himself, go to www.alessandrodetoni.com
PPS: Good luck to all across China bearing icicle ponytails and frozen nail-art. Just remember: Anno di neve, anno di bene. A snow-filled year, is a good year. Google – as I did, again.