- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is getting into the rag trade — sort of. As part of its monthlong Festival of China, the institution has organized an exhibit highlighting the work of 17 Chinese and Chinese emigre fashion and jewelry designers to illustrate the influence of their ancestral homeland’s cultural heritage on their work.

Accompanying the show, called “New China Chic,” will be a boutique featuring name designer scarves, jewelry and other accessories for sale between $100 and $500 — high prices for high fashion items not available in any of the center’s other retail operations.

The exhibit, which is free, opens tomorrow on the Terrace Gallery, the boutique on Tuesday. Hours for both are noon to 8 p.m. daily. Both close Oct. 16, although the festival of which they are a part will run through Oct. 29.

The ambitious festival — the largest of its kind ever mounted by the Kennedy Center — opened yesterday with a Beijing Cultural Week opening night performance and fireworks. The festival involves no fewer than 900 performing artists and has taken four years to plan, according to Alicia Adams, the Center’s vice president for dance and international programming.

A fashion exhibit is not unprecedented at the institution, although fabric and clothing design normally are not linked with the performing arts. Still mannequins, not runway models, will display the goods so the public can get close-up views of the designers’ work. Organizers promise that the exhibit — probably the most imaginative of its kind ever staged there — will be as arresting as it is instructive.

“It’s the first time that a top group of Chinese and Chinese-American designers have been shown this way,” says Ms. Adams, explaining the several meanings incorporated into the word “new” in the exhibit’s title.

An exhibit with the title “China Chic” took place at the Fashion Institute of Technology several years ago that focused on American designers drawing on Chinese themes. The Kennedy Center’s has a slightly different tack, bringing together designers who either were born in China or have one or both Chinese parents.

“These are some of the best designers in the world, some of them doing haute couture,” Ms. Adams says. None of their clothes will be available in the boutique since no space is available for dressing rooms, she says.

Some of the best-known names represented have established businesses in New York, center of this country’s fashion and garment industry (known in jargon as the “rag trade”). British designer John Rocha, a Hong Kong native who has a Chinese mother and Portuguese father, currently is based in Dublin, where he has established a diverse design business with his wife, Odette.

Malayasian native Zang Toi came to New York’s Parsons School of Design by way of Toronto. Anna Sui — born in Detroit — also went to Parsons, as did Malaysian-born Yeohlee Teng, recent recipient of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Fashion Design, and Derek Lam, another award winner.

“I attribute the simplicity of my work and its reverence for balance and proportion to my Chinese heritage,” says Miss Teng, when asked to comment on how her background influences her aesthetics. “In Malaysia, where I’m from, it is the ultimate compliment to describe someone as a very simple person.”

Putting fashion in a performing arts venue doesn’t faze her, because “different disciplines have been colliding [cooperating together] recently. it is sort of a fashionable thing to do.”

Vivienne Tam, the author of a handsomely illustrated book called “China Chic,” was born in the former British colony of Hong Kong and launched her first collection in New York in 1994. Both Ms. Tam and Miss Teng — who uses the single name Yeohlee professionally — have work in several museums of note, including the Metropolitan in New York and London’s Victoria and Albert.

Vera Wang, another well-known designer, came to America with her parents when she was young. “Her mother was a real clothes-horse and was considered one of the most beautiful women in China,” says Karen Taylor, the exhibit’s curator responsible for hiring Paris-based exhibition designer Adien Gardere, who has ordered up two miles of red Chinese-made cord with which to decorate the show. The cord is used to make knotted forms, which all have significance depending on their shape.

There will be more than 50 mannequins on platforms — a new line with an industrial finish called “mannikin,” Ms. Taylor says. In addition, Washington’s Textile Museum is lending four antique coats from China “to add an historic texture and show some of the incredible workmanship — beading and colors — associated with turn-of-the-century China,” she says.

“There is no representative school or group,” Ms. Taylor says. “These are individuals who have made their own way without being in touch with one another.”

Two so-called brand names are included among the labels of note. One of them, Blanc de Chine, was founded in Hong Kong in 1989 and soon will open its first American store in New York. Another is Shanghai Tang, another Hong Kong firm that has expanded to several countries since 1994 to sell home furnishings, accessories and gift items as well as apparel. Its inspiration is the elegance of fashionable Shanghai in the 1930s.

Jewelers include Kai-Yin Lo, a Hong Kong designer known for her studies of Chinese art and culture, and Christian Tse, who opened his business in 1996. The luxury goods company known as Cartier Collection also is involved — the only brand of Western origin — since, in Ms. Adams’ words, “I thought it was important to show where ideas and motifs come from. Cartier, too, finds China inspiring, whether they draw on dragons or jade.”

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