The myth that China must rely on Europe for couture fashion and bespoke luxury is evaporating fast as designers like Hu Sheguang prove they have everything they need to push back two decades of Europe’s savoir-faire imperialism. Daniel Jeffreys reports.

The famous 12th century masterpiece Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Zhang Zeduan depicts crowds of people as they mingle during the famous spring holiday.

Although Zhang’s work was set in Song Dynasty Kaifeng, its dynamic atmosphere is a perfect fit for the Shanghai of the 21st century. A modern artist might recreate Zhang’s piece as Along the Huangpu River During the Transformation of Shanghai and people would feature just as strongly, creating new restaurants and hotels along the Bund, throwing up gleaming towers in Pudong and crafting new fashion and ceramics in the designer stores of the former French Concession.

There is an antique teahouse in the midst of Shanghai where tall trees throw long shadows across a manicured lawn and metal tables are set in summer for the city’s modern day mandarins. Celebrated artists and writers come to talk over steaming Pu-er Cha while beautiful people with mysterious smiles gather to laugh and gossip.

Beyond the garden’s walls there is a narrow street where peddlers sell fruit, shoes and fabrics. At one end there is a cluster of design studios that’s home to a new generation of graphic artists. The air is thick with the aromas of La Mian noodles mixed with lychees, bananas and construction dust, offering the scent of a city that’s constantly changing, its heart playing a symphony of transformation.

Now the largest city in China, Shanghai was once a small county town but the last decade has been a metamorphosis for the Shanghainese, who have expressed their evolution in architecture, art and urban planning. Their next step is to mount a rebellion, not against Beijing but to overthrow the savoire-faire imperialism of European fashion and luxury brands.

Since Deng XiaoPing opened China to foreign influences and she began to get rich the European maisons have sold the myth that China can do many things but she cannot make luxury, despite the two thousand years she spent doing just that in the middle of the second millennium.

For true beauty, so the sales pitch goes, Chinese Hanistocrats (the new wealthy among the Han Chinese) must look to the west, which has the wherewithal to make luxury like nobody else. Emperor Qin Shihuang must be spinning in his grave, along with his exquisitely made terracotta warriors. There is a parallel case for European fashion houses.

When Deng liberalized China he also unleashed a long concealed passion for cinema and for two decades Cantonese film makers got rich satisfying this appetite. Now China has built its own film industry and Cantonese films are out of fashion on the mainland. As goes Hong Kong cinema, so may go Dior, Chanel and Hermes. The revolution has already begun with designers like Hu Sheguang, Nicole Zhang and Ji Wenbo leading the way.

Their work is avant garde, beautifully made and employ a daring use of fabrics. Hu’s couture work drips with savoir faire. He moved to the Netherlands at 16 and attended the Gerrit Rietveld Academie for Fine Arts and Design. He founded Hu Fashion in the Netherlands 2006 and has designed couture for Dutch and Chinese celebrities as well as the Dutch Royal family. Hu opened a store in Amsterdam in 2012, and he has recently established a workshop in a suburb of Beijing as he refocuses his career on China.

“In China so much has changed,” he says. “In the past fashion was merely about tailors and the craft of the tailor. These days the level of fashion in China has risen immeasurably and Chinese designers are worthy of and are showing their work on the catwalks of Paris, Milan, London and New York. Chinese fashion is about wearability and materials, not really about conceptual ideas, but over the last couple of years this has been changing as well and we have developed a conceptual streak that’s as strong as anything in Europe.”… Read more in Quintessentially Asia