Renaissance Men

According to Romeo Gigli and Joyce's Andrew Keith, China is in the middle of a creative renaissance. With a new collaboration, they're there on the front lines—and ready for the West to take notice.

Published August 14, 2012
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As the president of the multi-brand stores Joyce and Lane Crawford, Andrew Keith directs the expansion of Western fashion into mainland China like nobody else. Trained originally as a designer in London, he is one of those rare businesspeople in fashion who know about it from the inside instinctively. By setting a creative agenda—rather than just following a commercial orthodoxy—he has also realized the key to financial success in China. Hence Joyce's collaboration with the legendary designer Romeo Gigli—the iconoclast, curator of Chinese art, and all-round Renaissance man who doesn't really need an introduction—who has designed his new Fall collection for the retailer. sat down with Keith and Gigli at the Joyce department store in Hong Kong to discuss China's fashion future.

All the worlds collide in Hong Kong…

Andrew Keith: It really is like that; it is like a big village. Everything is so condensed and the amount that goes on in the city with a relatively small number of people…But it is very global, people are always coming and going.

How has it changed over the last 15 years, since the handover from the British in 1997? There did used to seem such a big divide between Hong Kong and over the border in mainland China—that does not seem quite as stark as it once was.

AK: I was here for the handover; I have been here for 18 years. I remember on the night of the handover, my mother faxed me through a message saying, "I am watching British TV. The tanks are coming from over the border. Make sure you get to the supermarket!" She also added, "And make sure the British Embassy have you registered in case you are evacuated." So there was a period of time where we were very concerned, but what has happened is that China has been very smart in how it has handled things. Not just because of Hong Kong's presence on a world stage and the freedoms it enjoys, but in actual fact, you see China referencing Hong Kong and seeing how it works. If anything, Hong Kong has become more international. The amount of people using Hong Kong as a base to go into China has increased hugely. It is now much less of a British colony and much more of a global city.

So it is a gateway to China now, rather than the exit point. Much more like it was in the nineteenth century, in a way. And I suppose China now is like being in Britain then, during the Industrial Revolution. And the opportunities for the fashion industry are, of course, huge.

Romeo Gigli: I first went to mainland China in 1984 and then returned pretty quickly in 1986. At that time, all people were wearing there were blue pajamas and white shirts. There were no cars, only bikes absolutely everywhere. I was just traveling—I wasn't invited there—I was traveling all around the world. But China was my mission, because I loved Chinese culture. It was really difficult to travel there at that time. At first I arrived in Canton; it was like a nightmare at the airport. The departures board was a blackboard that was chalked, rubbed out, and altered, usually with canceled flights! I spent hours there. But I did beautiful drawings on the trains. The trains were like something from another time, with white tablecloths and all sorts of people. Somebody might be sat next to you with chickens. It was a fantastic journey, and I quickly returned after two years because I wanted to catch more and more. People, normal people, would show you these amazing pieces of art they had hidden under the ground. They had had to hide things during the Cultural Revolution, but they were very proud of this heritage and wanted to show it to me.

AK: There was basically a cultural shutdown for about 50 years, and I think that is what is exciting about now. Now you have a new generation who are rediscovering and reinventing a Chinese aesthetic.

RG: This is something like a Chinese renaissance then.

AK: I think we are looking at that. China had been known as a manufacturer for quite some time, but design had usually originated from somewhere else in this industrial period. Now the design is emerging from China again. The younger generation have this interest in the revival, in the discovering of what Chinese style and design for the twenty-first century really mean.

RG: It is such a fantastic culture of art.

AK: It is so rich, it is all there. Particularly this amazing history of decorative and applied arts that is ready to be looked at again. It is looking at the way people discover their craft again.

Photo: Courtesy of Joyce Hong Kong

It is no longer about people discovering China but China showing itself to the rest of the world. People seem to forget that China is an empire that has existed for thousands of years. Its power is not a new thing. This is dealing with a continuous culture, something like the Roman Empire having continued uninterrupted till the present day.

AK: People seem to forget this huge history. The history of Confucianism and Taoism has led the cultural development of China in many ways; things and ideas you might think are a bit nuts actually have a 2,000-year-old history behind them. These ideas incorporated into the day-to-day aspects of living here are pretty fascinating. And it should be remembered how diverse China is. The Western perception is that China is all about Beijing and Shanghai, when, of course, it isn't.

RG: No, no, no. It is all so different, so diverse. Even in the way that people look so different from east to west and north to south. And that's not to mention the cultural differences in those parts of China. People keep in their blood what they know. I curated an exhibition in Florence; it concentrated on Tang Dynasty art. It was a huge project where I tried to find a relationship between our Renaissance and this Chinese renaissance—although I didn't want to kill their renaissance with ours! For Westerners, the Tang period is like our Renaissance in many ways. It is when China became open to other cultures. The Europeans, the Indians, the Japanese all started to come to China. It was a culture shock for Chinese art; something happened. There was a mixing and matching of other cultures, a growing, new vision of art. It was a beautiful time for Chinese art.

And this is why you believe there to be another renaissance for China taking place right now. So it is logical for you to be doing a project with Joyce that directly connects with China in this way?

RG: I like to do everything. I stepped into the fashion world when I was 34. Before that I was traveling, I worked in furniture, on interior design. For the present project, it was an extension of all of this.

AK: Joyce and Romeo have been working together since 1984. It has been a long story.

RG: Joyce Ma, the founder of Joyce and a fantastic woman, bought my first collection in 1984. I showed my first collection in my flat in Milano and the 30 most important stores around the world bought it. One of those was Joyce.

AK: I suppose we connected personally about two years ago. It was when Joyce put together an exhibition of important pieces to celebrate our 40th anniversary. There was collaboration with all of the designers we had introduced to Hong Kong in that time. Romeo sent us an amazing coat as part of this showcase of 40 years. We had so much feedback from the customers, of people asking where he was and a younger generation discovering him for the first time, that it seemed natural to propose a project. There is in this market particularly a passion for romanticism, for a luxe-ness of fabric and for that delicateness and decorative detail in Romeo's work. We were very fortunate that he was open to the idea of collaboration. And the response from the customers has been fantastic.

RG: It has been very natural and easy. I have had some problems in the fashion world, particularly with my label and my name. I had not personally designed a collection in nine years. But when I met the Joyce team, it felt right. They wanted to support my creativity and that for me is freedom. When I have tried to work with other companies, it is not always about my creativity, but my dream is to do what I think about. With Joyce, I realized I could do that, and I was so excited.

Photos: Courtesy of Joyce Hong Kong; Fairchild Archives; Via

In a way, that is the one of the biggest things going on in China, that it feels very open to ideas, that you can set your own agenda here. It is not all about the Game of Thrones aspect of the big fashion houses.

RG: Absolutely. In a few days in Hong Kong, I see how really international and free it is. Not like us, we are in decadence!

AK: I think this market is really looking for things that are different. There is an appreciation for uniqueness, for quality, and for creativity. And there really is openness to embracing things.

RG: People here are definitely not as conservative as us.

People know about the Joyce and Lane Crawford department stores throughout the world now because of the positions they occupy in China. But they seem to have set an agenda rather than followed one—and that seems to be the thinking about fashion in China more and more.

AK: As a business, our key thing has been about supporting creativity, wherever that creativity comes from. It is so important to drive innovation and to continue to tell new stories and that you do not stifle creativity. That is basically what drives this business and what inspires people. Romeo gave an amazing talk to some students the other day, and he said one of the main things you do as a designer is create desire. For us as a retailer, we have to create desire as well. We really have to put together the most exciting stories, and you do not do that through stifling creativity.

RG: For me, the last designer was Alexander McQueen. We worked together for a number of years. He would say, "I grew up on creativity." He thought I helped him grow up on that creativity.

Do you think this is about trying to get back to the time before 13-year-olds wanted Hermès handbags? I might add, I think it is fine to want an Hermès handbag when you are over 30, but quite peculiar for somebody of 13 to want one! Do you think the agenda that can be set in China can help make that happen?

AK: I still think there are creative visionaries who do elevate you to that feeling of emotional response. I do think there are new generations of designers who are doing that now. But I do think in general, particularly in a market like this, there is a lot of product that is just produced for market penetration. This is one of the reasons we were so keen to work with Romeo, because there is that lyricism, that vision to be able to tell amazingly transporting stories in what he does. Those are the shows, those are the moments, and those are the emotions that you remember. I was a fashion student and Romeo was always on the top of our list of shows we were waiting to see. It was a poetic vision of the way things were going, but I still think it is going on.

Do you think there is almost a battle between freedom and status, then?

RG: I think it is time for change. It feels right. People are coming to me to talk about my archive. I teach at the Milano fashion school and I try to explain the vision, how you build your creativity and how important that is. This generation just click, click, click on the Internet, and I try to teach them how to experience more, to feel, to smell, to be somewhere. As a designer, you are working for what people need tomorrow, not just for today. Our world, as a designer, we need to touch people and what they need. But it is hard to teach something that has to work ultimately instinctively.

We have also been asked to have an emotional commitment to brands, but in some ways, this can turn out to be a bit of an abusive relationship! Is China growing out of those relationships, too?

AK: What is happening in China is that very quickly people are moving away from those ubiquitous brands that are everywhere. This is an area where the Internet has been hugely powerful. For a generation who literally had no information and no exposure to the outside world, which was desperate for knowledge, the power of the Internet has driven an education process and exposure to fashion like nothing else. It has meant the fashion insiders in China are looking for new, pretty avant-garde brands that are relatively underexposed globally, never mind in China. It is fascinating to see that happening. For me, it feels like being in London in the eighties…

RG: For me, it is like being in London in the sixties! I am showing my age. I went to London when I was 14 in 1965. I was totally shocked. I met swinging London.

AK: It is discovery; it is people being liberated by discovering something new. And people being able to express themselves in new ways. If your grandparents were wearing blue suits and your parents were saving up to buy an LV handbag, you are an only child that has been the sole focus of the education process and has the desire to create your own sense of style and your own world with a global view. This is hugely powerful. Because of the one-child policy, you are also dealing with an incredibly powerful generation of women in China. There are going to be 30 million men in China who will not get married simply because there are not enough women to go around. And you have a highly educated, highly opinionated generation of women who really want to make their own choices in everything, and in style as much as anything else. It is an extraordinary time.

Photo: Staff
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