FWO Influencers Presents: Vivienne Tam
By Chris Collie, Editor-in-Chief
ivienne Tam is widely regarded as the doyenne of “East-meets-West fusion” couture. She made her debut with 1983’s “East Wind Code,” and she’s a humble presence and soft-spoken person. But whether it’s writing about Sean Combs for TIME, creating a controversial line around a despot, or embracing the latest technology: Tam is anything but shy.
She began by selling her designs out of a duffel bag to Henri Bendel.
But her breakthrough came with a collection centered around Chairman Mao Zedong — a controversial figure credited variously with driving imperialism out of China, modernizing the nation, and causing the deaths of 40 to 70 million people through starvation, forced labor and executions. In the collection, Mao is depicted playfully, even charmingly. The effect is at once lighthearted and disturbing; rather like Richard Grayson’s surrealist story, “With Hitler in New York.”
Tam will make you think.
Last season, our reporter Julia Zeldin was able to interview Tam via live stream. This season, Editor-in-Chief Chris Collie was able to sit down for a longer chat.
The New Collection
Whether it’s writing about Sean Combs for TIME, creating a controversial line around a despot, or embracing the latest technology: Tam is anything but shy.
Q: We’re definitely honored today to be sitting with famed designer Vivienne Tam. Thank you so much. I want to go back to a little to the beginning. So you were born in the largest city in the south, Guangzhou.
We call it Canton.
Q: You are renowned for being an East to West fusion fashion designer. So when were you introduced to Western style and how did you become known as the best of both worlds?
I grew up in Hong Kong. You know, Hong Kong is like “East meets West,” and I am the embodiment of “East meets West culture”; I grew up with it. We used chopsticks at home, but when we go out, we use fork and knife.
We used chopsticks at home, but forks and knives when we went out.
We grew up in a Chinese Buddhist culture, and I would go to temples with my parents. But in Catholic school, we sang hymns and read Bibles.
I would go to temples with my parents. But in Catholic school, we sang hymns and read Bibles./blockquote>
It’s a bit confused how we grew up, but it’s part of me and I loved it. We would study English and Chinese history and Chinese literature. And it’s really because of the mixed culture that I became who I am. Therefore it’s my work. I am who I am.
I didn’t understand why we were Chinese but only looking to Western culture.
When I grew up I didn’t understand why we’re Chinese but are only looking to the Western culture; and Chinese history is so amazing, especially the art, the artifacts and the handcrafts: it’s amazing.
I didn’t know it was called “fashion”; I just loved making clothes for myself.
And I grew up shopping in Chinese department stores, and the Chinese department store products are amazing. I wanted to transform them into modern and contemporary products. I’ve always had that passion, especially when I make my own clothes. My mother taught me how to make clothes for myself. I didn’t know that was called “fashion” at that time; I just loved making clothes for myself. And I didn’t have money for dolls, so I would make a dress for myself, dress up myself, myself become a doll.
I didn’t have money for dolls, so I would make a dress and become a doll.
And I didn’t have money for dolls, so I would make a dress for myself, dress up myself, myself become a doll.
Q:So you were your first model.
Yes. I was my first model and I loved dressing myself and I love when I make my own clothes, and when I wear it and people would say, “Oh you look beautiful, I love your dress,” and I would feel really happy. I think that is my driving force and my passion, as well as the Chinese culture. I want to share what I’m doing and inject “Chinese-ness” into my work, and I can share my culture to the world through my work. I become the bridge between two cultures.
Q:The East and West, yes, you really have.
And when I came over here, I love you New York. It gives me the opportunity to become who I am. Because in Hong Kong you would never be successful, because people are only looking to the West for their fashions. And you have a Chinese name, using China as an inspiration, in China, it’s never going to be successful.
I said “I want to be who I am. I want to really share my culture with the world.” That’s how I started. It’s my passion, my culture and the mix of the East and the West, the modern and the old history, constantly trying to balance: the yin and yang philosophy.
We are constantly living in the world as a yin-yang you know, five elements. I want to share the culture and philosophies with the world of how we live.
We are constantly living in the world as a yin-yang.
Q:It translates really well.
Thank you. And there are so many beautiful patterns and workmanship. Each collection has a different theme, and I translate them into the clothing and then when people wear it, it’s like we are creating a conversation. I believe that the work it has a voice; you create your own voice through your work.
When people wear the work, it’s like we’re having a conversation
Q:Absolutely. A lot of you may not know you used to sell your designs from a duffle bag to Henri Bendel and other New York stores. Who was there for you in the beginning and what would you say was your biggest break? When do you think that turning point came?
I didn’t know anything when I started. I didn’t know there was a gallon bag; I sorted everything into duffel bags. And then went to the opening day. I think Henri Bendel had an opening day. I was wearing one of my outfits under this big Chinese army coat. And duffel bags with like 20-something pieces of my work. The buyer loved it. She said “the whole year I haven’t seen something this exciting.” It was really exciting for me and she wrote, every day, you should call Sacks, you should call Barneys, and she gave me so many suggestions: who I should talk to and gave me such great advice, and said “Vivienne I will give you the window.” It’s America, it’s New York that gave me the opportunities to become who I am, and I feel really excited to be here and then go into the other stores.
New York gave me the opportunities to become who I am.
Of course it’s very difficult in the very beginning trying to call the stores. I am a Chinese designer coming from Hong Kong, where there were no designers, only manufacturers. But I really wanted to, that was the driving force. I wanted to show them there are Chinese designers, not just manufacturers; there is creativity there; there’s so much of in our history and culture there. I wanted to show the world that world that my country …
Q:That there are people out there who are talented. Absolutely. Absolutely.
We’re not just manufacturers; there is creativity; there are designers there; there is such great history there.
China isn’t just manufacturers; there is creativity there. There are designers there.
Q:Now let me ask you this, a lot of our viewers know you from “East Wind Code” and the Mao Collection. You and Zhang Hong–
Q:Zhang Hongtu? There, you see? Gotta get the names right. Struck a chord with the Chinese market during that time. Now was there ever a point where you felt you were bringing too much Chinese culture into your work, or did you always know that this was working, and you wanted to stay in that vein?
That collection gave me the world recognition. There were so many problems when I was doing the collection, but I really loved it. It was the beginning of me mixing art and fashion together. And working with the artist and reinforced to me that I am an artist, using clothing as a vehicle to express my feelings and my passion.
It was the beginning of me mixing art and fashion together. And it reinforced to me that I am an artist, using clothing as a vehicle.
So every collection I’m trying to choose the theme, and I use embroideries and fabrics, mixing the fabrics to interpret art into fashion that people can wear and look good, and that will also sell well too. I have to think about art and also commerce at the same time; it’s very, very important; and then it looks good on the person and also there is a conversation between the designer and the wearer.
I have to think about art and also commerce at the same time.
I feel that my show is like a gallery; people come in to see my work. But it’s wearable art, and they can see how I interpret the ideas through my embroideries, the treatments and the embellishments, and how I mix the fabrics and the forms, and all combine together to create the art and they will look good on the person. And that’s my challenge and that’s my excitement for every collection: how I am going to do it.
My show is like a gallery; people come in to see my work. It’s wearable art.
Q:Your new collection is coming soon. What can they expect from the collection, and is there going to be a new fusion of some art that you’ve seen? Do you go and look at artwork and then …?
All the time. I go to all the art shows and galleries, always thinking about using fabric and technology, different kinds of fabrics to create something new: new textures, new surface-like effects. I’m looking at new ways of light mixing, sewing techniques and fabrications to really make it new. That’s my challenge now. Of course in this collection you will see some more of that and the combinations together. Technology fabric and more traditional fabrics mixing together: you will see some like new directions too in the coming collection.
I go to art shows, always thinking about using fabric to create something new: new textures, new surface-like effects.
Q:Now, it’s funny you said technology because I know you did the collaboration with Netbook, with HP? Is that a lane you want to go in? More technology based, because there’s such a big technology spill in the world today as far as everyone using technology? Was that your goal was that, or it just kind of naturally organically happen?
I think it’s a naturally happening because we can’t live without technology, like technology fabrics; like this piece that I’m wearing. And it’s very interesting you know; it’s like mixing old and new materials together to create a new visual interest and surface textures.
And then partnering with different types of technology companies enabled me to learn more about technology and how to communicate with my customers. I can’t say that they are customers, they are my fans: expanding my fan base, you know. And I learn about the other side of the business and its win-win situation, and it’s really, really great you know.
Partnering with different types of technology companies enabled me to learn more about technology and how to communicate with my customers.
I can use technology to express my creativity and my view of fashion, and I think it’s really, really great. It’s a great opportunity. We can’t live without technology. Every day, every month you have a new form of communication. And it’s just different forms of creativity.
Technology is just a different form of creativity.
Q:New apps, new everything, every day.
New apps, communications, I mean new design; it’s so exciting; we’re in a very exciting century.
Q: If you met the younger version of you, when you first started, what advice would you give the younger version of you, now that you know what you know?
It’s very tough business. You’ve got believe in what you’re doing. You have to go for it.
It’s very tough business, you know, a very, very difficult business. You constantly need to know what is new this season. So you’ve got to really truly believe in what you’re doing and have passion in what you’re doing. You have to go for it. There are difficulties, ups and downs, in the fashion world. This one season they love the work, the next season they didn’t love you; it’s not that they didn’t love you, but there is a somebody new they …
Q:They went to someone else.
They went to somebody else. Then you have to stay true to yourself, keep growing, keep going there, and then you will find your own voice, and then your customer will see your belief and the customer will loves you. They’ll keep loving you and go better if your work is going better. You have to keep growing, keep yourself growing. Never give up, never give up, persistency is so important.
You have to keep growing. Never give up. Persistence is so important.
Q:And because, I know that was the last question but I just wanted to ask you one thing because you mentioned it and it’s a good point. When you have a season where the press, or the media, or the buyers don’t receive it well, how do you get over that? How would you find the motivation to keep going? Does it really hurt, or do you just kind of brush it off?
Yeah, people are constantly telling me “no Vivienne, don’t do this; too much Chinese. But I love what I’m doing; I need to please myself with what I do; I need to be happy with what I’m doing.
I need to keep doing what I’m doing but bring some newness. Reinventing yourself I think is most important. And being positive, not saying “Oh, they don’t like my work, they’ll go to somebody else,” and then giving up, no. You listen to the buyers, you listen to your fans to see what they want. For me it’s very important to be able to deliver beautiful collections that are great looking and sell well, because when the person is wearing it, people love it.
I want to deliver beautiful collections that are great looking and sell well, because when the person wears it, people love it.
Never give up, infuse newness in your work and challenge yourself.
Q:Now that’s a good note to end on …
Where there is a difficulty, it’s really making you stronger. How you go through that difficulty is the challenge.
Difficulty makes you stronger.
Q:How you survive it.
The survivor. That’s where creativity is.
Q:You see, words from the genius herself.
That’s the challenge of every season, but it’s part of life.
(Main photo: Loft-Asia)