While today China is known as the home of ‘fast fashion’ and mass-produced textiles, the roots of the country’s textile industry are far more ancient and diverse than many may realize. China was the first country in the world to carry out silkworm breeding, silk reeling, weaving, dyeing, printing and embroidery. This reputation brought about the nickname “silk country” in ancient days. Since the fifth century BC, Chinese textiles, dyed silk and embroidered work as been distributed throughout Asia, Europe and Africa via the Silk Road. To this day, traditional Chinese silks work and embroidery are still popular all over the globe, but the traditional methods of creating such materials are dying out.
American designer Angel Chang is working to keep these traditions alive, having long been fascinated by the beauty and rich heritage of ethnic handmade clothing in rural Chinese provinces. Their traditional costumes have inspired Issey Miyake’s collections on the Paris catwalk and have been collected by leading museums around the world. Their sprawling villages have inspired novelists, composers, the Broadway playwright David Henry Hwang, and even Disney.
Many in the international community view China as being made up of one race with one history, but nothing could be further form the truth. Like other large countries which have not always been unified, the indigenous tribes of rural China have their own histories and mythological stories of creation, which are expressed in their clothing and songs. Since they did not have a written language until 1956, the iconography and patterns in their costumes are visual tools to pass down their oral history.
Now, the fashion and craftsmanship traditions that have persevered for centuries are at risk of disappearing forever. Young people are leaving provincial villages to work at ‘fast fashion’ factories in major cities, leaving middle age and elderly villagers without a generation to past their craft on to. “Kids in the countryside get out of high school and go and work in the fast fashion factories,” says Chang. “I want to show them what their grandmothers do is cool.”
Chang’s work is undoubtedly reversing this trend, as she partners with ethnic minorities in the rural mountain villages of Guizhou Province, China to explore how indigenous fabric-making techniques can be used as eco-sustainable solutions for the global fashion industry. Such traditions have been preserved in the villages of Guizhou largely because of their mountainous locations which have isolated them from external influences.
After three years of commuting to the region, the designer spent most of 2012 there while producing 40 pieces of clothing with the help of artisans from the Miao and Dong ethnic groups.
She decided to draw on her experience at fashion houses like Donna Karan to create a collection using, in her words, “1,000 years of ancient craftsmanship reinterpreted into modern design.”
Her funky capsule collection of ethnic fabrics was shown last year to buyers in Paris, Madrid and New York. The ethnic influence was a shift in direction for Chang, who previously won accolades for combining technology and high fashion. However, her newfound and rather more traditional cause may save an entire culture’s history from dying out, as well as ensure its future in the textile industry.