Uma Wang represents a new generation of homegrown Chinese fashion talent with a particularly Sino-centric philosophy. Her progressive and conceptual designs (think Antwerp Cool Minimalism) have enjoyed success with a younger fashion-savvy Chinese audience, confident enough to eschew the affirmation of western brands. Wang's rigorously considered approach has also attracted customers in the west. An experienced designer who worked extensively for commercial brands before launching her label, she was recently feted by the Milanese fashion council, who offered her a prime venue in their spring shows. The Council of Fashion Designers of America and its all-powerful supporter Anna Wintour have also afforded her equal attention.
Masoud Golsorkhi Tell us what you are doing right now.
Uma Wang I'm in New York on the exchange programme between Chinese and American Vogue, and the CFDA.
MG Who decides the schedule in New York. Is it your choice?
UW CFDA asked for ideas of what I wanted to see. Anna (Wintour) also has a team suggesting to her what I should be doing, what I should learn. I'm really happy with everything they've prepared.
MG What sort of things?
UW It's a really interesting schedule, I've already finished parts of it. I went to Barneys and met the department managers for womenswear, accessories, shoes, merchandising and window display. I followed the different teams working around the store. Also, the store's creative director Dennis Freedman. I asked about the business, "Which designers are popular and why?" Then, Monday is the Met Ball. Last year, it was Alexander McQueen and now it's the Schiaparelli and Prada. A fantastic opportunity to meet so many people.
MG And you're visiting Google?
UW I'm going to the New York office on Wednesday. I thought "why?" when Anna told me, because Google is not really anything to do with me. But everyone said, "You have to go! It's a really cool office, you can see how they work." They'll show me their overview and also some projects they are doing.
MG Last time we met, you were thinking of moving some manufacturing to Italy.
UW Yes, I've already done this.
MG What made you decide that?
UW The best market for me is Europe because of the accounts I've been selling to, the boutiques there. Currently, the fabric comes to China, I make the product and send it over to Europe. That's too complicated. We decided to try with the Italian factory to see how everything would work. We definitely want to move all production to Italy now. This is also an opportunity for my team to learn.
MG So it's more to do with practicality.
UW They take care of quality more than us. In a [Chinese] factory, we have to go step by step to make sure everything goes well.
MG You already have a close relationship with Italian textile manufacturers, right?
UW Yes, four collections now so it's working out well. I can finally really explore textiles. This is the unique part of the brand. Usually designers choose fabric from what the suppliers offer. I began to think that it's not a different component; the fabric, the shape, the style, it's all part of the same entity.
MG Approaching design holistically.
UW It's eliminating the fabric choice that dictates, "Now you can think of the shape and style." I want to work the three parts together simultaneously. You feel something different. We've found so many commonalities between the textile designer and myself. We tried to find something traditional and make it new. We research together, we go around the world, we want to introduce new elements to make the fabric more interesting and modern. I love the traditional part, but if it's always that it just becomes costume, I don't think there's deeper meaning to be found there. The best approach is for traditional and future to connect. We try to get a balance, we want to be reminded of the traditional but look at where is new. That's what we're working towards.
MG How did you launch your brand?
UW In the beginning, I didn't know which was the best direction. Fortunately, I met such helpful people. That was very important. Every time I wondered what I should do, someone special stepped in. I really would like to show what Chinese designers are doing, especially now with the buzz about the younger generation. The Chinese market, I will return to, but now I want to sell in Europe. Because for me, this is where I can learn and grow.
MG Your designs are incredibly futuristic, they have a modern language. They don't reference a traditional silhouette. Is that how you've always approached your design? Always starting with the material?
UW Material for me is everything. I spend more time on the material than design.
MG Most commercial designers look for successful silhouettes and ideas and then apply the available fabric making clothes that people want. You set yourself the difficult task of creating new material to make new shapes with.
UW I was working for many years with commercial brands. Now I want to work in a new way. People will understand why I try so much, because the clothes are non-seasonal. I want to do timeless, for generation-to-generation. It's not just something to use for one year and throw away, I want to offer something special. We create a special textile fabric and, with a simple shape, it's really timeless. After many years, I hope that my clothes end up in the second-hand shops. This is my dream. That people buy my clothes a second time because of the quality. That people won't want to ever throw them away.
MG Looking at the collection, the new material looks aged, seasoned.
UW Barneys suggested, "Your clothes are amazing and really romantic. But sometimes you have to think, the people want a shape that's not loose." Also, people ask me so many times, "Why?" It's to protect. This is the core of Chinese philosophy for me and its relation to fashion. I want to leave a gap between the body and the clothes. When women are walking, they can change the shape. Also, you have to leave something for the man to discover, to become curious about what's on the inside. I don't want to be explicit about the body. I like the mystery.
MG So your idea of fashion is not to follow the body shape but to sit outside the body as intriguing packaging.
UW Yes… that men have to open by themselves. I talk about it and people laugh and say, "This is not the American way" because women spend a lot of time and money on their body so they want to show it off.
MG This Chinese perspective, was it in your background?
UW In the beginning, we were looking too much to everything happening in the West. You have to get perspective because we're so many years behind with fashion. I see what's new, and now I feel ready to turn to my back history to see my culture, my philosophy. My father is a traditional medicine doctor and he taught me about the Dao. In Dao you can't say yes or no, everything is about balance. I usually start the process thinking, "What is the past?" before I think of what is to come or needs to be done. I read a lot of books, I want the balance to be between the East and the West. Just like I also want a balance with the fabric, the shape and feelings.
MG You're saying that your design approach is rooted in your historical tradition and not the European tradition of minimalism. Yet at a glance they look very Modernist.
UW And now I'm working more from my own cultural side, it's not just about having a shape. I want to see what deep meanings lie behind the shape and what was it like previously. It's something not always very explicit but you can always feel exactly what they want. It's really the emotions that guide my thinking.
MG For the immediate future, are you tempted by New York or Milan?
UW Maybe Italy. Because there are a lot of factories, it's my future plan.
MG Do you have an idea of who the woman is that you're designing for?
UW I never really have any idea, because the clothes always depend on the person. People always ask which age should your customer be? No age! I don't want to say exactly who wears Uma Wang, it's whatever you feel in your soul. It's a new relationship between customer and the clothes. You put personality in clothes. You have to connect to your body, your soul and who you are. This is what I'm looking for. When I see a woman wearing my clothes walking down the street, it makes me so happy because I can feel the clothes. It's not Uma Wang anymore. It becomes new and about the person wearing it and no longer about me. That's why I'm working. I love to see people wear my clothes.