Designer Grace Choi Ngai-ming steps into her showroom in Hong Kong’s Central district wearing a black lace cheongsam from her latest collection. It perfectly fits her figure, the sort of figure that allowed her to work as a top model in the city for more than 10 years, strutting the catwalks for big-name designers including Vivienne Westwood, DVF, Vera Wang, Fendi, Hermès and Oscar De La Renta.
She’s tall and lean and very polite – apologising for being late although I’m not sure why: I was early, she was on time.
While modelling has taken a back seat for Choi, it doesn’t mean she’s taken the foot off the pedal. Her days are occupied running her event company Gorgeous Productions, which organises fashion shows and promotion events in the city. But it’s her fashion label Yi-ming (the name is derived from her name in pinyin) that we’re here to talk about and, more specifically, her mission to get younger people wearing the cheongsam, the figure-hugging traditional Chinese dress that’s also known as the qipao. Choi’s showroom is wall-to-wall with her designs and you get the feeling she is in her element, like a kid in a very colourful candy store.
“The history, craftsmanship and style of the qipao is irreplaceable and should be sustained. This inspired me to set up Yi-ming,” says Choi.
Introduced by the ruling Manchus during the Qing dynasty, the cheongsam is today one of the most recognised Chinese dress styles. The first cheongsams were loose and covered almost the entire body, and the modern version dates from 1920s Shanghai. The influence of Western fashion at that time saw the cheongsam get shorter, sexier and more revealing. Tailored tight to the body, it became the form-fitting design we know today.
Choi says the qipao was once a symbol of intellectual women, popular among socialites, aristocrats and celebrities, and now she wants it to be a wardrobe staple for a new generation.
The qipao’s golden age in Hong Kong was the 1950s and ’60s. Who could forget the film The World of Suzie Wong, in which actress Nancy Kwan’s form-fitting versions, slit dangerously high, inspired copies worldwide?
Hong Kong’s Shanghai Tang has been a faithful supporter of the cheongsam. Among the fashion houses to have featured the dress in their collections are Ralph Lauren (2011), Gucci (2012), Louis Vuitton (2011) and Emilio Pucci (2013).
In Wong Kar-wai’s film from 2000, In the Mood for Love, which takes place in Hong Kong in 1962, actress Maggie Cheung Man-yuk wears 21 different cheongsams, their patterns ranging from bright florals to cool geometrics, and each one complementing the backdrop of the scene.
Over time, and as social environments changed, so did people’s fashion choices and the craft skills needed to make cheongsams declined as women opted for more comfortable clothing such as sweaters, jeans, business suits and skirts. Choi wants to change that by spearheading the cheongsam’s revival.
Yi-ming has added contemporary elements to give the cheongsam a fresh look for a new generation. “I’m making the qipao more ready-to-wear and encourage more young people to try it, thus widening the audience and sustaining this tradition,” says Choi, whose love for the qipao started when she was a young girl growing up in Shanghai.
But striking a balance while trying to modernise something that people associate with tradition can be difficult.
“My collection has oriental elements such as qipao collars and knot buckles but this is combined with elements of Western craftsmanship such as the gold zipper at the back. The zipper changes the impression of the qipao as being hard to wear and complicated without diluting its essence. It’s all about maintaining the balance between modernism and traditionalism.”
When the brand launched in 2011, its collections focused only on evening dresses. Today, resort lines, tops, capes, accessories and even a children’s line have been added.
“I design with all fashion lovers in mind, all those willing to embrace different cultures,” she says. But being an industry sheep is not her style. “We should never blindly follow fashion trends. Fashion entails viewing historical styles from new and different angles. In this way, style retains the characteristics necessary to be passed down to future generations, blending the past and present into a unique style.”
Choi’s latest collection, Botanic Fantasy, her most impressive to date, shows a vibrant mix of old and new. Comprising about 30 floral-themed styles, it distils the natural beauty and energy of summer and combines traditional craftsmanship with modern digital printing techniques, rarely used in the cheongsam. Looser fits have been added, as well as different fabrics, such as layers of lace used to outline the contours of the flowers and to give a richer texture. Sequins, rich oriental jade buckles, and Chinese collars and hems also feature.
The collection uses photographs of flowers Choi too/k during her travels around the world.
“The choice of fabric of the brand is also very unique. We often use lace, silk, chiffon and elastic fabric, some of which are rarely seen on qipao,” says Choi.
“The most challenging part will be picking the right materials [and using] the right cutting and details, in order to maintain the balance between tradition and modernity [and keep} the essence of the qipao. Silk is smooth and sheer, she says, making it the perfect fabric for Hong Kong’s hot and humid summers.