10 Feb 2017
Taipei Fashion Show Highlights Functional Fabrics and Heritage Styles
Exhibitors at the Taipei In Style show won plaudits from manufacturers for showcasing items utilising the functional fabrics that are a mainstay of the export market, though there was still space for several more provocative and innovative pieces.
The growing use of functional fabrics in garment and accessory design was, perhaps, the dominant motif at the recent Taipei In Style (TIS) fashion show. This was unsurprising given that Taiwan has emerged as one of the world's leading producers and exporters of functional and smart fabrics over the past decade. Despite this, many Taiwanese designers maintained that local apparel and garment designers, as well as manufacturers, are yet to fully exploit the potential of this technological advantage.
Acknowledging the problem, Hsu Yen-ling, Chief Designer for Yen-Line, a renowned local fashion brand, said: "Taiwan is a world leader in specialty and functional fabrics, but many of our designers haven't actively used these fabrics in their creations."
At the latest TIS event, though, there were at least some signs that this might be about to change. According to Nick Cheng, Chief Designer for Le-Shi Apparel Design, which trades under the Cheng Pai Cheng brand, over the past two years local designers have begun to actively incorporate functional textiles into their new ranges. He ascribes this change to the global success of Taiwan's range of functional textiles, a development that once saw rapid double-digit expansion of export levels in the sector.
He said: "In the past, fabric makers made their money from overseas orders and were not keen to fulfil small-scale orders for local clothing designers. As a result, it was hard for us to get access to these specialist fabrics."
More recently, international demand for Taiwan-sourced fabrics has tailed off, with exports of fabrics down 10% to US$5.02 billion in the first nine months of 2016 compared with the same period in 2015. Acknowledging the effect of this, Cheng said: "Now that exports are soft, fabric makers are beginning to shift their focus to the domestic market. As a result, they are now more willing to co-operate with domestic clothing manufacturers and designers."
On Cheng Pai Cheng's own stand, its range majored on softer shades of blue, red, white and purple, all fetchingly arranged into a variety of patterns, including hobby horses, peacocks, clouds and confectionary candies, in line with its overall Sky Amusement Park theme.
Explaining his approach, Italian-trained Cheng said: "I like to design clothes that are colorful and creative, items that challenge the conservatism of most Taiwan consumers. While many local people seem to fear standing out and getting noticed, I believe clothes should make you – and the people around you – happy."
Although outwardly many of his designs appear at odds with the Taiwanese preference for easily wearable garments, Cheng maintained that many of his items actually went well with jeans and other typically Western garments.
For many, one of the highlights of the event was the arrival of the 16-strong Ku and Dancers troupe, whose performance was designed to showcase Yen-Line's latest collection. Introducing her new range, Yen said: "This year, we have added more sports and recreational three-dimensional garment designs. We believe these embody a more active sprit and will give people a sense of surprise, while infusing in them a passion for clothing."
At present, Yen-Line has 23 stores in Taiwan and one in Suzhou in the southeast of China. It has recently closed its Paris operation, apparently on account of all too frequent industrial action, soaring rental costs and insufficient sales. Commenting on the move, Yen said: "We are still maintaining a design presence in Paris, although all of our items will now be produced here."
In a more positive move, the company is to launch a digital printing project in association with Japan's Epson group. This new partnership will focus on the printing of lace and tokens on net and other specialty fabrics.
Over in the youth-oriented recreational and sportswear sector, Taiwanize prides itself on incorporating many aspects of Taiwan's history and culture into its designs. This includes the use of 1950s' and 60s' movie and consumer product brand logos, as well as a range of patterns inspired by traditional Chinese medicine.
Detailing its particular customer base, Chiu Yueh, the company's General Manager, said: "Our target purchaser is aged between 25 and 35 and extends to young visitors from the US and Europe. We have built a strong reputation among young tourists arriving in Asia, many of whom come to our stores in search of traditional Chinese clothing, a style that is currently very popular.
"Our designers are largely very young and use traditional Chinese elements to rejuvenate garment designs. We also use only the best fabrics – 90% cotton and 10% acrylic, a blend that is very comfortable for sports and recreational wear."
At present, Taiwanize utilises a number of different production facilities, including a printing operation in Taiwan. The majority its garments, however, are manufactured in Guangdong. Founded in 2012, the company has three stores in Taipei and one in Xiamen, It is currently considering opening an outlet in Hong Kong, possibly in cooperation with Eslite's Causeway Bay store.
Explaining the approach to sourcing production facilities, Chiu said: "We are not Nike, so we cannot negotiate lower prices based on volume. Our prime concern, though, when it comes to manufacturing, is always quality."
For certain other clothing companies, though, location is almost as important as quality when it comes to production. In the case of E15 Global – a start-up based in the southern coastal city of Kaohsiung – it has entrusted all of its manufacturing to local companies.
Rationalising its commitment to local suppliers, Vivian Liu, the company's Product Director, said: "There is a fault line in Taiwan's garment manufacturing industry due to the huge number of companies that have migrated to the mainland. We, though, are simply too small to consider that option. Instead, we aim to create our own designs locally and hope consumers will give us their support.
"We work closely with our manufacturers when it comes to designing garments. More than 80% of the fabrics we use are made in Taiwan, with the remainder imported from Japan. All of our items, though, are 100% manufactured by firms in the Kaohsiung region, though we are also looking for partners in other parts of Taiwan."
According to Liu, rather than targetting the mainland, E15 is looking elsewhere in Southeast Asia for its first export market. She said: "We believe that many consumers in the region will be open to garments made with functional odour and moisture-resistant fabrics."
Another seemingly recent start-up – BF1 – actually has its roots in one of the world's most well-known fashion brands. Explaining its complex history, Chen Kuan-fan, the company's Vice-president for Sales, said: "We started off 30 years ago as agents for Benetton. More recently, we started to design our own range. As a result, we rebranded ourselves as Benetton Formula One and, now, as BF1.
"We believe that young people want to see new brands and new styles, while Benetton runs the risk of being seen as somewhat old-fashioned. Today, we originate our own designs, targetting the local market with cotton fabric garments for everyday and recreational use."
As well as a willingness to experiment with new fabrics and to target new markets, there were also signs that many contemporary Taiwanese designers are only too willing to engage with contentious social issues. This was highlighted during the Fashion in Taipei catwalk show, where a host of male and female models appeared emblazoned with the slogan: "LGBT Marriage, Civil Rights and Equal Rights."
Explaining the thinking behind this particular statement, Lee Yu-chang, a designer with Plate Movement, the Taipei-based company behind the catwalk show, said: "This range was inspired by The Flowers of War, Zhang Yingmou's 2011 film that tells the tale of a female student and a sex worker.
"As well as focussing on people's rights, the story – and our designs – speaks out against stereotyped and discriminatory attitudes relating to sexual preferences. With Taiwan currently debating the legalisation of same-sex marriage, we wanted to make our position clear."
As well as local designers, 11 fashion innovators from across the Strait had made their way to Taipei, with their works collectively featured in the Fashion Hong Kong showcase, an event organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC).
Assessing the importance of such an opportunity, Mattie Cheung, Assistant Manager of the HKTDC's Product Promotion Division, said: "This platform gave us a chance to introduce a range of new Hong Kong designs to the Taiwan market. Thanks to the direct contacts made here, these designers will be able to gauge the level of interest in their output."
One of the designers to make the 1,000 mile round trip was Chris Wong, Chief Designer for North Point-based Alice Fashion (HK), who was keen to promote her Hong Kong heritage-themed designs. She said: "Our Museum series celebrates Hong Kong's unique character and native culture. We hope to show both a style distinct to Hong Kong and to produce genuinely fun clothes."
Among the motifs featured on the company's designs were several of Hong Kong's most memorable locations, including Victoria Harbour, as well as an array of tigers, alligators, turtles, dogs and a number of other creatures not usually associated with the city.
Welcoming the delegation of neighbouring fashion entrepreneurs, Justin Huang, the President of the Taiwan Textile Federation (TTF), said: "In many ways, Hong Kong designers have an edge in that they are more genuinely international. This is balanced out, though, by the fact that Taiwanese designers have access to richer and deeper cultural resources."
Taipei In Style 2016 was held at the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park from 10-13 November.
Dennis Engbarth, Special Correspondent, Taipei