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Designing women
Updated: 2004-02-10 09:16

If Shanghai is the Manhattan of the East, where's Seventh Avenue? Despite its reputation as a fashion mecca,~ Shanghai has yet to produce a world-class designer. But that time may be coming soon.

At 27, Wu Ling has done what most fledgling designers just dream of doing: working with fashion movers and shakers like the flamboyant John Galliano and pop royalty Stella McCartney. Now Wu is back in Shanghai, where she was born and bred, and where fashion is more a synonym for imported brands rather than original design.

Shanghai, for good reason, is often compared to New York. As Frank Sinatra sang of the Big Apple, ``If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere,'' so it goes with Shanghai. Making it here means something, and if you're a young designer with a dream, it means a straight shot at the stars -- and no visa problems.

Wu Ling is a print girl. After graduating from the Shanghai Theater Academy with a major in stage design in 1998, she went on to study at London's Central St Martin's College of Art and Design. St Martin's is Europe's hottest launch pad for aspiring young designers, who are given the opportunities at their graduation shows to propel their fashion realities down the catwalk before an audience of international designers, celebrities, worldwide media and potential employers. Wu earned a Master of Arts in prints for fashion at St Martin's, a five-year program that included an internship.

Wu's graduation show portfolio last year, which she hand-dyed in its entirety, included innovative patterns like ``Digital Cherry,'' which enhances street chic with an ethnic twist, paired with matching bags and shoes in the same vein.

Apparently inspired by Oscar Wilde, who said that one should either be a piece of art or wear a piece of art, Wu has promoted an idiosyncratic philosophy onto beautiful, original clothing. Not surprisingly, her graduation collection was selected as one of the top finalists out of a group of 200 graduates by a jury that included the course director and renowned designers like Jean Paul Gaultier from Gucci and buyers for Harrods, London.

A doodler since early childhood, Wu has now found her own gateway to the fashion world: color and print.

In her home-cum-studio on Huaihai Road M., Wu's flair for colors and shapes is evident everywhere, a homage to American artist Andy Warhol. Her old iron bedstead has been painted with stripes of cheerful bright colors, matching the three big cubes standing opposite.

Wu counts among her inspirations from Eley Kishimoto, a husband-and-wife team (Wakako Kishimoto and Mark Eley) known for their distinctive prints. In addition to their own labels, the duo, whom she worked for, also design textiles for Louis Vuitton and Mulligan.

``I learned a lot during the half year I spent working for them, '' Wu says. ``It was where I learned the techniques of professional hand-printing and a whole new concept about using print for fashion. By experimenting with various techniques, I have challenged myself to change the color and texture of the fabric, and to create a more interesting, fresher feel and touch from classic fabrics like calico and denim.'' Wu cites a six-month internship at Christian Dior Paris as instrumental in her development as a designer -- and not just because she got to get up close and personally with the legendary Galliano. The internship, she says, helped her develop a mature design style and created a vision for her future.

``I was so proud when I was chosen to work with Galliano,'' she enthuses. ``Of 40 students in my class, only two could attend -- and I was one of them! Galliano is an artist and a perfectionist. He tends to worry about things too much. He gets so tense before a show, and can spend up to three hours doing his own makeup for his final curtain call.''

In addition to the Dior internship, Wu has been the recipient of a host of impressive awards in Britain. She won the Print and Decoration Option of the Swarovski Design Competition in 2001, and was one of only four students selected by the British Fashion Council to enter the Laura Ashley Design Awards, where she was a finalistm, in the next year.

But although she has plenty of them, Wu is not resting on her laurels. Instead, she is forging ahead with her career in Shanghai, as designer for the local brand -- La Yefe.

Like Wu, Natsuko Hirai, 29, from New York, has designed with the stars and chosen Shanghai. This feisty designer, who often brightens conversations with her mega-watt smile and very un-Japanese loud guffaws, belies the image of the traditional, docile Japanese women.

Hirai served a long apprenticeship at Marc Jacobs, and learned her craft at Club Monaco, a label owned by Ralph Lauren. She came to Shanghai, she says, just by accident.

Hirai studied Chinese for four years at Hamilton College in New York, taking painting and drawing classes along the way. She later attended Parsons College of Design, alma mater of fashion icons like Donna Karan. When she went to Beijing in 2001 on a language exchange program, she fell in love with the city, and decided that Beijing was where she wanted to be. She then found a job in Beijing, teaching at LaSalle International College of Design, which also runs a school in Shanghai.

``When I told my parents that I had found a job in China, they were like, `What are you doing? You're throwing away your career and going to China to be what?' But after all the years in New York, I had had enough. I want to explore the world more before I get too old. I was desperate for a change,'' she explains.

But as fate would have it, LaSalle ended up offering her a job in Shanghai. Hirai, who has since left LaSalle to work for a Canadian women's wear label and a Hong Kong label, creates accessible fashion with an urban sensibility that caters to young, fashion-forward, upwardly mobile women. Her designs feature a youthful slant on classic styles, taking a handful of interchangeable items and making them work together to create an entire wardrobe that goes from day to evening, weekday to weekend. The silhouettes wrap and sculpt the body. She has noticed that local young people are struggling for the right look and clothes to suit their age and style. A New York energy that challenges traditional style can also be detected in her designs.

Born in Japan, Hirai left her home country for Malaysia with her family at the age of seven, finishing high school in Thailand and followed by college in New York. Her peripatetic life has created a flexible personality, which is reflected in her designs.

Today, Hirai rents a shikumen (stone gate) house as her studio on Nanjing Road W. It creates such a bizarre beauty watching Hirai immersed as she drapes her fabrics against the deteriorated structures of the old lane. Cocooned in something old, she's making something new.

Her studio is packed with all kinds of fabrics from around the world -- a manifestation of her obsession with fabrics. On the racks are vintage clothes from New York.

``Look at these beautiful clothes. Do you think we can create something really new -- do we need to? We don't. They've already been created,'' she says. ``Today, many designers are looking back in search of details.

``My inspiration comes from what surrounds me. Like, when a friend gives me a gift. I might see a little detail that I can put in my design, a texture that would inspire me to try to create something similar within my clothing.''

Shanghai is sometimes accused of neither having great ideas nor the discipline to produce commercial, desirable clothing. But these up-and-coming young designers may just prove them wrong.

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