Can you make traditional Chinese clothing cool again?

Jan 14, 2021

The Japanese have their kimonos. Koreans, the hanbok. Indians, the sari. These cultures have traditional clothing that can also be worn in day-to-day life, without looking out of place.  

Even though there is a small but growing trend of young people in China trying to normalize wearing the clothes their ancestors did, the majority of Chinese people around the world would only wear traditional Chinese clothes like the qipao and the Tang suit during celebrations and ceremonies.

“If we wore qipao now, people would be like, “What happened today? Is it Chinese New Year?” says Lai On-ying.

Credit: Yat Pit
Credit: Yat Pit

Jason Mui and Lai On-ying, the design duo behind Hong Kong fashion brand Yat Pit is  trying to bring traditional Chinese clothes back to the streets, without making you look like you stepped out of a period drama.

“If we wore qipao now, people would be like, “What happened today? Is it Chinese New Year?”

In 2015, Mui and Lai were both working for international fashion houses when they were introduced to each other by a mutual friend. Within the first two weeks of meeting each other, they started looking for a studio and found one in Sham Shui Po, a gritty neighbourhood well-known for being the heart of Hong Kong's textiles manufacturing industry. 

“When we were living in Sham Shui Po, you couldn’t avoid seeing all this inspiration, and that started to infuse into our research. And then slowly, we realized the picture was very clear, that we should be doing Hong Kong and Chinese culture-inspired fashion. There is literally so much you can learn from 5,000 years of history,” says Lai.

First collection: 2015

The pair got to work on their first collection. It premiered at 2015’s Shanghai Fashion Week, and the clothes subsequently got picked up by fashion brand Opening Ceremony. 

Yat Pit’s first collection was inspired by the silhouettes of Qing dynasty-era robes. 

"There is literally so much you can learn from 5,000 years of history."

“It was opposite to how the Western corset was; figure-hugging, showing the feminine body and the bust. In the Chinese world, you had these huge, oversized tops” says Mui. 

Mui and Lai found that shape similar to the big, oversized shirts that were made trendy by hip hop stars like Jay-Z and Pusha T.

Hip-hop star Jay-Z
Hip-hop star Jay-Z

Some memorable pieces that came from that first collection include a skirt embroidered with pieces of jade and real Five Emperor fengshui coins, and an oversized mandarin collar shirt paired with a skirt with the skyline of Victoria Harbour printed on it. 

Credit: Yat Pit
Credit: Yat Pit
Credit: Yat Pit
Credit: Yat Pit

“It was always about bringing the traditional Chinese wear into nowadays where it’s relevant, and people understand it. Even for us to understand it more, and how those pieces of clothing can fit into your daily wardrobe.” says Mui.    

Discovering new-old fabric techniques

One traditional fabric dyeing technique that the pair chanced upon was mud silk. Lai was wearing a Celine leather t-shirt to a family gathering when an auntie asked her if she was wearing mud silk.

“I was like, “What is that? What is mud silk?” says Lai with a laugh.

Credit: Yat Pit
Credit: Yat Pit

After some research, they found out that mud silk was a traditional way of dyeing fabric using yams. It was a fabric popular amongst Southern Chinese fishermen because of its lightweight and water resistant quality. It also had a texture similar to leather. 

Mui and Lai fell in love with the fabric and incorporated it heavily into their designs. 

“When we are actually designing pieces, these research items come out and then it helps us along with that process. But our intuition tells us: don’t overuse it, let’s reinterpret it in our way.” says Mui. 

To make traditional Chinese wear more wearable for day to day life, Mui suggests mixing it up. 

“It’s always nice when you're personalizing it with your own styling. Maybe you don’t want to wear the kung fu shoes, wear it with a sneaker or laced up Dr. Martens shoes. I think those details that you insert in your look will make it not so like, “Oh my God. I get it now. You’re wearing head to toe Chinese-wear,” says Mui. 

Chinese fashionfashion designerChinese street culture


Producer: Jessica Novia

Videographer: Nicholas Ko and Tiffany Ip

Editor: Joel Roche