Chop Suey Club is riding a wave of growing interest in contemporary Chinese fashion and design.
In New York’s Chinatown, an edgy fashion and lifestyle boutique has staked its claim on offering a spirited medley of Chinese artistry and imagination.
Chop Suey Club, which sells cutting-edge designs from contemporary Chinese artists, is benefiting from a rise in popularity of Chinese fashion. As the “Made in China” label loses its negative connotations, Chinese designers are securing spots at global fashion weeks and embarking on crossovers with big-name Western retailers.
In just the three years she’s been in business, Chop Suey Club’s founder and creative director, Jiang Ruoyi, says she has seen a notable evolution in sentiment toward designed-in-China products.
“In general, the appreciation and respect [for Chinese design] has grown,” she says. “It comes with knowledge and understanding of the heritage. I think in the past, Chinese cultural appreciation was only built on the surface level, and there was a lack of cultural understanding which really interfered with the depth of design.”
Jiang moved to the United States from Beijing in 2009 to study photography at New York University. After working for several years in creative industries, she opened her shop with the goal of exploring and representing contemporary Chinese identity.
In particular, she works with young designers who are able to look past the common motifs of Chinese culture.
One such designer, Li Dengting of fashion labels Wander Wonder Works and Tiger & Pine, leverages art and religious tradition in his work.
His Wonder Wander Works indigo camping backpack, for example, features a large grid of pockets labeled for storage, a nod to the medicine drawers of traditional Chinese apothecaries.
Meanwhile, Tiger & Pine is Li’s take on streetwear and boasts modern interpretations of Taoist monks’ clothing.
His line showcases printed unisex tees and boxy, relaxed-fit sweatshirts with wide sleeves, along with soft corduroy shorts embroidered with his tiger logo.
“Chinese designers have really matured and evolved.”
“Designers like him really impress me,” Jiang says. “I felt like it took him several years to really put these things together—to have the branding, the concept, the design, and the production really fall into place. I did not see anything like this years ago, and I think, to that end, Chinese designers have really matured and evolved.”
Another designer who’s a regular feature in Jiang’s lineup is Zhang Xiaoyu of Yvmin.
Zhang was recently featured in the British edition of Vogue as one of several young emerging Chinese jewelry designers. Chop Suey Club carries a wide range of her delicate and unconventional pieces, from a “nose brooch” that dangles below the wearer’s nostrils to a pearl-studded paper clip earring.
These brands have been well-received by New York shoppers, though with varying levels of understanding, Jiang says. Her customers fall into three categories: Chinese living in America, Chinese-American, and everyone else.
“They want to learn more by having some kind of connection through the merchandise.”
“Chinese customers come in with knowledge of the brands we carry, but they’re still very happy to explore new brands we introduce,” Jiang says. “Chinese-American customers have knowledge of Chinese culture because they grew up with it, but they don't know quite as much compared to a Chinese person. They want to learn more by having some kind of connection through the merchandise.”
Of her remaining customers, a large proportion have a connection to China because they’ve lived there or studied the language.
“That type of connection makes them really interested in what we’re doing,” Jiang says. “They want to be updated, they want to talk about what they've experienced, and I think altogether we’re able to form this very eclectic, dynamic, and vibrant community.”
Even with an open-minded customer base and a roster of designers who have enjoyed varying degrees of international recognition in their own right—from womenswear designer Tan Fengyi, who presented at London Fashion Week, to Paris Fashion Week regular Sean Suen—there are still aspects that simply don't translate to an audience in New York.
“Some brands will use idols that are really popular in China or Asia that have no presence in the U.S. at all,” Jiang says. “They would send us pictures for us to use for our marketing campaigns and it interests nobody basically.”
To that end, Jiang says Chop Suey Club tries to do its own styling and photoshoots to show off its individual brand identity wherever possible.
“It forces and helps us to be a little more creative.”
“For a lot of the items, we are sort of the presenter or interpreter to really introduce a new brand or product to the market, so we have to create some kind of visual or concept first,” she says. “It forces and helps us to be a little more creative.”
Chop Suey Club also hosts annual experiential events as part of this creative process—around Mid-Autumn Festival, it treated customers to a mooncake tasting party, and at Halloween, invited shoppers to experience the Chinese concept of hell in an “underworld” bar.
“This is our way to give back to our community and bring more people in to really do something different,” Jiang says. “People like new experiences, and they want to meet people from different backgrounds, the same way they want to meet our products.”
Even so, Jiang cautions that her efforts are far from over, as the “Made in China” concept remains, for many, a subject of “confusion” and misunderstanding. Many consumers still consider Chinese-made products to be copycat, of poor quality, and cheap.
What matters most for retailers like Chop Suey Club is where China is headed. “We have the production ability and now we have a very strong force from the creative community,” Jiang says. “If we combine these people together, we have a very bright future.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.