Look at the fashion week coverage this season and a discerning viewer might notice something different. Sandwiched on the Paris calendar between world-famous labels Chanel and Miu Miu, for instance, is Jarel Zhang, a futuristic streetwear label helmed by a Chinese designer. Rokh, the South Korean brand that supermodel Gigi Hadid has been sporting lately, is scheduled just before Christian Dior.
In 2015, Chinese couturier Guo Pei was one of only a handful of Asian names on the lips of fashion aficionados, propelled to further global acclaim after Rihanna walked the Met Gala red carpet in a magnificent yellow cape-gown of her design. But recent years have seen the notoriously selective fashion capitals of Milan and Paris offer a wider embrace of ingénues from all over Asia, not only to tap into their fresh perspectives, but also to attract new clients hailing from the region’s growing middle class. Meanwhile, governments of Asian capitals have also thrown their support behind local creative talents, funding platforms like Seoul and Shanghai fashion weeks, which have become important events in their own right and thrust more emerging design stars onto the global stage.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this trend is how long it has been in the making—roughly three decades since the first wave of Asian designers, mostly from Japan, made an indelible mark on western fashion in the ’80s, when Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons began showing in Paris. Now, a second wave of designers is breaking onto the scene, in far greater numbers and with more regional diversity—there are dozens showing in New York, Milan and Paris, many of whom first presented in their respective cities and received critical and commercial success.
Though they still may look up to the western greats, or have trained under them, many of the new Asian guard are proud to produce and maintain roots in their hometowns. There’s also an exciting emphasis on functionality in their work, with several young designers pioneering innovative techniques, and almost all of them draw inspiration from their cultural origins, pushing those elements to the forefront of their design narratives as something to be celebrated. Here, we highlight 10 who have stolen the international spotlight.
1/10 Calvin Luo
The Shanghai native and co-founder of Rouge Fashion Book—China’s pioneering independent fashion and art magazine—presented his eclectic collection in Paris for the first time since he launched his brand in 2014. His latest inspiration came from Woody Allen’s time-travel film Midnight in Paris, resulting in a punchy line-up of feathered evening blazers and disco frocks with styles intended to aesthetically bridge the ’50s to the ’80s.
Luo shows the most promise with his structural pieces designed to create impactful silhouettes. Next up, he hopes to try a stint at another brand. “Maybe Marni?” the 23-year-old says, recognising a kindred spirit in its latest star designer, Francesco Risso. “I’m still young, so I want to learn from other brands who have a similar aesthetic to mine.”
2/10 Beautiful People
Designer Hidenori Kumakiri fell in love with fashion at the wee age of five. He still remembers being fascinated by a whale appliqué on his favourite summer top that included a small fish dangling from its zippered mouth. It was the first time he witnessed how clothing can be transformed with just a bit of imagination.
Since then, the Japanese designer spent six years cutting his teeth as a pattern-maker for Comme des Garçons Homme before presenting his first solo collection in Paris in 2017. “Transforming all things classic and basic to make ordinary things come alive in a different way,” is how Kumakiri describes his work. Several pieces from his spring collection, for example—a mesh tulle shift dress and a sunset print frock among them—might seem simple at first glance, but each is designed to be worn in a dozen different ways.
As part of Tmall’s foray into the European fashion scene, the Alibaba-owned e-commerce platform brought its China Cool event to Paris for the first time, showcasing China’s most promising design talents, including Xiaoyun Qian of Eifini.
Inspired by Alice in Wonderland, the Shanghai-based designer—who presented for the first time outside of China since her brand launched in 2001—incorporated many Victorian elements into her latest collection that also had flashes of menswear details: think a bell-sleeved silk dress paired with matching trousers or a sharp-shouldered, cropped blazer with an ombré-pleated skirt.
4/10 Mame Kurogouchi
As much an anthropologist as a fashion designer, the Nagano-born Mame Kurogouchi takes a deep dive into her cultural history, searching for beauty in daily life for each season’s inspiration. Two years after her Tokyo runway debut, her spring collection, Embrace, shown in Paris, was an exploration of the concept of “wrapping” in all its forms—be it “tsutsumu,” the Japanese art of packaging, or the shells of cocoons and husks of flowers.
Each piece featured many layers, from sheer sheaths to netted overlays on knitwear and lingerie alike. Kurogouchi manufactures her designs in Japan using traditional techniques, which she learned during her time under Issey Miyake. “Issey-san taught me my way of thinking about garment design: how to fuse seemingly different ideas and methods to create beautiful clothes,” she says.
5/10 Susan Fang
Central Saint Martin’s graduate Susan Fang presented in Milan for the first time since the launch of her brand in 2015. The innovative designer is known for pioneering an “air weave” technique—allowing several layers of delicate materials to be stitched together—and has been lauded for her environmentally conscious approach to fashion.
The Chinese designer handcrafts each piece with her mother and allows the materials she uses, like biodegradable thermoplastic, to dictate the end shape of the garment in order to reduce waste. Fang’s spring collection features a flirty rendition of her latticework dresses adorned with glass beads clinking together at the hems, as well as an array of abstract, crystal headpieces and bags.
6/10 Snow Xue Gao
In the two years since she launched her label in 2017, China-born Snow Xue Gao has been shortlisted for the 2018 LVMH Prize and inducted into the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 List for her take on deconstructed tailoring. Based in New York City, the New School graduate gained experience under the tutelage of Jason Wu, where she learned to cut the elegant shapes found throughout her collections.
For spring she showed plenty of spliced-and-diced graffiti silk shirts layered under crisp suits or paired with short-shorts in a nod to both pop art and the Space Age of the ’60s.
7/10 Jarel Zhang
Streetwear seems not to be going away and up-and-coming Chinese designer Jarel Zhang intends to take it well into the future with a galactic spring collection for his second Paris showing.
The Zhejiang native, who founded his eponymous label in 2016, used technical fabrics like the sort of “space cotton” found in astronauts’ suits in his commanding line-up of graphic, oversized puffers and anoraks in electric hues inspired by a post-apocalyptic world. Though a darker take on his ski-inspired autumn collection, many utilitarian details, from the multi-pocketed gilets to the drawstring sleeves, continue to be a mark of his signature style.
8/10 Ming Ma
One of Shanghai’s breakout fashion stars, Ma dazzled audiences at his first presentation in Milan just three seasons ago with relaxed yet dramatic silhouettes and rich pops of colour—the latter trait heavily inspired by his favourite designer, Yves Saint Laurent.
You wouldn’t have guessed that he almost pursued a career in finance (at the encouragement of his parents, who were economics professors), but instincts led him to transfer to Central Saint Martins, and now his highly coveted, feminine collections, filled with princess sleeves and Chinese jacquards, are stocked at the likes of Lane Crawford and Joyce across China, where he is proudly based.
9/10 Kim He Kim
South Korean designer Kim He Kim describes his sartorial point of view as experimental but elegant, a duality that was on display in his Paris Fashion Week debut collection last September, where models holding selfie-sticks in dramatic, floor-sweeping organza bows and oversized blazers strutted down the runway in a converted garage.
Others wore his bestselling bold-shouldered jackets with asymmetric pearl fastenings, recalling the style of Balenciaga under Nicolas Ghesquière, where Kim worked as the youngest member of his studio for two years. Still, his Korean heritage found its way into the collection in soft pops of pastel and empire-waist shapes derived from traditional hanbok outfits. “I started to love fashion when I was seven years old,” he says. “My grandmother taught me how to make Korean costumes for Barbie dolls.”
South Korean native Rokh Hwang is among the new guard of designers who champion an off-kilter sense of minimalism, helping to fill a void left by Phoebe Philo when she left Celine in 2018. Philo, who encountered Hwang’s student work during his master’s programme at Central Saint Martins in London, hand-selected him to join her founding team at the house in 2010.
On his own, Rokh has quickly established himself as one to watch, as a runner-up in the 2018 LVMH Prize and with his two shows at Paris Fashion Week. His spring collection weaves utilitarian details like mountain climbing knots into deconstructed trenches, alongside spliced leather dresses and plaid coats. You can spot his looks on K-pop stars like Blackpink’s Rosé and Hollywood darlings like Hailey Bieber.