The qipao may no longer be a common sight on the streets of China. But fashionistas across the world are embracing the dress as a way to affirm their Asian heritage, celebrate global multiculturalism and, well, make a splash in a slinky form-fitting garment. Local fashion brands such as Laichan, Ong Shunmugam, The Missing Piece and YeoMama Batik are both honouring and deconstructing the traditional qipao, as are international design houses such as Shanghai Tang.
Shanghai Tang’s creative director Victoria Tang-Owen says: “Deconstructing. Reconstructing. Revisiting archive pieces to revive conversations. These are some of our strategies. Our products and designs attempt to hint at our Chinese roots – as opposed to showing ‘Chineseness’. The clients we have may have lived in China and other parts of Asia, but they’ve also lived in Europe and the US. The phenomenon of social media means we’re constantly exposed to global ideas and we travel a lot more with our minds.
“At Shanghai Tang, we try and develop an aesthetic that celebrates Chinese culture – but one that can also go well with other aesthetics.”
The latest collection of Shanghai Tang, which has a permanent store and pop-up at Raffles City Shopping Centre, has several beautiful traditional qipaos. But the more buzzworthy pieces may be the convertible ones, such as an olive green 4-in-1 convertible satin trench coat (priced at S$1,324) which allows you to wear it as a qipao-inspired dress or a military-accented winter coat. There’s also a jacquard “biker” qipao (priced at S$1,039) that appears as a qipao when zipped up, but transforms into a cool biker jacket when the side zippers are detached.
Fock Ee-ling, founder and designer of local brand The Missing Piece, says convertible pieces address the needs of the modern woman who “effortlessly juggles different roles in life at work or at home, and who demands more function and practicality from her clothes”.
The Missing Piece’s latest Chinese New Year collection features the most number of convertible pieces since the brand was established in 2016: “We’ve got dresses which convert from cheongsams into more casual separates, while others feature adjustable lengths, necklines, draping and fits. These outfits go beyond just occasion wear for the New Year – they’re also very wearable beyond the festive season.”
Dr Fock (who holds a doctorate in medicine) says: “In the local fashion scene, the trend is definitely moving towards making the modern qipao more casual and wearable. Most of our customers actually choose to wear our modern qipao to different events, and not just festive or culture-specific ones. To them, wearing one of our modern qipao or qipao-inspired numbers is just as easy as wearing any other beautifully-made dress, except that it gives the added bonus of being able to showcase a bit of heritage as well.”
Fans of The Missing Piece include singer Joanna Dong and influencer Andrea Chong.
Tradition goes hip
Meanwhile, veteran couturier Goh Lai Chan of the eponymous brand Laichan holds fast to the belief that the traditional qipao is finding new generations of fans every day: “I see girls as old as three and women as young as 80 buying, wearing and appreciating the qipao. And they’re not necessarily Asians – some are foreigners.”
His clients have been turning to him for decades to dream up bespoke designs that would rival Maggie Cheung’s stunning qipaos in the classic film In The Mood For Love. A simple short qipao off the rack costs S$798, while bespoke creations start at S$5,000.
He says: “My classic qipao designs hold their own enduring appeal. But what’s trending now are more refreshing colours and new proportions, some leaning towards making the qipao more relaxed and comfortable.”
One of his designs combines a mandarin collar with a soft flirty skirt and elaborate three-dimensional flower appliques signalling the start of spring. More traditionally-cut qipaos may feature riotous or even psychedelic colours, making the pieces wearable not just for Chinese New Year, but also a fun night out with friends.
Ms Tang-Owen says: “We live in an era where everyone wants to stand out, voice their own opinion and be just slightly different… As a modern woman with Chinese roots, I want something that hints Chinese – but not obviously Chinese. I want something that’s versatile and wearable, and that will make me feel great. So I might wear a qipao with a bomber jacket and combat boots, instead of heels. Some women think the only way to wear a qipao is with heels, which is why they seldom wear it. But if they embrace their individuality and worked the qipao into their everyday wardrobe, they’ll find that they can make it their style.”
(Related: What are Shanghai Tang’s plans to expand?)
Desleen Yeo, who co-founded local fashion brand YeoMama Batik with her mother, agrees with this assessment. She says: “Whether in traditional or contemporary forms, I do think there’s a revival of the qipao. Our era of identity politics has inspired, in particular, young Chinese women who see the wearing of the qipao as a chance to empower themselves, and affirm, assert and celebrate their roots.”
“On the other hand, high-powered women are donning the qipao because it adds class and confidence to their appearance. The mandarin collar accentuates the neckline, while the entire qipao exudes elegance without too many accessories. The simple one-piece qipao can bring them from work to events and dinners. And the qipao is also useful for regional functions if they wish to stand out, attract conversations, spark new connections and network… I have women in the finance sector or government bodies turning to YeoMama Batik designs precisely for those reasons.”
The designs of the 2-year-old YeoMama Batik include mandarin-collared jumpsuits, V-neck dresses with qipao-style buttons by the side, and midi length qipaos “that look great with sneakers or pointy boots.”
“Young women are definitely trying to incorporate the contemporary qipao as part of their regular wardrobe,” adds Ms Yeo. “And designers like me are thrilled to find ways to make that work.”
A version of this article was originally published in The Business Times.