British fashion designer
Born: Lam Kwok Fai in Hong Kong, 24 January 1951. Education: Harrow School of Art, London, 1971-74, and at the Royal College of Art, London, 1974-76. Career: Designer for Fiorucci, Milan, 1976; designer/owner, Ragence Lam, London, 1977-83; Ragence, Hong Kong, 1980-83; Ragence Lam Ltd., Hong Kong, from 1983; founding member of Hong Kong Fashion Designers Association, 1984, chairman, 1985-88. Exhibitions: Ragence Lam Fashion Design Exhibition, Hong Kong Arts Center, 1985. Awards: Hong Kong Artist Guild Fashion Designer of the Year award, 1988; China Fashion Exhibition Competition gold prize, 1990. Address: 83085 Wongnei Chong Road, 17th Floor, Linden Court, Happy Valley, Hong Kong, China.
Kivestu, Pat, "Best of Hong Kong Fashions: The New Fashion Generation," in WWD (Hong Kong supplement), 1 December 1986.
Biography Resource Center, from the Gale Group, available online at www.galenet.galegroup.com, 4 October 2001.
Minghu, Gao, "Toward A Transnational Modernity: An Overview of the Exhibition: Inside Out," in Chinese Type Online Magazine, available online at www.chinese-art.com, 2001.*
Growing up in a Chinese family in the British Colony of Hong Kong at the tip of south China, I have always felt the need to define my identity. Western culture was pervasive in my daily life. European art and history were part of my education and training, and so I had no difficulty adapting when I went to study at the Royal College of Art in London and then to work as a designer in Italy. But, paradoxically, it was when I was enjoying my first early success in the Western world, particularly in London where I had my own label, that I became keenly aware of my Chinese origins. I am not only modern and Western, but also Chinese, and I felt that unless my designs could capture my identity, they will never be entirely satisfying to me.
My work in the 1980s, when I returned to Hong Kong and opened my own shop with my own label, covered a wide diversity of styles. I frequently used unusual materials such as fishnet, or rattan mats. But in a way they were just random experiments, without my knowing exactly what I wanted. As designs they had merit and originality, but as self-expression they were to me lacking and uncertain. Then followed a period of contemplation and reassessment. I began to examine a tremendous amount of Chinese art forms—architecture, painting, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, furniture—whatever I could lay hands on, from all historical periods of China.
Not only did their immense richness astonish me, but I discovered I felt instinctively toward them an affinity, such as I never felt about Western art. It is as if I appreciate the Western sense of beauty only intellectually through my training, but the Chinese sense of beauty is in my blood. I also traveled to China. The vibrancy of the people and the often bold and witty way in which they seek expression in fashion struck me as entirely encouraging.
It became perfectly clear to me that what I wanted as a designer was to express the Chinese sense of beauty in contemporary and international fashion language. It must be contemporary; I want not historical revival but development, to carry…the great Chinese tradition of art and costume truncated by traumatic events in China's recent history. It must be international, because only then can it enter the mainstream and have real impact. Above all it must have depth and meaning, and not just superficial borrowings here and there from folk or court art or theatre or whatever. It must be truly new.
I see this as my life's work. In the exploration of the Chinese sense of beauty, I have an inexhaustible source of infinite variety, from the floating lines of elegant Sung-style robes to the elaborate bejeweled and embroidered Q'ing artefacts. Then there is something religious or ceremonial in this beauty—in Buddhist statues, in a monk's habit— an austerity and tranquility that deeply appeals to me. In addition, there are China's traditional fabrics and craftsmanship, the numerous techniques of embroidery, tapestry, ornamentation which could be put to exciting new use and create a totally new look.
My artistic aim, the identity I have sought to express, are all bound up with the history and the unique society of Hong Kong, and with its future. As Hong Kong's link with China grows in the coming years, I see my work growing with a strong sense of direction and inner purpose.
In his native Hong Kong, Ragence Lam has been referred to as the Little Giant. He is one of the few local designers to have achieved an international reputation, and it is well deserved. For two decades, Lam has been developing his own lines and helping to promote the status of his fellow designers.
Lam's interest in fashion began as a child, but he never seriously considered it as a career. He became a fashion student at Harrow School of Art and the Royal College of Art, having never studied art. He went to London originally to study law, but became bored. At the Royal College of Art, his talent developed quickly and led to him winning a number of student competitions. After graduating he spent a short time in Milan, designing for Fiorucci, before setting up his own label in London and then in Hong Kong.
During the 1980s Lam evolved a look characterized by well-defined shapes and cut that revealed his passion for structure and three-dimensional forms. He highlighted his collections with quality fabrics, often from Italy or Japan, to provide an individual look. Frequently he experimented with unusual materials to create unique statements; he was never afraid of being experimental, even outrageous. Pure commercialism was not his goal, though, he was much more a provider of ideas. Lam became known, and loved by the press, as an innovator.
Toward the end of the 1980s, Lam began to change direction. The look became more minimal, with fewer dramatic details. The clothes were simpler but more versatile; customers appreciated the opportunity to be able to dress them up or down. He was moving away from the avant-garde to create something more stylish and lasting. For autumn-winter 1989-90, he featured knots and ties on simple silhouettes, interpreted in wool, Lycra, and jersey, using a subtle palette of textures and patterns. In the same collection, he created eveningwear and cocktail dresses in taffeta and lace. His designs have sold in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Japan. For a time, his collections, including both womenswear and menswear, were available in his own exclusive boutique in Hong Kong.
A testament to his achievement came in 1989 when he was invited to contribute to an international symposium as part of the World Fashion Fair in Japan. He formed part of a prestigious panel that included Issey Miyake, Sybilla, and Romeo Gigli. Lam has also acted as a consultant to fashion design education in Hong Kong. As a founder and one-time chairman of the Hong Kong Fashion Designers Association, he has helped to support and encourage young designers. He is not, however, a natural committee person; designing is his major interest and motivation.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Lam underwent a period of reassessment. Original though his work was, it did not provide the means of self-expression that he found he was seeking. To try and establish his fundamental identity, he began to examine his Chinese roots. He found a genuine affinity for Chinese art and culture and wanted to reflect this in his own work and a totally new direction began to evolve. This was not a mere pastiche of Chinese traditional dress but a more fundamental attempt to carry the great traditions of Chinese art into the late 20th century. Lam hoped to create an international fashion look reflecting his own Chinese identity and was committed to achieving this goal.
In the 21st century Lam was one of a coterie of painters, dramatists, dancers, and designers who enhanced Hong Kong's emerging Asian spirit. According to Gao Minghu's "Inside Out," an essay for Chinese Type Online Magazine, Lam commented, "I am beginning to feel a sense of belonging. I don't really have any roots, but now that we see more of the mainland Chinese I feel a need to identify."
updated by Mary Ellen Snodgrass