Chinese-born American fashion designer Vivienne Tam (born 1957) draws inspiration from her Chinese heritage to create distinctive clothing that blends the best of both cultures. After two decades in business, Tam's company enjoyed annual sales in the $40-million-plus range, and she could boast a long roster of celebrity clients devoted to her designs. "When you look at my forms, they're Western, but the embroidery and trims are traditional, based in history," she told a writer for London's Independent newspaper. "Combine the two and it becomes a new thing."
Left behind with Grandparents
The second of four children, Tam was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1957, and named Yin Yok, or "jade sparrow." The country's doctrinaire Communist regime was barely a decade old at the time, and there were periodic bursts of official harassment targeted at those considered insufficiently devoted to state-directed socialism. Tam's parents, Tong Tam and Kwan Ngai Lee, owned property, which put them at a severe disadvantage politically for, according to Communist doctrine, the propertied class was the worst of all socio-economic classes. "It was really a difficult time," the designer told People writers Sue Miller and Christina Cheakalos about these early years. "Because my father was a landlord, he had to give up all the property." Her parents eventually fled China for Hong Kong, taking her brother along with them, and left the infant Tam behind with her grandparents.
Hong Kong was a British colonial possession during the second half of the 20th century. Comprised of a peninsula and islands off mainland China, it emerged as a thriving port and trade center as well as financial hub for Southeast Asia under the British. Thousands of Chinese fled to Hong Kong when Communist leader Mao Zedong came to power in mainland China in 1949 while others, like Tam's family, managed to cross the border later. Tam finally joined her parents when she was three years old, after being taken to Hong Kong by a couple who told authorities she was their daughter.
Earned Design Degree
In bustling, cosmopolitan Hong Kong, Tam attended a Roman Catholic school and took the name Vivienne when she began to learn English in earnest. At home, she still spoke Chinese, and though she was sent to a parochial school, "my family would go to temples," Tam told Francine Parnes in AsianWeek.com. "It's a hybrid way of life, where I learned to be more open and accept other people and other cultures." Tam's parents both sewed, and she took it up herself at the age of eight. While growing up, she made her own outfits as well as clothes for her younger brother and sister. Her mother's sharp eye was the first inkling of a design talent in the Tam family, however. "Even though we didn't have much money," Tam told People, "my mother would buy scrap fabric and make clothing nobody else had."
Tam also crocheted and did embroidery work, and went on to study fashion design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. After earning her degree, she moved to London, but decided to settle in New York City in 1981 in order to launch her business. "My mother supported me," she recalled in an interview with Bergen County Record writer Judy Jeannin. "I wanted to learn more—to learn the business, the industry, and the culture. New York is so much like Hong Kong. It is a melting pot and so exciting." Her company officially came into being in March of 1982 as East Wind Code, which connotes good luck and prosperity in Chinese symbolism.
Renamed Label after a Decade
There was a receptive audience waiting for Tam's designs in the early 1980s. She visited buyers at stores like Henri Bendel on the days when they looked at work by new designers, carrying her sample pieces stuffed in a duffel bag, and she also rented a space at the International Fashion Boutique Show that resulted in $100,000 worth of orders. She found a work space on West 38th Street, but her clothes were made in Hong Kong, an international epicenter for garment manufacturing. Her first lines had an avant-garde bent, made from fabrics that included traditional Chinese bedding, which she bleached or dyed. Despite her initial successes, Tam still struggled in her first few years and sometimes took credit-card advances to meet her small staff's payroll.
More and more stores became interested in carrying Tam's line, and she soon found herself shipping to Europe and Africa as well. She eventually cut back and revised her business plan. "The collection wasn't as good then, because I wasn't focused," she admitted to Women's Wear Daily interviewer Maryellen Gordon. "It's not important how big your business is if the collection isn't right." That same year, she changed the name of her label to "Vivienne Tam," and with a $100,000 nest egg she had saved staged her first runway show during New York's biannual Fashion Week, when American designers present their next season's lines to store buyers and fashion journalists.
Tam's clothing was a hit with fashion-forward women, who liked its Asian influence. "The key to her achievement is her ability to design with an eye for East meets West," asserted an essayist in Contemporary Fashion. "Bringing these cultural inspirations together in her designs, she is able to design clothing of traditional elements with a modern edge. Her collections are perceived with the idea that each person's personality will bring out different aspects from within each design."
The Mao Controversy
Tam took her Chinese themes to a new level in 1995 after teaming with artist Zhang Hongtu. Together they designed a series of images of Mao, who had died in 1976, for T-shirts and jackets that depicted him sporting pigtails or cross-eyed with a bee perched on the tip of his nose. In Communist China, portraits of Mao had been ubiquitous, and fostered what became a cult of personality that did not immediately end with his death. Some in the Asian American community deemed Tam's cheeky take on the Mao image in poor taste, for countless had died during the periodic waves of political repression during his years in power. Initially she had a hard time finding a Hong Kong manufacturer even willing to take the job, and there was a minor protest outside of her store there one day. Stores in Taiwan, which broke from China after its 1949 Communist revolution, refused to carry the line.
In her defense, Tam contended that Mao was a "fashion czar," as she told Palm Beach Post fashion editor Staci Sturrock. The shapeless, drab-colored "Mao suit" had been standard gear for nearly every Chinese person for years. "Where else could one man tell over 1 billion people what to wear?" Tam reflected. Despite the initial fracas, her Mao collection proved to be a hit, and items from it were even added to the permanent collection of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the museum of New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology.
The Fashion Institute of Technology later invited Tam to present an exhibit, "China Chic: East Meets West," in 1999, where she showed how the rich heritage of her homeland had inspired her vision. Chinese craftsmanship, in particular, continued to play a key role in her designs. As she told Allegra Holch in Women's Wear Daily, in the Chinese textile arts there are "all different kinds of techniques for beaded work and crochet work, but unfortunately, they don't always do it in a contemporary way." When her suppliers and manufacturers balked at her ideas sometimes, she noted, she worked hard to win them over. "Sometimes they'll tell me it's impossible, but then they try it and they see it can be done," she enthused.
Adopted Buddha Image
Other collections from Tam's drawing board have continued to find inspiration from Asian culture. Her spring 2001 line was called "Year of the Dragon," and featured another figure ubiquitous is some Eastern lands: that of Buddha. "The Buddha image has always been in the temple, and I wanted to make it more accessible to the people," Tam told Parnes in AsianWeek.com. "On clothing, it's like a walking image, not just for the person wearing it, but for the people looking at it. It's a reminder of ourselves, that we have Buddha in our heart."
Tam's success in the 1990s helped her expand her clothing empire. She created a shoe line for Candie's in 1996, and the following year opened her first store in New York City, on Greene Street in the fashionable SoHo district. A Los Angeles address followed, and then Tokyo and Kobe, Japan. She was also invited to design the interior for a new version of General Motors's Alero model, manufactured by Oldsmobile, in 1999. Madonna and Julia Roberts are among Tam's celebrity fans.
"Not Just Cheongsam and Chop Suey"
Tam spent a month in Beijing and Shanghai to interview people for her first book, China Chic, which was published in 2000. She co-wrote it with Martha Huang, a scholar of Chinese literature, and the lavish coffee-table tome included a wealth of images from her family's past, including photographs of her parents as newlyweds. Tam's aim, she told the Palm Beach Post, was to show Chinese culture in a way that is not filtered through Western biases. "I wanted people to know not just cheongsam and chop suey and chopsticks," she told Sturrock. "I wanted to go deeper." The square shape and red plastic binding of China Chic mimicked Mao's famous "Little Red Book" of quotations, but Tam said that the overall design was simply following certain precepts of her culture. "Chinese cosmology is square, it's very grounded," she told Women's Wear Daily writer Holly Haber. "Chinese characters are in a square form and so is the architecture. The [Forbidden] Palace is all square forms with symmetric placement of furniture. Everything comes in pairs and a square is totally balanced."
As Tam's business continued to grow, she talked about expanding into other design realms. Asked by New York Times journalist Mark Landler if she might eventually head into housewares and become "a Chinese Martha Stewart," Tam said that when she was in the process of writing her book, "I wasn't conscious of trying to do that," she noted. "But towards the end, people began talking about it. It's interesting when you have a label, and other things start coming to you. It's the other things that make it interesting." She ventured into evening and special occasion dresses in 2003, and launched a secondary sportswear and denim line called Red Dragon. She had long been a cautious entrepreneur, however, and was happy that her company remained independent and free of a financial backer, as many designers had been forced to sign with in order to stay afloat in a notoriously tough industry.
The little sister Tam once dressed as a child now works for her big sister's company. Tam makes her home in New York City, where her company is headquartered, but travels regularly to Hong Kong and China, where factories manufacture her designs. She had made her first visit back to her homeland as a young woman in 1980, just after Mao's successors began to allow foreign visitors across the border again after decades of isolation. She recalled how, during her first visit, people followed her around, intrigued by the padded shoulders of her jackets. During her 1998 sojourn, she was both surprised and slightly uneasy at the changes she found, however. As she told Haber in Women's Wear Daily, many she interviewed eagerly expressing a desire for more material wealth. "I feel scared because it is losing its culture and traditional values," Tam said of her native country. She herself remains with feet in both worlds, not entirely immersed in the Western mind-set even after two-plus decades in business. The fashion industry, she told People, sometimes makes her feel "like a machine. In this business you feel like you have to produce, but each time you have to produce better."
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Born: Yin Yok Tam in Guangzhou, China, 1957. Education: Graduated from Hong Kong Polytechnic University; also studied in London. Career: Designer, New York, 1982; established East Wind Code, and designed first collection, 1982; designed Vivienne Tam signature collection, 1993; launched first collection under the East Wind Code label, 1994; designed controversial Mao collection, 1995; Mao collection subsequently incorporated into the permanent archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, and Museum of FIT, New York; signed with Candie's to create line of spring shoes, 1996; opened New York store, 1997; signed exclusive licensing agreement with Itochu Corporation for distribution in Japan, 1998; announced plans for two freestanding stores in Japan, 1998; designed interior for the new Alero from Oldsmobile, 1999; opened Tokyo store, 2000. Awards: People Weekly 's 50 Most Beautiful People, 1995; Outstanding Alumnus, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 1997; nominated for Council of Fashion Designers of America Perry Ellis award, 1997. Address: 550 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10018, USA.
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"Vivienne Tam Defines China Chic as Fashions with a Western Twist," in Associated Press, 6 January 2001.***
By combining culture, classic style, and an offbeat flair to her fashion design, Vivienne Tam has become one of the 21st century's most unusual and successful contemporary designers. The key to her achievement is her ability to design with an eye for East meets West, an inspiration that comes from her current home, New York City, and her childhood home, Hong Kong. Bringing these cultural inspirations together in her designs, she is able to design clothing of traditional elements with a modern edge. Her collections are perceived with the idea that each person's personality will bring out different aspects from within each design.
Tam's success was preceded by a childhood of turmoil in China. In an effort to find a better life after the 1949 revolution and to rid themselves of the Communist political system, the Tam family moved to Hong Kong. At first, Tam stayed behind with her grandparents, but soon relocated to Hong Kong to be with her parents. She entered a Catholic school, where she became Vivienne Tam instead of her birth name, Yin Yok Tam. At age eight, she learned to sew by watching her parents stitch clothing. She remained with her parents until 1982, when she moved to New York. There, she hawked her designs from a duffel bag to Henri Bendel and a couple of the city's shops.
By the end of the 1980s Tam had created her own company, East Wind Code, and was designing in earnest. She gained acclaim and controversy with her early 1990s collections, including the notorious "Mao" collection where she and Chinese artist Zhang Hongtu added unusual touches to the former Chinese leader such as a bee on his nose or putting his hair in pigtails. Chinese customers were outraged; Americans found the t-shirts and jackets amusing and the height of fashion.
Tam's collections in the late 1990s were lively and awash in color, often mixing religious symbolism with Asian art, silver, red, and beautiful embroidery becoming her trademarks. With her spring 2001 collection, aptly titled the Year of the Dragon, came varied images of dragons adorning the clothes, clearly portraying her Asian inspiration. During the fashion show, "Birdsong" played as the models glided down the runway in embroidered fabrics, again in bright color combinations. Susan Redstone, writing for the online fashion site FashionWindows, applauded the "the exotic fringed mint pointelle camisole and dress" paired with "a lime silk eyelet skirt," as well as the "chartreuse metallic halter tee and turquoise sequin dragon embroidered skirt."
In an interview with Heather Harlan from Asian Weekly about her spring 2001 collection, Tam told her, "Many of the prints and patterns in the collection are the result of the views from my terrace [in New York City]. I love watching the light shimmering as it plays with the architectural corners and angles of buildings against a grey and bluish evening sky." The results included a Chrysler building-inspired black and white print dress, sequined skirts mimicking city lights sparkling in the darkness, and a pink metallic dress Redstone likened to "sidewalks glittering under the pink glow of street lamps." The collection also artfully mixed hard and soft, uptown and downtown, grunge and glamor, black and stunning color. Tam and several fashionistas designated blue as the new black for their spring collections.
Tam's unique talent for bringing Asian and American culture together in fashion attracts many to her East Wind Code (meaning good fortune and prosperity) shops in New York, Los Angeles, Japan, and Hong Kong. Clients who admire her elegant, unconventional style include movie stars and musicians, such as Alanis Morissette, Bjork, Britney Spears, Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill, Madonna, Neve Campbell, Sandra Bullock, and Julia Roberts. Roberts commented to People Weekly in November 1998, "Tam's clothes are the perfect balance of being simple but also unique."
At the New York SoHo store, with the help of a feng shui master, Tam recreated her Chinese heritage for a distinctly Asian atmosphere, though with Western touches. The Chinese character of double happiness dominates the shop, along with Fu dogs, Ming chairs, an antique carved screen, and a "red" wall. Red, as one of Tam's favorite colors, features heavily in her décor and her designs. Zany, imaginative clothing adorned with Mao, buddhas, dragons, peonies, or mums combined with shimmering metallic or black fabrics and sequins epitomize Tam's style. The prints and characters mark a spiritual journey, one that has made Tam an accomplished trendsetter for bicultural fashion design.
For those seeking insight into Tam's life and inspiration, she wrote a book with Martha Huang entitled China Chic. Published in 2000 by Regan Books, the red coffee-table styled hardcover is full of illustrations, photographs, and Tam's brand of East-meets-West wisdom. To promote the book, Tam took over the Luk Yu Tea House in Hong Kong, and invited both Eastern and Western luminaries. "People think this book is about my fashion, but it's not," Tam told Mark Landler of the New York Times in December 2000. "It's about all the things I love: furniture, gardens, spirituality, the body, health, city life." The world of designer and author Vivenne Tam, like her book, is far reaching and filled with the union of Eastern wisdom and Western synergy.
—Kimbally A. Medeiros