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    How a Hani Designer Is Bringing Ethnic Fusion to Chinese Fashion

    Long marginalized and objectified by the fashion industry, a new generation of minority designers is experimenting with modern materials and techniques. But mainstream acceptance remains elusive.

    Five years ago, while conducting fieldwork in southwest China, I found myself at a night market in the city of Jinghong, not far from China’s border with Myanmar. As I browsed the market’s stalls, a collection of dresses embroidered with traditional Hani (Akha) and Miao (Hmong) patterns caught my eye. The vendor, a woman in her mid-thirties named Er Yan, offered to show me some of her pieces; she proudly noted that all the clothes were of her own design.

    At the time, I was doubtful. While the patterns were beautiful, I opted not to buy anything. The interaction promptly slipped my mind until May 2020, when we crossed paths again — this time at an art show in Jinghong. I recognized her as soon as she got on stage: Wearing a long black dress and sporting a cloth bag, both adorned with gorgeous embroideries, she presented her Hani-inspired designs to a huge crowd.

    What caught my eye wasn’t just the quality of Er Yan’s embroidery, but how she had integrated it into modern-looking outfits. In Chinese media, the clothing of the country’s ethnic minorities is almost always presented in its most flamboyant and ostentatious form. However “authentic” these outfits may be, they are impractical for everyday wear. They are meant to be seen, not worn. But Er Yan represents a new generation of designer, one that is challenging this aesthetic by integrating traditional elements into more modern outfits.

    Over the following two years, I made multiple visits to Er Yan’s shop in Jinghong, curious about her journey from street vendor to celebrated designer. Her childhood was typical of rural Chinese girls in the early 1990s. As a young child, her parents sent her to live with her grandparents, while they took care of her younger brother. She grew up around her grandfather’s sewing machine but first developed her sewing and embroidering skills at the local branch of the Spring Bud Project — a government-run program that helps marginalized women learn valuable skills.

    Around this time, a tourism boom in ethnic minority-majority regions was fueling the rise of minzu feng, or “nationality fashion,” in China. Distinguished from both Western and Han clothing styles through the integration of elements like embroidery, vibrant colors, and batik, minzu feng proved particularly popular with tourists, who snapped up the fashionable garments.

    To Er Yan, the minzu feng craze was an opportunity. In the early 2010s, she started a business selling minzu feng clothes in Jinghong. Interestingly, the items she sold weren’t produced in the area — Jinghong had no garment industry to speak of in those days — but across the border in Northern Thailand. Er Yan traveled extensively between the two countries, buying Thai-style harem pants in Thailand and bringing them back to China to sell to tourists from across the country.

    It was a highly profitable business. Around 2015, however, the minzu feng craze experienced a crisis of oversupply. Clothes that incorporated elements of ethnic dress were not only being sold as souvenirs at tourist sites across China’s southwest; they also became widely available on online shopping platforms such as Taobao, as factories along the coast began churning out large quantities of cheap, ethnic-style garments. The crisis almost wrecked Er Yan’s business. “It was impossible for me to make money anymore,” she told me.

    Unexpectedly, it was her genuine interest in embroidery that saved her career — and helped turn her into a Hani fashion designer. In the course of her travels, she had collected numerous traditional outfits of the Akha people, as the Hani ethnicity is known in Thailand. When her business began to wobble in 2016, she started designing dresses with the embroideries she had collected.

    Unlike the Dai dress makers in and around Jinghong, who are revitalizing traditional Dai fashion by hewing closely to tradition, Er Yan did not merely recreate existing garments and styles. Instead, she worked to make traditional Hani dress simpler, more comfortable, and more fashionable. In the process, she created a hybrid that incorporates Hani design, Miao embroidery, and more breathable modern fabrics. The design she is most proud of is a Hani jacket for male office workers. “I switched out the traditional cloth but kept something very Hani on it at the same time,” she explained. “Now people can wear it in their everyday lives.”

    Growing competition in the minzu feng space has pushed a number of China’s ethnic minority designers to experiment with new styles. But navigating questions of identity, authenticity, and mass appeal remains challenging. Designers must cater to customers’ imaginations of ethnic authenticity, which often boxes them in and denies them the opportunity enjoyed by other fashion designers to try modern materials and trending designs. As one designer who works for an minority-style dress making company in the southwestern city of Dali put it: “You always need to find a balance between the traditional styles and fashionable elements. Or you make the traditional styles even more traditional so that it looks fashionable. But it is very hard in practice.”

    Indeed, despite her efforts, Er Yan’s clothes are still largely reserved for special occasions or uses. Currently, 80% of her products are sold to people in the local Pu’er tea business. Pu’er is perhaps Yunnan’s best-known product, and a major local tea company ordered her clothes as uniforms for all its staff — their way of highlighting the brand’s connection to the province and its people. Many of her other clients work in local government agencies, and either want or need to dress in ethnic clothing on special occasions while still conforming to formal office dress codes.

    Outside of Yunnan, Er Yan faces a more difficult path to mainstream acceptance. Her status as a minority working in ethnic fashion renders her an “other” in an industry in which Western-style clothing is firmly entrenched. She is proud of her Hani heritage — in interviews, she repeatedly emphasized the Hani elements in her work, including the use of black cloth and unique embroidery patterns — but she struggles to translate that attention to detail into mass appeal. “People find Western-style attire more beautiful and comfortable,” she said.

    While publicity comes easy to major minzu feng brands like Kongquewo, independent designers like Er Yan have to build their own buzz. In 2018, she organized the first Hani fashion show in Gao Zhuang, the biggest commercial plaza in Jinghong. Two years later, she attended Yunnan Fashion Week in the provincial capital Kunming, which brought her clothes to a wider audience.

    Although she craves entrance into mainstream circles, Er Yan cannot seem to rise beyond the provincial market. Nevertheless, her work reflects a tectonic shift in Chinese fashion. Long objectified and underrepresented, minority fashion designers are finally entering into a dialogue with the fashion industry.

    Editor: Cai Yiwen.

    (Header image: Visuals from one of Er Yan’s fashion shows and VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)