Meet the creatives behind Shanghai Black Fashion Week

The movers and shakers behind the event share their experiences as creatives of colour on the China scene

Shanghai’s first Black Fashion Week is just days around the corner, offering young designers across China a chance to step into the spotlight and launch their brands in one of the most thriving markets in the world. Ahead of the launch, five movers and shakers behind the event to share their stories as creatives of colour in 21st-century China.

'Work till you no longer need to introduce yourself.' Hu John is a man of his words, and as we chat in the café of his spacious Puxi office, it seems those words have paid off. He set up shop in Shanghai back in 2012 when he launched his popular online channel SES China, and has since then been making waves in fashion, sports and theatre as a director, producer and media personality. 

'I went to Shanghai Fashion Week the past four years,' he explains when asked about the inspiration behind his latest project. 'I was filming it, taking pictures of it, behind the scenes meeting models, designers etcetera. The thing about Shanghai Fashion Week though is you’ll only see three different types of people; the French, the Russians, and the Chinese. There was only one American designer and he was a guest designer, but looking at myself I’m not an ordinary American, so how can I be represented?'

A platform for fashion designers to get exposure does not exist outside of Shanghai Fashion Week, so Hu John decided to create one. 'It’s a fashion week to show that a lot of cultures stem from black people,' he explained. 'But don’t think that we call it black, so it's only black – we’re not that cut and dry. We wanted to create a platform that would be inclusive of any other culture that doesn’t have a light. We’re making this an international thing amongst the colour black.'

On this season's theme, which is Royalty, Hu John explains 'We are not really the hip hop artists that you tend to see all the time. We are a mixture of a whole lot of different things. It also helps with the branding of Africa, because a lot of people principally associate African brands with poverty. Each country also has its own version of kings and queens from way back, and there are particular designers, especially from Africa who want to represent the best side. And we want to challenge that concept that ‘rich’ and ‘black’ generally don’t combine.'

As the first season for Black Fashion Week draws closer, Hu John’s eyes are set on his designers. 'I want these people to make money.' Just the application fee alone for Shanghai Fashion Week stands at around 40,000RMB, while many of his designers are self-funded, working full-time day jobs to cover their overheads. 'We’ve got this one girl Nadia who’s a student in Hebei way up north, but she took a 17-hour train down to come and show us her designs. That’s commitment. So when you see this you think "Man, I'll take commitment and hard work over people that think they’re cool."'

One of the most established designers in this season’s line-up, few in Shanghai can boast the same pedigree as Benjamin Kontoh. The British-Ghanaian creative cut his teeth on London’s Savile Row, before coming to China to set up his bespoke tailoring business. Brush & Saccy Bespoke currently has three offices in Suzhou, Shanghai and Taizhou in Zhejiang province.

'Savile Row was extremely influential – it shaped me into who I am,' explains Kontoh, whose mentors included Ozwald Boateng – the first black tailor to open a shop on the famous thoroughfare.

In 2009 he travelled to China to launch his own brand. 'I felt that tailoring in the UK was already so set in its ways,' he explains. 'I've always admired how China has come so far to develop into what it is today, so I thought this would be the perfect environment for me to build myself up and develop my brand.' He initially spent two years studying IT security at Nanjing University, after which he moved to Suzhou to teach English to adults. It was during this time that he picked up his first customers. 

'Through word of mouth it moved from there until I didn’t have to teach English anymore. It’s not been easy though,' he adds, 'The business culture is different; you need resources, and not just financial resources but connections.'

Being black in China has reportedly helped Kontoh set up his business. 'It has its stereotypes, true, but because the way I was perceived and what I did for a living did not sync up, when I told people about my tailoring business, they were fascinated, it has actually been incredibly helpful in getting my brand out there.'

His penchant for loud, eye-catching apparel has earned him the respect of many of China’s growing upper and middle class. When I ask what his secret ingredient is, he laughs, '3D Virtual Bespoke is definitely part of it' – he's referring to the 3D software he developed himself, so that he could show costumers what their garment would look like before work had even started. 'Customers get something that is never less than 99 percent what they asked for.'

Aside from presenting his own Spring Summer collection at Black Fashion Week, Kontoh is also part of the team running the event. 'I believe there are very talented people out there who have come from nowhere, and if I’m the only person that is successful in China then I don’t see that as a success. That’s why Black Fashion Week is something that is so close to my heart. It is above all, about unveiling undiscovered talents.'

You can catch Brush & Saccy Bespoke at Shanghai Black Fashion Week on November 18 at 7pm.
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Melissa Hyatt’s recipe for fashion calls for three basic ingredients: nature, love and nudity. The New York designer, who introduces herself as Missy, began learning to make clothes at the age of 16 and later cut her teeth with Shanghai womenswear labels Lily and Etam. Returning to China for a second time in 2014, she decided it was here that she wanted to launch her own brand. 'I like the way that women dress here. It’s elite, classy, sometimes sexy, and it all depends on the individual. My brand is somewhat of that.'

Naloveked is a 'mixture of the different personalities of one woman.' Opening up Missy’s closet reveals a wide range of varying and very different looks, from space-age metallic playsuits to long, generously draped gowns befitting of a Grecian pantheon. However with each avatar it's very clear that the wearer is wearing the clothes, not the other way around. 'I have a Jamaican descent,' Missy explains, 'and in my culture, women are very sexy, very visual, and not afraid to wear clothes that are very revealing. It’s very bold – it says I’m here, and I like that.'

Flicking through the Naloveked Instagram page, a long, embroidered sheer catches my eye. It’s figure-hugging, exuberant, and practically dripping in gold. Where does Missy get her ideas? 'It’s not really a question of what I see, really more the moment I’m in. You know, sometimes I feel like a goddess and I want to look like a Grecian goddess, so I create something that’s regal and powerful and bold. Other times I just want to be sexy and not care, so I’ll create something that communicates that feeling.'

Missy’s new collection, The Garden of Eden, draws inspiration from her Christian upbringing, and the biblical story of Adam and Eve. 'I wanted to ask what life would be like if we were more aware of our nakedness and used elements of the earth to be beautiful.' We’re told to expect floral motifs and the colours of nature, as well an intertwining of Chinese aesthetics and Missy’s own creative eye.

You can catch Naloveked at Shanghai Black Fashion Week on November 18 at 5pm.
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'I’m a strong person; assertive, definitely persistent. Some people might call it "nagging" but I believe you can’t sit on "no" forever.' With a sunniness to her that is nothing if not infectious, it’s difficult to see what anyone could find grating about Amy Malonda, but the dynamism is certainly there. 

Malonda launched her streetwear brand Patches by Amy in Summer 2015, after two years spent studying Business Administration at Wuhan University. 'Coming to China I felt like I was losing a part of myself,' she recalls. 'There was no cultural point of reference for someone of my background here, and so I created Patches as a way of feeling more at home.'

'In the beginning Patches was like taking a white piece of paper and drawing on it.' Malonda would alter plain t-shirts, 'pimping it out' with texture, colour and prints from her native Zambia and the surrounding region.

'I always like to have a bit of a "wow factor",' she laughs as she shows me a picture of a kaleidoscopic combat boot in ultramarine, red and yellow. Her designs are not all Africa-born however, drawing inspiration from a number of regional styles around the world from paisley to geometric Aztec prints. 'I like to look for an overlap in cultures,' she explains. 'I even get people coming to me with their own clothes to see what I can do with it. I really like that actually because it helps me ensure that they feel comfortable in their own clothes.'

Malonda's latest collection – Patches by Army – will be showing this weekend at Shanghai Black Fashion Week. 'The garments are not conventionally feminine. I wanted it to be about wearing what you want, when you want; I wanted it to be about being strong. I’ve also brought in more metallics because of their association with royalty [the theme for this season], and because I feel the gold and silver represents confidence in women.'

You can catch Patches by Amy at Shanghai Black Fashion Week on November 18 at 6pm. 

They say your school years are the best years of your life, but if anyone is making the most of those years, it’s Jessica Erna Tan. In addition to a full-time gig studying Economics and International Trade at the University of Xiamen, the Papua New Guinean creative also manages Diversity, her self-started fashion label shaped around West African ankara prints. 

'My days are busy,' she smiles as we meet outside one of her lecture halls. 'During the day I have school, followed by a part-time job, and then in the evening I work on my clothes until two to five in the morning. I also have someone who’s teaching me to make clothes. That’s basically my every single day. I enjoy it though,' she assures us, beaming out an unquestionable smile.

Diversity is centred around ankara fabric, a pollen wax that is used widely in Subsaharan Africa but whose origins lie in Java. Tan first became familiar with the style in Shanghai, which has a growing African population. 'I’ve always loved African fabric, but Shanghai was where that love really grew,' she explains. 'Although I’m not African, I wanted to create a brand that would help styles like ankara to be as globally visual as Western suits.'

When I ask about how her brand is being received by local Chinese buyers, she brims with excitement. 'They just keep coming back. Educating new buyers about the prints and the history behind them is all part of the process. My customers get very curious about the origin of the designs and fabrics that go into them. I even send them additional reading material and they do their homework. We’re getting them to fall in love with the pieces, the prints, and everything else, and that’s what’s really exciting about working here.'

In the past Tan has blended elements of hanfu (Traditional Chinese clothing) and ankara, but this season her collection Ankara Frost hits somewhere closer to home. 'It’s actually inspired by my little sister – she has a crazy sense of fashion. I designed a couple of pieces for her and her boyfriend to wear to Shanghai Fashion Week. They loved it and so did I.'

You can catch Diversity at Shanghai Black Fashion Week on November 18 at 1pm.