Uma Wang: Organic Ambition

Uma Wang’s aesthetics and design approach has contributed to changing the perception of Chinese fashion. fluoro spoke with the renowned designer.

After studying in London at the renowned Central Saint Martins, fashion designer Uma Wang returned to her home country, before a series of organic events led her to launching her label in England in 2005.

We sat down with Wang on the balcony upstairs of her Shanghai studio, discussing her diverse history, approach to design, and influences. The designer was at ease, pausing to feed her two cats before starting the interview.

f. In a different approach to other Chinese designers, Uma Wang was first well built overseas before starting to expand in China. Was there a conscious reason for this approach? 

UW. The birth of Uma Wang was coincidental. After finishing studying in England I returned to China and was only doing knitwear. One of my friends suggested that a collection of solely knitwear is not complex to form since the element is single. I could bring the collections back to England to promote by using the connections I had built. The early collections were not fully constructed but did well because people love wool and cashmere. The price points were also competitive and soon we had plenty stockists but the Uma Wang back then was totally different to now. It was much more basic and simple.

f. How did your experience working in a manufacturing factory in China influence your work?

UW. It was such a fascinating experience. At school I learnt all the theory but at the factory, I encountered the real textile. I got to feel the various thickness of the yarn and saw the different textures coming out of weaving. These things are out of control because the slightly different force you put in when weaving would lead to different outcomes. I have a natural keenness on fabrics that I spent eight hours a day with the manufactures, experimenting and practicing on all the weaving machines. From this experience, I started to develop my own fabric.

f. Do you recognise your roots in Chinese culture as one of the influences of your work?

UW. There certainly is some. But I don’t feel it when I’m designing. I actually try to avoid Eastern symbols and elements during the design process because I feel they are widely abused. The depth of culture should not flow on the surface but be under the skin. Hence I’m pleased when I received comments about seeing the Chinese culture in Uma Wang because I didn’t want to bluntly show it but people sense it, which means I have it IN me and it was naturally blended into my work.

People frequently asked me about my ‘made in Italy’ fabrics. To me they are not merely Italian fabrics because I put my effort into them. The concept of region is blurred and where it could lead is boundless. That would be the ideal state to achieve.

f. Still your clothes naturally deliver a sense of traditional Chinese philosophy, a typical Chinese value of calm, humble and low profile. Is this the sort of vibe you would specifically want to create?

UW. It’s actually an influence coming from my family. My dad was a Chinese medicine practitioner so I was surrounded and attracted by aged Eastern stuff ever since my childhood. (Uma Wang’s creased paper swing tag with traditional Chinese typography is a tribute to Chinese medicine wrapping package.) I never deliberately seek for them but every time I do design research, I end up with the similar things that appealed to me. People always ask me whether I have a muse or an ideal icon for my clothes. I don’t have one, though if I did she would be someone who had been through a lot, whether it is hardship or joy, who is no longer ambitious and doesn’t desire much. I don’t mean by not wanting anything, but you reach this stage where you don’t over consume and become aware of exactly what you want and what truly suits you.

On weekends I would scout around my stores observing. People would tell me not to be there for the sake of brand image, but I’m so curious about my customers. I want to know their stories and why they like Uma Wang. I found most of them getting huge amount of self-satisfaction when wearing my clothes, which touches me. They don’t have to be rich but they are rich at heart.

f. Your clothes play the role as serving people and bringing out the true self, rather than defining or overwhelming them. 

UW. The AW14 collection presents a carefree nomad’s journey, exploring from the Himalayan ranges to Medieval Italy. A Ukraine buyer came to the showroom and commented, “I see traveling. I see the Dalai Lama, the Buddha, to Jesus and Mohammed.” I was deeply moved. None of them were in my mind when I was designing but they literally are the religious symbols in my story. So she did get it right without me trying to persuade.

Each season, the show took a lot of effort to realise. But afterwards when I received feedback and interpretations I always felt grateful. The clothes become a medium here to connect all the amazing people and great minds together. That’s what I enjoy the most as a fashion designer.

f. When it comes to fashion, people do their homework now, and the potential Uma Wang costumers seem to be one of them. Still you prefer to be discovered, and those who love the design will follow naturally.

UW. We have an old saying “Good wine needs no bush”? (An old Chinese saying that often refers to something precious, that no matter how far it is hidden, would be found.) The idea of self-promotion doesn’t appeal to me. So far I let the clothes speak for themselves. I believe the more effort you put into your collection, the more people will see.

f. Your fabric has always been a brand signature. Did your experience in textiles make you decide to focus on fabrics? 

UW. Yes. Fashion gets quiet assimilated nowadays. So why not explore the depth of the content? When the fabric is done right, you don’t need to try hard to ‘create’ silhouettes. That’s why our craftsmanship aims to get more and more exquisite while the collections tend to be more and more wearable. You could also regard this as me trying to differentiate Uma Wang with the other labels, but I just want to use the way I’m most familiar with to present my brand. I’m really happy to hear it’s working quiet well.

I feel very grateful to have Italian fabric manufacturers as the support for my design. But they actually thanked me for passing on an Eastern spirit as we work together. Italians love doing full-on, divine fabrics but I suggested to them to stop at certain point because in China we have this ‘blank-leaving’ aesthetics.

f. You need to leave some space for people to think through?

UW. The world we are living in now is developing at an incredible speed. We don’t have time to carefully watch a movie or read through a book because there are so many of them being pushed in front of us. Few things sustain. I hope my clothes will trigger people to think deeply.

I don’t think Uma Wang is anything new and I don’t regard myself as an avant-garde designer. All I can do is keep trying the best I can do, providing people an alternative choice of clothing and hopefully provoke some thoughts, and that’s more than enough.

Uma Wang now available in Australia at Cose Ipanema.

Interview: Youpo Jiang.

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