In the West, the qipao (pronounced “chi-pow”) or mandarin dress mostly brings to mind stereotypes of dim sum waitresses and B-movie starlets. Peggy Tan, the designer behind Mandarin & General, is poised to change all that with her line of easygoing, intelligent staples inspired by the national costume of China. As a first-generation immigrant, Tan faced a common dilemma: how to honor her roots while asserting her modern tastes and values. It was Tan’s dad, an artist and antiques dealer in her native Taipei, who suggested the idea of incorporating traditional Chinese dressmaking techniques into the foundation of her brand. Three years ago, Tan moved back home to train under a pair of master tailors skilled in the endangered craft. The following year, she debuted her first collection. Since then, she’s been quietly reviving the reputation of the qipao from chintzy to chic.
Tan’s vision runs on equal parts humility and pragmatism. Everything is produced locally in New York’s garment district to keep overhead low and quality high. Tan, who has a degree in interior design from Parsons, coded the website herself. But what really fuels things behind the scenes is the spirit of artistic collaboration. For FW/13, Tan tapped Op artist Suzanne Song to translate her geometric paintings of woodgrain into wearable works of art. For SS/13, she teamed up with textile designer Stefanie Singer, who created the signature digital print of animorphs lurking in a kaleidoscope jungle to commemorate Japan’s recent nuclear crisis. The goal, says Tan, is to take Mandarin & General from fledgling label to lifestyle brand.
What’s the inspiration behind Mandarin & General?
I never thought I’d be doing anything close to fashion design, but I remember trying to look for a qipao and not being able to find one. Everything was very commercial, badly constructed and cheap looking, like, with fake decals and a zipper in the back. I was curious why no one was making nice ones. I’ve always been really interested in the idea of a living culture. I’m from Taiwan but my background is Chinese. It’s interesting how Chinese cultural consciousness kind of ceased after World War II when everything was westernized. Back then the standard was a suit, and now it’s a t-shirt and jeans. Globally, things have become much more monocultural. In the past, the earth was a more vibrant and colorful place because everyone wore their own ethnic costumes. I’m not trying to recreate the old world just fantasizing about what my culture would be like if it evolved naturally. It’s my heritage reinterpreted in a contemporary way.
How did the label actually get started?
Since I couldn’t find anything similar, I figured why not just go for it? I might fail but I’d never have to live with the regret of not trying. I started doing a lot of research into the history of Chinese costume. There’s this book that’s really interesting because it has all these essays on the relationship between changes in styles and silhouettes and the political and social climate of the People’s Republic of China. I also wanted to get some practical knowledge about the construction of traditional Chinese garments just to know what elements I could play with. I contacted two master tailors who were apprentices in a Shanghai atelier when they were young and had been working together ever since. I’d read an interview with them where they talked about it being a dying art. They felt like they needed new blood to pass on their craft and revive the industry. At the beginning, they didn’t really want to take me on because they preferred people who could commit for two, three, four years and I had, like, a summer, but I kept bugging them and finally they relented. In 2011, my first capsule collection launched, which was important because I could finally show people how concept translated into execution. To this day it’s one of my favorite collections because it’s so bare bones.
Are there any other brands out there that do what you’re doing?
There are a couple of brands that make Chinese-inspired clothes but I think their target audience is different. Blanc de Chine is very zen and minimal and Shanghai Tang is more pop-art and kitschy. They both cater to a more mature crowd. I see a need for something that’s younger and more downtown chic.
I like that for you ornament is secondary, which is the opposite of how most designers approach the Asian aesthetic.
I’m drawn to the idea of the structural, so the focus is more on traditional tailoring rather than traditional motifs. I’m not writing it off, but I’m more interested in making something that can be worn on a daily basis, so I treat it like I would any other garment. In the West, people still wear a lot of traditional styles that have been reinterpreted in a more casual and wearable way, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I gravitate toward things that are very utilitarian. I like the adage that form follows function. The point is to showcase the structure of the design rather than hide it with decorative elements. I chose the name Mandarin & General because it refers to something that’s Chinese and beyond. I envision it as becoming more of a lifestyle brand.
Each season you collaborate with a different contemporary artist to create a print that represents the theme of the collection. Who are some of the people on your radar right now?
I like to collaborate with friends of mine, who may or may not be professional artists. For example, I collaborate with Stefanie Singer, who’s a textile designer. That works out really well because she knows what she’s doing. I also collaborate with another friend, Craig Redman, who’s a pretty established graphic artist. He did the Darcel Disappoints series, which you might have seen at Opening Ceremony or Colette. I try not to turn it into a gimmick. It’s much more spontaneous. I really enjoy developing ideas in dialogue with other people.
Are you more inspired by artists or designers?
I have to say I’m more inspired by artists than designers. I’ve always wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember, maybe because my father’s an artist. That’s why I’m here in New York. Weirdly, I didn’t go to school for fine art. To be honest, I didn’t feel like I needed to and I was wrong. I grew up watching my father paint every day, so I figured I already knew how to do those things. I actually studied interior design. Tuition was so expensive I figured I might as well learn something completely unfamiliar. But the experience taught me how to tackle down an idea in a conceptual way, solving a problem rather than just focusing on the aesthetic.
Can fashion make a commentary on culture at large?
Fashion is a powerful vehicle for social commentary. As long as it’s tasteful and not meant to offend, anyone is free to express themselves through fashion. It’s ingrained in our culture. It’s democratic. It’s everywhere. It’s something people care about and put a lot of time into. The only thing I can think of that’s potentially more relevant is entertainment. For example, the SS/13 collection was inspired by the impact of nuclear fallout. I was in London hanging out with Stefanie last year right around the anniversary of the Japanese nuclear meltdown. We’re both kind of tree huggers and we got to talking about the legacy of Chernobyl and the discovery of mutated animals in Fukushima. She created the beautiful print that’s featured in the collection. I may not be able to contribute much financially but I can use this opportunity to send out a message through my designs.
Are classic garments more sustainable?
Originally, my goal was to work more within those parameters, but you quickly realize that there are certain rules you have to follow as a designer. You have to meet the deadline of the market. With the first collection, I was more focused on developing a product line. In the fashion industry, you have to come out with a completely new collection twice a year at the minimum because the consumer wants new items every season. Today, trends cycle so fast, there’s not much of a sense of what’s classic. There’s a lot of individualism at play. At the end of the day, it really comes down to what’s flattering for your body, makes you feel comfortable and gives you confidence.
The qipao seems pretty classic.
You’d be surprised. There were trends in the qipao from decade to decade. The silhouette of the twenties is totally different from the silhouette of the eighties. To me, it’s the ultimate Chinese garment in the sense that it’s almost a metaphor for modern China. But, at the same time, a lot of the influence came from Paris, like the fit, which became more body-hugging as time went on, and the hemline, which rose or fell according to the trend.
Do you wear your own designs?
Yes. Right now, they pretty much occupy my closet!
In a nutshell, what exactly are traditional Chinese garment-making techniques?
The type of qipao that interests me the most is the silhouette that was popular in the twenties and thirties, which has very little outside influence from the West. Basically, you take a single piece of fabric, fold it down the middle, take down the measurements and cut the silhouette from that half. But since the collar has an overlapping flap, the trick is to borrow a little extra fabric from one side to form the closure. It’s a little like origami.
What do you think about Louis Vuitton, Dries van Noten, Rodarte and other designers who’ve appropriated the Asian aesthetic in a much more literal way?
I think it’s a response to a particular moment in history. The world started to take notice of China as a rising economic power. I don’t know if that really brings in revenue because I’m not sure whether, at this point and time, the average Chinese consumer making his first big purchase of a Western designer would feel comfortable buying something that looks like it came from his own culture. But even if it didn’t immediately corner the market, it was a public gesture of goodwill.
If Mandarin & General was a movie, which one would it be?
Godard’s La Chinoise or Pierrot le Fou. Someone once described Mandarin & General as “Chinese tailoring meets the French New Wave.”