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Couture king

Published on Friday, 24 May 2013
Barney Cheng
Photo: Gary Mak

Young designers must do more hard graft, Barney Cheng tells Annemarie Evans

There’s nothing ostentatious about Barney Cheng. Hong Kong’s premier fashion designer, whose clients include actresses Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung, is refreshingly down to earth as he sits for a chat at his Central design studio, surrounded by evening gowns. While his clientele list probably still favours the ladies, Cheng, 46, has realised men are just as happy to spend money on themselves – maybe even more than their partners would spend on them.

“It’s actually quite fun as we’re doing quite a bit more menswear now that we have more mainland Chinese clients,” says Cheng. “Two years ago, I had never heard of Record Bale fabrics. And now, I realise that men are more willing to spend more money on themselves than their girlfriends and wives are. So we’re doing Record Bale woollens. There’s a new market for woven jackets and suits, so it’s a great market for us to tap into with ‘out of this world’ fabrics.”

The general fashion trend over the past two years, adds Cheng, has been towards customisation and personalisation, “whatever we can do to make it more unique or bespoke, people love it”. So, if Cheng and his staff are creating an alligator jacket for the lady, then they use bits and pieces from the cutouts for the husband’s jacket, say as the bottom of a fold-down lapel. “So it gets more couture and fun,” he adds.

Born in 1966, Cheng is the cousin of milliner Jocelyn Cheng and the grandson of the family patriarch, who ran a metals firm with his brothers. Cheng’s mother always inspired him to go into fashion, but it was the support of Cheng’s grandfather that took him into a career that he loves.

 Cheng was educated in Canada, but back home in Hong Kong, he comes from a seriously large extended family.

“The family business started off with heavy industries like aluminium extraction and copper mills in Hong Kong,” Cheng says.

His father helped design the aluminium windows on the Mei Foo public housing estate and always wanted to be an architect, but was instead absorbed into the family business.

It was Cheng who headed off with a scholarship to the University of Waterloo in Canada to study architecture and fulfil his father’s dream – in theory. Cheng didn’t complete the course, but instead turned to his real love – fashion.

“I always wanted to be in fashion, but it wasn’t exactly something that someone from a Chinese family should wish to do. You should either go back to the family business or else become a lawyer or a banker. So in the extended family, the reaction was: ‘Oh, what’s Barney Cheng going to do? He’s never going to amount to anything. He wants to be a tailor.’”

In 1993, Cheng won a Hong Kong young designers’ competition and had the foresight to invite his grandfather. “I won in the woven category. My grandfather was really happy that I was bringing recognition to the family name. With my grandfather’s blessing, my father said: ‘Off you go, find your own studio and do your own thing.’”

While the turnover of interns at Cheng’s office is fairly regular, staff at his workshop are long stayers. His oldest employee has been with him for 18 years, and for Cheng, it’s a godsend as she knows what he wants – every time.

Cheng does get somewhat frustrated at the lack of opportunity for fashion shows for himself and young and upcoming fashion designers in Hong Kong. And, while he says currently he has “darling” interns, he feels many need to improve their work attitude.

Cheng, Hong Kong’s 1996 Fashion Designer of the Year, says budding young fashion designers need to be prepared to do the hard graft, and gain as much experience as they can without always worrying about the salary.

“When I was doing an apprenticeship in Paris, people were working for free and they were in their late 20s. In Hong Kong, it’s a completely different mindset. Even when I have high-school students [gaining experience], I have to sign the form and pay them even when I am teaching them.”

And they need to do more research. “I’ll say, let’s do something Art Deco-ish, and they don’t know what Art Deco is. They don’t believe in art history, they don’t believe in anything beyond the 1970s, it’s a bit shallow. I need them to be more inquisitive, to spend less time on Instagram and find out what other people do and like,” Cheng says, adding that the lack of fashion artisans in Hong Kong and the mainland is also troubling.

Cheng is, of course, famous for the sensual and crystal-encrusted, tiger-striped cheongsam worn by regular client and friend Michelle Yeoh to the Academy Awards in Hollywood in 2001, when the Chinese movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars.

He’s also created red-carpet gowns for mainland actress Gong Li and Joan Chen. Other clients include Sandra Bernhard, Veronica Yip and Liza Minelli.

One of Cheng’s signatures is lace appliqué. “My clients love lace. That’s one of our signatures – we do amazing lace appliqué. With our lace appliqué, we promise we can get them down one dress size visually,” Cheng says.

So what’s ahead? “It’s a new chapter – I’m ready to tackle ready to wear again. I have an amazing couture clientele. I’m very excitable and I’m excited now,” he says.

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