Catwalk Down The Mountains | China Unlocked

By Wang Fengjuan, Yun Xiu

Designs featuring cultural elements of the Yi ethnic group are presented at a runway show during Kunming Ethnic Fashion Week on June 16, 2019.

On June 13, Kunming Ethnic Fashion Week kicked off in the capital of southwestern China’s Yunnan Province as a major sideline event of the Colorful Yunnan Ethnic Costume Cultural Festival 2019. During the seven-day fashion gala, a series of runway shows displayed clothes from Yunnan’s Kunming and Chuxiong as well as Southeast Asian nations, offering the audience a unique traditional costume feast.

“It’s awesome to see foreign models dressed in ethnic wear of China,” exclaimed Ms. Li from Yunnan, who applauded the designers for their ingenuity in blending ethnic traditions with fashionable elements.


Time-honored Tradition

Yunnan is home to nearly 30 ethnic minorities. A grand ceremonial occasion showcasing traditional costumes and the art of embroidery, the Dress Contest Festival celebrated by the Yi people is renowned as an epitome of colorful folk culture in the province.

Celebration of the Dress Contest Festival has a history of over 1,350 years in Zhiju Village in Yunnan’s Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture. The festival is said to have originated from a sacrificial ceremony for power transfers of the village head in ancient times. Legend also holds that the event was originally held to select partners for Zhaoliruo and Zhaolaruo, two hunter brothers who found a fertile land more than a millennium ago and developed it into a thriving village now known as Zhiju. With a written record starting 600 years ago, observance of the special day has remained an important custom of the Yi people in the village for generations.

On the 15th day of the first lunar month every year, young Yi girls in Zhiju get dressed early in the morning and stream into the fairground. All costumes presented at the festival are designed and embroidered by the “models” themselves, and they change into six or seven outfits during the day-long event. When the celebration kicks off, crowds of the Yi people from across the region gather in the mountain village and a spectacular rural “fashion show” is staged along with various festive activities such as singing and dancing.

Villagers celebrate the Dress Contest Festival in Zhiju, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, on February 19, 2019.

For the Yi girls, the festival is also a competition for embroidery skills. Yi embroidery features a wide variety of patterns ranging from natural phenomena (i.e. wind, rain, thunder and lightning) to celestial objects (sun, moon and stars), natural landscapes (mountains, rivers, trees and rocks), animals and human figures. Such varied patterns are found not only on hats, clothes and bodices, but also on handbags, shoes and insoles. Designed and produced with ingenious workmanship, each embroidered dress is a unique piece of art full of cultural symbols that convey the collective memory of the Yi people. Even works of the same maker have subtle differences in terms of images, colors and composition. Normally, it takes almost two years to finish a complete set of traditional women’s wear.

Launched in 2016, the Colorful Yunnan Ethnic Costume Cultural Festival has evolved into a nationally popular cultural brand of the province. The annual event has played an important role in promoting brilliant Chinese folk culture and boosting high-quality development of Yunnan’s tourism industry, injecting new vitality into the time-honored customs of the Yi ethnic group.

The fourth year of the cultural festival kicked off in Zhuju Village on February 19. Thanks to high-profile publicity, the well-planned event this year attracted many spectators from home and abroad as well as well- known scholars of folklore and reporters from mainstream media, opening a window for the outside world to understand the Yi people from remote mountainous areas of Yunnan and appreciate their unique culture.

An art performance at the Dress Contest Festival in Zhiju, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province.


Needlework for Generations

In Chuxiong, Yi girls start practicing needlework as soon as they can walk. Typically they can finish a piece of work on their own by the age of seven and have a solid command of embroidery skills by 14 or 15. Instilled with passion for embroidery, every Yi girl vigorously pursues superb craftsmanship. Their happiness increases with each sewed pattern, and their optimism and perseverance are embodied in the embroidered clothes constructed by their tireless hands.

“I remember my mom and grandma doing needlework all the time when I was young,” recalled Li Run, an 11-year-old Yi girl who developed interest in embroidery at the age of two. “They produced very beautiful images on fabric, and I looked to them to learn how to do it.” The girl’s plain words explain how this craftsmanship of the Yi people has been passed down from generation to generation in the small mountain village. But skillful Yi women never considered presenting their embroidery on a bigger stage until recently.

Each tiny stitch of a needle can make a difference. Since the annual Colorful Yunnan Ethnic Costume Cultural Festival was launched three years ago, numerous embroidery companies have emerged in Chuxiong, and the Yi clothing business has begun to thrive, which in turn propelled the creative industry in the region.

“In the past, production of embroidered clothes was primarily a family-based business,” explained an official with the prefectural government of Chuxiong. “Now it has transformed into a large-scale, market-oriented industry.” With an annual output value of 150 million yuan (US$21.8 million) yielded by more than 70,000 workers in 57 embroidery cooperatives and 400 businesses, Chuxiong is currently evolving into a Chinese hub of Yi embroidery and clothing that integrates intangible cultural heritage demonstration and preservation into garment design, production and marketing. Now the region is striving to reach the goal of creating production value of 1 billion (US$0.15 billion) with 100,000 needleworkers by 2035.

Large-scale production of embroidered clothes has contributed greatly to the overall development of the culture industry in the province according to a senior official from the provincial government of Yunnan. “We aspire to achieve substantial progress in the development of our culture industry through concrete but unconventional measures,” he declared. “So, we are working hard to reorganize our cultural resources, and the Colorful Yunnan Ethnic Costume Cultural Festival has been a resounding success.”

Villagers in traditional costumes at the Dress Contest Festival in Zhiju, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province.


A New Day for Old Fashion

Accompanied by a melodious song about the camellia, the city flower of Kunming, groups of models strutted the catwalk during a show of Kunming Ethnic Fashion Week. They showcased ingenious creations that integrate the quaint, traditional and indigenous elements into exquisite, fashionable and international styles, blessing the traditional ethnic costumes with a brand new look.

Kunming Ethnic Fashion Week provides apparel makers from home and abroad a platform for product display as well as a glimpse into the international fashion industry. More than 40 clothing enterprises from China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand attended the event and presented costumes of 25 ethnic groups including Yi, Miao, Zhuang, Bai, Dai, Hani and Lahu. Yi embroidery, Bai tie-dye and Dai brocade on the runway stunned the audience of the event.

Well-known fashion designers from Southeast Asian countries along the Belt and Road were invited to the grand gathering to exchange views on fashion culture with their Chinese counterparts. Together, they staged a feast of gorgeous ethnic clothing and an exhibition of fashion design embracing traditional ethnic elements.

This was not the first time for Yi embroidery to be displayed at a fashion event. In October 2016, model-turned-designer Ma Yanli presented a runway show during China International Fashion Week in Beijing to release a haute couture collection featuring 50 creations inspired by the unique tradition and culture of the Yi ethnic group, which became a sensation in the world of fashion.

Clothes designed with elements of Yi embroidery will hit the stage at New York Fashion Week this September, which is expected to further promote Yunnan’s colorful ethnic culture in the international arena.

Copyedited by Tian Yuerong

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