By Wang Fengjuan
Xia Hua describes her work as enabling urban people to learn about remote mountainous areas, helping the future decipher the past and inspiring the world to understand Chinese aesthetics.
Xia is chair of Eve Group, a fashion company that produces haute couture garments for men. She also founded the Remote Mountain Bazaar, a regular marketplace showcasing fashion products inspired by Chinese ethnic cultures.
After giving up a secure job as a university professor, Xia built Eve Group from scratch. She then shifted focus to empowering ethnic minority women in remote mountainous areas. As each chapter of her life has unfolded, the constant has remained pursuit of beauty.
Quest for Beauty
“Every Eve team member pours passion into each garment,” declared Xia, recognizing aesthetic pursuit as a motivating power.
Xia Hua was born to a poor family in northeast China’s Liaoning Province in the 1970s. She grew up before China’s reform and opening-up in a time when people had limited access to even basic necessities. Xia recalled dreaming of wearing beautiful outfits during Spring Festival. Every morning before the day, neatly folded clothes constructed from used sheets would greet her.
“My mom made dreams come true,” Xia gushed. “When altering outfits for me, she sowed seeds in my heart. I imagined that one day I could do magic like her and make beautiful clothes for people around me.”
Xia Hua graduated from China University of Political Science and Law in 1991 and became a teacher at the school. A survey trip commissioned by the State Council changed her life. Convinced of the market potential of men’s apparel during the trip, she resigned from her university post in favor of starting an adventure in fashion as a sales representative.
“I consider myself a brave person,” Xia insisted. “It only took a half day to make the decision. I insisted despite opposition from my family.”
Xia started her business from scratch. She founded the EVE Group in Beijing in 1994. That autumn, she made a bold move by making men’s suits with a tartan design and colorful woolen cloth for a market saturated with suits in black, dark blue and grey. The original suits were well received by consumers, especially fashionistas. Xia reaped impressive profits. “To maintain your edge in the business world, you have to keep trying new things,” she said.
Over 25 years, EVE Group has launched the brands Eve, Notting Hill, Kevin Kelly and Jaques Pritt. In 2003, many people started avoiding shopping malls due to the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in Beijing. At that time, Eve Group operated more than 100 outlets in shopping malls. In response, Xia Hua rolled out butler services, delivering customized door-to-door service on demand. While keeping past customers, the move won many new buyers who were previously loyal to other brands.
“We know the customer better than they do and customize clothes based on seasons and occasions,” she explained. “Like private doctors, the butler service has become increasingly popular among elites.”
Her fashion design team has customized apparel for big names like Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Inc., Jet Li, film actor and martial artist, and Liu Chuanzhi, founder of computer maker Lenovo.
When Xia Hua brought her brands to Paris and London fashion weeks, she found herself pondering new questions. “What type of aesthetic value are you presenting to the world?” “Where are you from?” She started to examine the roots of Chinese culture and Chinese aesthetics.
Xia sought answers to these questions alongside her designers.
A visit to a small village in Qianxinan Bouyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China’s Guizhou Province 16 years ago provided her an answer in Chinese traditional culture. To her, the trip was a romantic encounter.
In the remote mountainous areas of Guizhou, embroidery varies by village and person. On the same subject of butterfly embroidery, some works shine due to the detail while others stand out due to extraordinary color matching. Some embroiders excel at flowers and others at portraits. She was even more intrigued that every pattern is not only unique in aesthetics but conveys mythology or an epic ballad distinctive to the ethnic group. An embroidery portrait, in the eyes of a Miao girl, is about romance between a butterfly and bubbles.
It’s hard for Xia to hold back tears when recalling the game changing moments. During her first trip, the local village head, keen on attracting investment, gathered senior villagers dressed in traditional costumes for a meeting and asked Xia to deliver a speech. Looking into the eager faces, Xia was almost speechless. “I mean, thank you for showing me the most beautiful art,” Xia recalled managing to utter. “And then the village head poked me in the back, reminding me to say something meaningful to the villagers.”
Xia realized that she needed to relate to the humble and kind villagers in a way that touched them. “I am ready to work with you and turn your embroidery skills into a profitable business,” she announced. “When we make enough money, I will take you all to Beijing.” Her promises were greeted with warm applause. “And I will take you to London, too.” Silence followed, and the village head asked what “London” was.
This trip launched Xia’s involvement in China’s targeted poverty reduction campaign. She decided to introduce Chinese traditional art to international fashion circles through taking the villagers to London.
Xia Hua’s efforts have changed the lives of tens of thousands of female embroiders in Guizhou. Pan Yuzhen, a 74-year-old expert embroiderer, is among them. “I never imagined making money from embroidery,” Pan gasped. “It used to be only for daily use. Everyone can make it on their own, and no one would buy it from others.”
Still, the last 16 years have been a bumpy road. Xia built a workshop and adopted a made-on-demand approach at first, but some finished products failed to meet the required standards. She responded by sending designers to the village and giving embroiderers training classes. However, what local people could produce was far from widely-embraced art products. It remained a challenge to figure out how to produce valuable embroidery that would fetch top dollar.
Xia Hua tried many things. She sent embroiders to work in Beijing, but that attempt failed because they were not accustomed to life in Beijing so they went home. To Xia’s surprise, when she visited the village the next year, the locals had abandoned embroidery in favor of peddling snacks to support the family. Xia didn’t give up. She visited every household and convinced them that embroidery was the future.
Over the past five years, Xia Hua opened a museum focused on embroidery in the village and stationed fashion designers there to help them understand the culture behind the craft. She realized that she could not promote embroidery alone and began to mobilize entrepreneurs into the business.
Eventually, she established an online platform integrating more than 13,000 embroiders capable of 5,000 patterns and an association for Chinese crafts joined by more than 20 fashion institutions and their designers. Through the online platform, fashion designers in Paris or Milan can choose embroidery patterns and embroiders in the village will perform the work to requested specifications. Embroidery patterns have been used by luxury fashion brands including Hermes, Burberry and Aspinal.
Xia also delivered on the promise she made during her first trip to the village. She took local women out of the mountains to see the outside world. Pan Yuzhen’s first stop was Beijing followed by Shenzhen, Shanghai and Xi’an. Pan even made it in London. To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the establishment of China-UK diplomatic relations in September 2017, Eve Group organized a fashion show in London to showcase original apparels inspired by Chinese culture. Pan and her fellow villagers also performed the craft of embroidery on the runway.
Pan still remembers every detail of the trip two years later. “The foreigners love our embroidery,” she smiled. “They all nodded and applauded in approval.”
Craft for Daily Life
In late January 2018, Pan’s village became boisterous as women dressed up to welcome guests from afar. They were expecting Sir John Peace, ex chairman of British fashion house Burberry, Lady Barbara Judge, co-founder of the craftsmanship incubator B&H, and Louise Hogberg, senior manager of global corporate communications at Burberry, who were all invited by Xia Hua. Peace described the scenery as extraordinarily beautiful and said he would never forget the valuable trip.
Xia’s project to promote embroidery finally emerged as a cultural brand acclaimed by international fashion insiders. Australian businesswoman and ex-fashion model June Dally Watkins endorsed the cause, and Lady Barbara Judge became an important partner. Global renowned fashion designer Alber Elbaz established cooperation with the brand. Partnering businesses now include Mercedes-Benz and Canon. Xia has showcases the craft during fashion weeks in New York City, London and Milan as well as at China Fashion Week and Shanghai Fashion Week.
“Fashion and beauty transcend national boundaries,” Xia insisted. “Embroidery ismostly for exhibition and few people wear it.” In the future, she hopes to work with tens of thousands of fashion designers from across the globe to integrate traditional culture and fashion into people’s daily life and establish a national brand in the international fashion market.
Embroidery products constructed by Pan’s fellow villagers have infiltrated urban life via the Remote Mountain Bazaar. In August 2019, the bazaar opened in Beijing to showcase scarves, apparel, handbags, porcelain and jewelry with ethnic characteristics. Shoppers were invited to experience traditional craftsmanship with interactive activities. Xia, dressed in hand-made costume, shared her reflections. She determined that the bazaar exposed urban consumers to the aesthetic attitudes of inheritors of the Chinese traditional craft as well as their persistence. Recognition from urban consumers with great purchasing power makes a huge difference for inheritors struggling to escape poverty and find prosperity, according to Xia. So far, the bazaar has been organized in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Xi’an, and it is set to go overseas soon.
The most popular products are notebooks with embroidered covers. In the Taobao online store of Remote Mountain Bazaar, the notebooks sell for 100 to 200 yuan each (US$14.13 to US$28.27). A skilled embroiderer can make six to eight such notebooks a day and now earn 80 yuan (US$11.3) for each one.
“Women living in mountainous rural villages have to take care of the family,” Xia explained. “This business enables them to maintain a decent life while taking care of the children and tending the farm animals.”