By  on July 10, 2007

SHANGHAI — Han Feng is trying to disprove the Thomas Wolfe maxim that you can't go home again.

The designer, who moved to New York in 1985 from her native Shanghai, has been visiting this city regularly for seven years and in 2006 began living here part-time. She's now exploring the challenge of reentering a Chinese market that has changed dramatically from the one she left.

"When I left, I never thought I'd come back. In the 1980s, it was still very painful, very hard for artists in China," she recounted.

"I like the scene here very much, but on the street what they're wearing is just what is left over from what's made for exports," said the designer about her native Shanghai. However, "China is growing, and fashion here will soon have its own personality.

"When I left China, there was no fashion at all," she recalled. "Now, it has everything. But I don't really know. I am still like a tourist here, living on an island, in the parties, on these blocks [around Huaihai Zhong Lu], so I just see a small portion of China. And there are so many brands coming into the market, I wouldn't know how to choose between them if I was just here and going on their local marketing."

She said her favorite local designers were Ca Gang and Zhang Yali, but she cited the example of a Chinese-American aspiring designer living here who was recently featured in Chinese Vogue, despite not actually having any products yet. "The magazines are desperate to have anything to write about," she said.

In April, Han had her first show here, a glitzy affair at the historical Children's Palace. She had a sales space at Three on the Bund's third-floor boutique from December 2003 to spring 2005. "I had had a good deal with Handal [Lee, the project's former director], based on sales commission, but the management of Three on the Bund changed, with Handal not in charge anymore, and the new management was not cooperative and they wanted high rent," she said of her reasons for giving up the shop.She now sells out of her home and studio, located in the Art Deco Jinjiang Hotel, and employs a team of four, while exploring other possible sales outlets. "China contains my market, and lots of Shanghainese come shopping," she said, adding that about 60 to 70 percent of her customers here are wealthy foreign tourists "who come to China and want something unique." The rest "are local, like art dealers, successful artists and businessmen's wives. Compared to New York, I get more artists and more businesswomen, and lawyers and bankers who are successful enough to brave wearing something more unusual."

Han admitted she was still figuring out how the fashion industry works — or, often, does not work — in China. Her first show was about "seeing how China works, who is good for me and not, getting to know the p.r. companies and making friends. Chinese p.r. companies are not professional; they're still learning. They think they know everything, but they don't," she observed. "I don't know much about luxury brands, since I don't look like them. From what I had heard, I expected that Plaza 66 would be supergood, but I went and nobody was there. Maybe I went at the wrong time?"

"I love the parties here; H&M [for the opening of its store] was my favorite," Han enthused. "No one will spend this much on events in New York. The fanciest was Prada at the Peace Hotel. The crowds for these in Shanghai are pretty good, much more fashionable. People dress up more here than they do in the U.S."

The other main difference, she observed, was that "in New York, it is inspiring to see so many other designers. In Shanghai, you see all the traditional craftsmen who can make anything imaginable by hand. I am inspired in the U.S. by artists. Here, craftsmen can let you explore production techniques that, in the U.S., would be too expensive, if doable at all. Here, you can make something happen, and very fast. In the U.S., everyone plans very far in advance, and you can only move so fast."Han is slated for inclusion in two large exhibitions in the fall showcasing contemporary Chinese creativity, one at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and another in Ontario curated by the International Center for Photography's Christopher Phillips, a well-known promoter of Chinese contemporary art.

But her adjustment to living in Shanghai has come with some bumps, she admitted. "My surprises coming back were some not-so-good things. Communication, dealing with Chinese people, contrasts with the U.S., where white is white, red is red. Here, they say they understand when they don't, and it sometimes brings back old feelings of frustration," Han explained. "In the U.S., people are straightforward, will say whether they like something or not, yes or no. So coming back, I can understand the language but not always the nuance, so I have to think everything through. It would be easier here if I understood less."

Nonetheless, "I was very touched, after being out of China for 20 years, there are still so many earthy people here."

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