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Two San Francisco Designers Learn Ancient Lessons

A PBS documentary to air next year follows two San Francisco designers in China's southwest Guizhou Province as they learn ancient garment making from their...

Colleen Quen, with her Modern Miao gown. Around her waist, she is wearing as an apron the Miao baby carrier that inspired the neckline.

Colleen Quen, with her Modern Miao gown. Around her waist, she is wearing as an apron the Miao baby carrier that inspired the neckline.

WWD Staff

SAN FRANCISCO — A PBS documentary to air next year follows two San Francisco designers in China’s southwest Guizhou Province as they learn ancient garment making from their tribal counterparts.

For Colleen Quen and Jude Gabbard, who were picked from among 100 applicants, the two-week trip began in November in the villages of Miao and Buyi. There, as they have done for centuries, ethnic minorities wear native garb that is rich in embroidery, silver adornments, beading, elaborate hats and wax-dye batiks. These elements, among others, inspired the designers to create a handful of outfits upon their return, which were displayed this month in a downtown San Francisco art gallery.

“This is modern Miao,” said Quen, standing next to a two-piece translucent green silk gown, the color of rice terraces. The neckline, as it rises up and away from the shoulders in the back, was inspired by colorful baby carriers made of densely embroidered fabric panels. The jacket has a bubble shape at the hips, a detail symbolizing silver spiral chokers worn several at a time, a theme Quen repeated with a poof at the end of the slim skirt. Descending the front is a vertical row of delicate native silver button and fringe adornments.

Known for the sculptural quality of her gowns and sportswear, Quen also celebrated the province’s Huang Guo Shu waterfalls — and the Miao knack for mushroom pleating — in a white silk chiffon halter gown with train. In a navy blue silk halter butterfly dress, Quen symbolizes indigo used by the Buyi to make batik, a month-long process that includes daily washing in a river.

“I related to the Miao and Buyi people,” said Quen, a fourth-generation Chinese-American, who plans to keep tapping into inspiration from her experience, which was captured by Oakland, Calif.-based D3 Productions Inc. and executive producer Duffy Wang.

Gabbard found kinship between the colorful ancient Chinese designs and their indigenous counterparts in Mexico, where his family has roots in the state of Guanajuato. In interpreting the Chinese fashion, Gabbard thought: “What if one of these villagers were thrust into making high fashion, what would they do?”

This musing led Gabbard to make a landscape-inspired short green cocktail skirt of soft English silk, commonly used in men’s neckties. Silk and silvery fabric flowers adorn the front like the native silver jewelry and pleats create a slight flounce. “Gathering is really a big element there,” said Gabbard, who has a made-to-order sportswear line. On top, he made a cropped black Italian cashmere jacket with one-piece sleeves influenced by Chinese calligraphy.

This story first appeared in the March 25, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Gabbard also channeled Buyi batik in a sleeveless evening gown with a hint of a Miao baby carrier in the back. To soften the cotton fabric’s durable look, he covered the dress’ sturdy cream-and-blue print with a delicate black tulle that gathers at the back in a train decorated with crystals, symbolic of the native jewelry.

Such details counter the way China is often inaccurately represented “in one monolithic way,” Gabbard said.