Like his wife Guo Pei, Jack Tsao is motivated by the delicacy of craftsmanship and committed to informing the greater public of what that involves.
Dividing his time between Paris, Beijing and Taiwan, Tsao recognizes how cultural differences are playing into consumers’ shifting brand preferences. In addition to working closely with his wife, Tsao is sharing his insights with a range of emerging designers in Asia. Through his affiliations with the Asian Couture Federation, China Fashion Association and Design Craft, he is advising up-and-comers and championing their workmanship to try to bring it to a larger world stage.
“At this moment in the whole world, it’s a money game — it’s not fashion. These big groups like LVMH [Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton] put money in and they want to see the returns. Instead of investing in the product, they invest in events, decorations, VIP guest lists. They invite 300 people from around the world, [pay] for the hotel, business class [flights]. They expect millions [in return],” Tsao said. “A ceo wants returns.”
After 20 years of buying from big brands, Chinese customers want to find something unique, Tsao said. “What I tell my independent couture designers, is, ‘It’s not your fault. They are just trying to fund their markets. You don’t have any big financial group behind you. You need to compete. Just focus on creating the most beautiful works. Now is the time. The market wants to buy and they understand there should be something better,” Tsao said. “I tell my designers that Guo Pei will be the first. She will go like a rabbit and then you follow us. Everyone agrees.”
He pointed to the K-11 Craft & Guild Foundation that Adrian Cheng started last year to conserve and rejuvenate crafts as testimony to the growing interest. He also noted how the Cheng-led initiative will include the opening of a harbor-front department store focused on craftsmanship in Hong Kong.
Committed to Asia’s burgeoning design community, Tsao was in New York earlier this month for various business meetings. His hotel of choice, the Carlyle, is one of the luxury properties run by Cheng’s sister Sonia, chief executive officer of the Rosewood Hotel Group. As an adviser to Alexander Wang and close friend of the designer’s mother, Tsao attended Wang’s show at Rockefeller Center earlier this month. During his three-day stay in New York, Tsao also connected with Yue-Sai Kan, a fellow advocate of fashion in China, and executives at Sotheby’s.
Plans are underway to showcase Guo Pei’s work at Sotheby’s in New York and in London later this year in two unrelated projects. While sales are not currently part of either project, Tsao is considering the prospect of private sales. As auction houses are trying to offer clients more customized services, there is increasing interest in fashion as a medium. Such collaborations stand to benefit both parties, since each is seeking new markets and new clients. “I have been thinking for a few years about what is going to be the sales channel for ‘prêt-à-couture’ for Guo Pei and even for our future designers in Asia,” he said.
On another front, “Guo Pei: Couture Beyond” is on view at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., through July 14. Another exhibition, “Guo Pei: Chinese Art and Couture,” will debut this summer at the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore.
His efforts extend beyond business advice to include workshops and design classes with master draper Nils-Christian Ihlen-Hansen and Margret Renate Hammerstad. Once Ihle-Hansen, the founder of Norway’s ESMOD school, agreed to a weeklong class in draping, Tsao said he wrangled his wife away from her work to listen in for the first two hours. She was so enthralled by the experience that she stayed for the entire day and returned for the ones that followed.
After years of buying big brands, consumers are seeking lesser-known ones with fastidious skills.
Part of the knowledge Tsao is sharing with designers stems from his three years of researching potential partners to develop Guo Pei’s secondary line. Described as “prêt-à-couture” — the idea being that the intricacies of haute couture are not reduced to sportswear. For a couture label to launch ready-to-wear carries inherent risks of the financial investment and name protection. With financial support and production in place in Asia, the designer plans to launch her diffusion collection in two seasons or so.
While European clients dominated the couture scene 20 or 30 years ago, more customers can now be found in the Middle East and Asia. But China is such a broad market that a lot of people didn’t understand couture or how many shoppers were motivated to spend purely because they loved something. In China 20 years ago, they bought the logo — “’G’ [for Gucci], ‘LV’ for [Louis Vuitton] and ‘CD’ [for Christian Dior] — but they did not know the meaning behind the brand. Ten years ago they started to know how to pronounce the brand names — not only of the big brands, but also the small brands. They started to appreciate the quality, the workmanship,” Tsao said.
Well aware of how major luxury houses are marketing machines, Tsao said consumers in Asia are increasingly recognizing that, and in some cases are seeking more craft-oriented designs as a result. Despite gaining rocketing fame after Rihanna wore a 49-pound, regal-looking yellow Guo Pei gown to the Met gala in 2015, the designer prefers to keep a low profile.
“We don’t need everyone to know about us. For us, it’s more important to know how to make beautiful dresses to touch people’s hearts,” Tsao said. How do you maintain good relationships to always give the right advice about how and what to wear for an occasion? P.r. is a word that doesn’t exist in China. Why? In our philosophy, p.r. is the basis of human beings. If you do things correctly, that is p.r., and people will come to you. Chinese people think it is kind of a sham to do p.r. It means there is something wrong with you. As a person, you are not right if you have to do p.r. So, I decided we shouldn’t be following the West.”
Tsao continued, “We put everything into the product. We don’t care about packaging. For us, packaging is makeup. We don’t care about events, we don’t like socializing. We want to create the most beautiful and amazing pieces to give the market a brand-new feeling and even to surprise them. To make one dress involves so many people — sewers, importers, embroiderers , drapers — everyone.”
“Prêt-à-couture” aims to relay the spirit, mentality and everything else about haute couture, while incorporating technology as well. His approach is collection-like but not a collection. “Most of the European brands create a collection for the world, creating 500 to 600 designs per season. We want to create a new system of production and design. We think a couture fashion brand shouldn’t have a season. It should come when the designer has a feeling and has observed what is coming up,” Tsao said. “We learn from everyone, but we want to give, too. So, this production base we will give to all the couture designers. As a designer, they should focus on what they love doing. At this moment, that is impossible.”
While stylists approach Guo Pei’s design studio regularly in search of red-carpet designs, the company is largely not interested. Nicola Formichetti recently inquired as to why four of his requests were unanswered, Tsao said. The delicacy of her designs and the risk of costly post-wear repairs make lending challenging, never mind actually reaching someone in the company, he said. “Everybody is working very hard. We just stay in. It is very difficult to find us. Mel [Ottenberg, Rihanna’s stylist] came to us. Some other stylists try to call us, but nobody answers the phone [often],” Tsao said. “Also, some people [on the team] don’t speak English well so they will say, ‘Oh, OK, bye-bye.’”
Indirectly Rihanna’s Guo Pei Met look was the reason Apple’s chief executive officer Tim Cook visited her Beijing design studio three years ago. Having gone to Apple’s headquarters in California two years ago, Tsao said Apple really wanted to marry technology and fashion, “but they really couldn’t find a way how to step out of…But that’s what is happening now. Everyone is talking about wearable technology. Everyone thinks it is so important, but it’s so difficult. High-quality production, sizing and measurements are so important, but how do you achieve it with technology?” Tsao asked.
A sign of things to come is the company in France that is creating shape-shifting robotic mannequins that can scale up or down in a matter of seconds. Even though Apple has the money to invest, “and the technology is there,” the materials are not, Tsao said. “You have to wait a few years.”