HONG KONG — Shanghai Tang sponsored the final project for the first-ever graduating class from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts’ newly established Fashion Design Division. The university is considered the most prestigious fine arts educational institution in China.

“This is among the most important things I have done,” said Joanna Ooi, creative director of Shanghai Tang, who personally mentored the 10 students chosen for the program. She said about a year ago she first approached the fashion school’s dean, Lü Yue, to see how Shanghai Tang could organize an internship program. Instead, Lü suggested the company sponsor the school’s first graduation project and show, based on a theme of its choosing.

Ooi chose the theme “The Deconstruction of the Qi Pao” as the project’s thesis, not only because it is one of the basic elements of design at Shanghai Tang (and of classic Chinese dresses), but also to challenge the students in their thinking. She ran into hurdles when realizing that terms like “deconstruction” have no direct translation into Chinese. “We had to explain what we meant, so we would describe it in 10 different ways to give clues, and we used lots of examples. I had to explain that even though the qi pao was banned years ago, it is still a touchstone of significance for Chinese people. The students had to really examine and research the topic,” she said.

The results were surprising. While some took the notion of deconstruction quite literally, others interpreted the traditional dress as a kind of bondage. “I was expecting a lower level of originality than I actually witnessed,” said Ooi. “There was an absolute lack of copying.”

Ooi said such creativity will be essential to mainland China in the coming years. “As China becomes less manufacturing-based, they must find ways to add value. The demand for creativity will grow. They don’t recognize the need to be original yet, but they soon will,” she said.

The class graduated last week, and the garments now are on display at the university before going on a road show of sorts. Selected pieces will be shown in Shanghai Tang stores around the world, starting with the flagship in Hong Kong.

This story first appeared in the July 5, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Ooi intends to offer an internship to the most promising student. She added that Shanghai Tang will continue to work on such projects, but not necessarily limited to fashion design. Next year’s program is likely to focus on product design.

“I decided that it’s incumbent on Shanghai Tang to give back to designers, especially those in mainland China, who don’t have the exposure of those in the West.” Ooi said. “We are the only international brand from China and it’s really our responsibility.”

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