When Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim touched down in Shanghai with Chloë Sevigny in tow, they turned to Timothy Parent for an insider’s tour of the city.
Aside from shepherding them through the Bund, Xintiandi and the Dongtai Road Antique Market, Parent brought them up to speed about the city’s fashion, retail and designer scene. He would know. The 25-year-old is founder and chief executive officer of the China Fashion Collective, an agency that represents 25 mostly little-known Chinese designers. He also started and runs the cheekily named blog Chinesepeoplehavenostyle.com. His mission with both of these pursuits is to advance Chinese designer talent throughout the world while preserving cultural heritage in a modern, relevant way.
Parent, a Harvard-educated American citizen, explained, “Most people are usually offended when they first hear the name of my blog but it’s the sad reality.”
During his Cambridge days, he organized Project East, a fashion show and benefit that featured runway looks from Issey Miyake and other well-known designers as well as emerging Asian ones in Boston. The event also benefitted a nonprofit that helps children working in sweatshops return to school. The way he sees it, big Western brands bathed in conspicuous logos have squeezed out startup Chinese brands and other independents that could help diversify the retail market. “The speed with which they are expanding and the scale on which they sell these items threaten to erase China’s native sartorial history and culture, turning everyone into logoed robots, not unlike the Mao suits that made everyone look the same,” he said.
He is also lining up young Chinese designers to lease store space in the Yi Feng Galleria, which will open in a 100-year-old building on the Bund at the end of the year. The historic space will house flagships for leading domestic Chinese designers as well as some with international distribution. One of his other ventures involved lining up Decoster, Pari Chen, Content and other young talent for e-Pin, a multibrand e-commerce site that launches later this month. (Pin means product in Chinese.)
After graduating magna cum laude in 2009, Parent shipped out to Shanghai to start his company, which drew from the premise of his senior thesis that fashion exists in China but style is just emerging. Simply getting information about independent Chinese designers can be a chore for international stores so Parent set up a listing of the ones he thinks are tops at Chinafashioncollective.com. With financial backing from a New York investor, Parent is a one-man band helping designers with everything from print design, sourcing, e-commerce, photography and anything else they might need.
“The Western collections that are ‘inspired’ by China are so superficial and concerned only with the surface that we can’t rely on these designers like Marc Jacobs, [John] Galliano, [Jean Paul] Gaultier, etc., to preserve the unique sartorial history and culture of China,” he said. “It is the designers and citizens of China who will reinvent that.”
Technically speaking he is a consultant, but Parent prefers to describe himself as an agent and researcher. His approach is considerably more personable and all-encompassing compared to most foreign consultants whose priority often begins and ends with the bottom line. While in New York to meet with his investor, whom he preferred not to identify, and stores like Opening Ceremony and Bergdorf Goodman, Parent explained his outlook. “I don’t want to give the brands to anyone who will just take them and sell them to any store they can. I want them to sell them to stores that make sense for each one,” he said. “A lot of these people who are doing financial stuff just want to make a lot of money and get in and out. Some of them act like they are superior. They often don’t understand that China has such an incredible culture and history. But it is also so complicated.
“Communism is not conducive to creativity. It’s a different mind-set,” he said.
Earnest and resourceful, Parent arrived at a meeting wearing an asymmetric hoodie from Uma Wang, one of the designers he works with, and he promptly retrieved from an oversize duffel bag (designed by another client, Flying Scissors) a 200-page directory loaded with information and photos. Unfazed after walking crosstown without an umbrella in an afternoon downpour, Parent spoke of his commitment to plugging little-known designers while preserving China’s heritage. “Fashion is not so individualistic. Now many Chinese people buy big brands because they have the money to. They are not so comfortable buying individualistic designers,” he said. “Most people write off Chinese designers. I’m interested in preserving Chinese culture and history but not in such a literal way.”
Scrolling through an iPad presentation, he noted a runway image from Uma Wang of a model wearing a print inspired by the Pearl Tower. The building, which is located in Pudong on China’s East Side, is “like a newly built Vegas on steroids with tons and tons of neon lights,” he said, noting how Wang’s interpretation of it is not literal. The artist and photographer Maleonn has developed some unusual photographic prints for Parent that will make their debut next year. Like most of his business dealings, the two were teamed up through a personal connection. Maleonn photographs catalogues and works with the designer Nio, whose brand Miss Mean is one that Parent is cultivating.
Parent also helps Zhang Da, whose Boundless collection is sold at Madame Mao’s Dowry. Da is also the designer behind Hermès’ secondary label Shang Xia, which was unveiled last year. As a sign of how China is blending technology with fashion, Parent pointed to a runway shot from the fashion label Content’s Watching Watched collection. Various video images of street shots taken from what were believed to be government surveillance cameras played on square screens on the runway and on the backdrop. Rather than draw attention to the design of the clothes, Parent noted how what looked to be a bracelet on a model’s wrist was actually a camera that was filming front-row guests and that video could also be seen on the runway.
To try to prevent China’s fashion history from being judged from a Western standpoint, Parent’s blog has an archival component with 500 photos tracing its fashion evolution from 1910 to the present day. Parent noted that Chinese street style tends to be largely homogenous because Chinese people are more comfortable with conformity than individualism. He aims to change that view by highlighting Chinese hipsters, dandies and other stylish citizens.
“What’s most important to me is that they have their own aesthetic and are really creating something unique to the global fashion market,” he said. “There is still a lot of copying and bad quality but the designers I work with defy this perception and stereotype.”
His drive might be derivative of years of swimming competitively. As a teenager in 2000, he was the top-ranked U.S. swimmer in the 400 individual medley for 13- to 14-year-olds. (Michael Phelps held the same title the previous year.) Parent continued to compete throughout college even though the Olympics were no longer in reach. And that pursuit brought its own reward — his current investor was a Harvard swim teammate who is now a principal at a New York-based hedge fund manager.