Born: Yin Yok Tam in Guangzhou, China, 1957. Education: Graduated from Hong Kong Polytechnic University; also studied in London. Career: Designer, New York, 1982; established East Wind Code, and designed first collection, 1982; designed Vivienne Tam signature collection, 1993; launched first collection under the East Wind Code label, 1994; designed controversial Mao collection, 1995; Mao collection subsequently incorporated into the permanent archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, and Museum of FIT, New York; signed with Candie's to create line of spring shoes, 1996; opened New York store, 1997; signed exclusive licensing agreement with Itochu Corporation for distribution in Japan, 1998; announced plans for two freestanding stores in Japan, 1998; designed interior for the new Alero from Oldsmobile, 1999; opened Tokyo store, 2000. Awards: People Weekly 's 50 Most Beautiful People, 1995; Outstanding Alumnus, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, 1997; nominated for Council of Fashion Designers of America Perry Ellis award, 1997. Address: 550 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10018, USA.
China Chic, with Martha Huang, New York, 2000.
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By combining culture, classic style, and an offbeat flair to her fashion design, Vivienne Tam has become one of the 21st century's most unusual and successful contemporary designers. The key to her achievement is her ability to design with an eye for East meets West, an inspiration that comes from her current home, New York City, and her childhood home, Hong Kong. Bringing these cultural inspirations together in her designs, she is able to design clothing of traditional elements with a modern edge. Her collections are perceived with the idea that each person's personality will bring out different aspects from within each design.
Tam's success was preceded by a childhood of turmoil in China. In an effort to find a better life after the 1949 revolution and to rid themselves of the Communist political system, the Tam family moved to Hong Kong. At first, Tam stayed behind with her grandparents, but soon relocated to Hong Kong to be with her parents. She entered a Catholic school, where she became Vivienne Tam instead of her birth name, Yin Yok Tam. At age eight, she learned to sew by watching her parents stitch clothing. She remained with her parents until 1982, when she moved to New York. There, she hawked her designs from a duffel bag to Henri Bendel and a couple of the city's shops.
By the end of the 1980s Tam had created her own company, East Wind Code, and was designing in earnest. She gained acclaim and controversy with her early 1990s collections, including the notorious "Mao" collection where she and Chinese artist Zhang Hongtu added unusual touches to the former Chinese leader such as a bee on his nose or putting his hair in pigtails. Chinese customers were outraged; Americans found the t-shirts and jackets amusing and the height of fashion.
Tam's collections in the late 1990s were lively and awash in color, often mixing religious symbolism with Asian art, silver, red, and beautiful embroidery becoming her trademarks. With her spring 2001 collection, aptly titled the Year of the Dragon, came varied images of dragons adorning the clothes, clearly portraying her Asian inspiration. During the fashion show, "Birdsong" played as the models glided down the runway in embroidered fabrics, again in bright color combinations. Susan Redstone, writing for the online fashion site FashionWindows, applauded the "the exotic fringed mint pointelle camisole and dress" paired with "a lime silk eyelet skirt," as well as the "chartreuse metallic halter tee and turquoise sequin dragon embroidered skirt."
In an interview with Heather Harlan from Asian Weekly about her spring 2001 collection, Tam told her, "Many of the prints and patterns in the collection are the result of the views from my terrace [in New York City]. I love watching the light shimmering as it plays with the architectural corners and angles of buildings against a grey and bluish evening sky." The results included a Chrysler building-inspired black and white print dress, sequined skirts mimicking city lights sparkling in the darkness, and a pink metallic dress Redstone likened to "sidewalks glittering under the pink glow of street lamps." The collection also artfully mixed hard and soft, uptown and downtown, grunge and glamor, black and stunning color. Tam and several fashionistas designated blue as the new black for their spring collections.
Tam's unique talent for bringing Asian and American culture together in fashion attracts many to her East Wind Code (meaning good fortune and prosperity) shops in New York, Los Angeles, Japan, and Hong Kong. Clients who admire her elegant, unconventional style include movie stars and musicians, such as Alanis Morissette,
At the New York SoHo store, with the help of a feng shui master, Tam recreated her Chinese heritage for a distinctly Asian atmosphere, though with Western touches. The Chinese character of double happiness dominates the shop, along with Fu dogs, Ming chairs, an antique carved screen, and a "red" wall. Red, as one of Tam's favorite colors, features heavily in her décor and her designs. Zany, imaginative clothing adorned with Mao, buddhas, dragons, peonies, or mums combined with shimmering metallic or black fabrics and sequins epitomize Tam's style. The prints and characters mark a spiritual journey, one that has made Tam an accomplished trendsetter for bicultural fashion design.
For those seeking insight into Tam's life and inspiration, she wrote a book with Martha Huang entitled China Chic. Published in 2000 by Regan Books, the red coffee-table styled hardcover is full of illustrations, photographs, and Tam's brand of East-meets-West wisdom. To promote the book, Tam took over the Luk Yu Tea House in Hong Kong, and invited both Eastern and Western luminaries. "People think this book is about my fashion, but it's not," Tam told Mark Landler of the New York Times in December 2000. "It's about all the things I love: furniture, gardens, spirituality, the body, health, city life." The world of designer and author Vivenne Tam, like her book, is far reaching and filled with the union of Eastern wisdom and Western synergy.
—Kimbally A. Medeiros
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