Dress to impress: Non-profit bids to keep cheongsam relevant

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Cheongsam, for many, is the embodiment of a bygone era where older women would attend a formal event and spend the entire evening sitting or standing uncomfortably in the figure-hugging one-piece dress.

However, one non-profit organisation is trying to change this perception by reviving and fostering appreciation of cheongsam.

Cheongsam Connect, founded in 2015, recently held an event at the FCC to promote the traditional dress. The event was attended by seven designers who showcased the unique cheongsams they’d designed for the wives of consular generals from Finland, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Korea, Malaysia and Turkey.

The seven designers created unique designs of the traditional dress for each lady. One dress specially designed for the wife of the Irish consulate general, featured a shamrock pattern on lace and the green, white and orange colours of the Irish flag.

We spoke to one of the designers, Grace Choi, and co-founder of Cheongsam Connect Donna Cheung about how they promote cheongsam and how it’s marketed to younger women.

Designer Grace Choi

( ) Designer Grace Choi and spouse of consular corp of Malaysia

What’s your involvement with this event?

I designed a cheongsam for the Malaysian consulate general’s wife. I actually designed it for her to wear to a gala dinner event to show off cheongsam culture and my brand.

What made you quit a successful career as a model to start your company, Yi-Ming?

My life has been surrounded by fashion so I have learnt a lot about fashion, design, marketing and sales. A lot of my friends kept on asking me where to buy cheongsam. It was then that I realised it was a good market to get into because there is no real choice, especially in modern styles.

How is cheongsam received by younger women in Hong Kong?

It isn’t that popular to be honest. If you look at Japan where girls wear a kimono on the street, you don’t really see younger women wearing cheongsam here. They will only wear it for special occasions.

It is only really middle-aged women who wear cheongsam, but what about the younger generation? If the younger generation fails to embrace this culture then it will disappear. That’s why my designs are aimed at younger people.

How do you try to attract younger women?

This is where the design is really important and what sort of material I use. Traditionally with cheongsam, women will use a traditional tailor. But in the modern day, women don’t have the time to choose the fabric, go for a fitting and wait three months for the dress.

Now they can walk into a shop and get the size and walk out. It makes their life easy. If you don’t do it this way, then less and less women will choose to wear cheongsam. It needs to be suitable for this day and age.

How has western style influenced your cheongsam designs?

You can see a lot of western colour patterns and fabrics and materials. Usually the traditional cheongsam uses silk and patterns with a dragon, phoenix or flowers. I still use a lot of floral patterns but the design is slightly different. I will use my own photos of flowers and then put the digital print on the dress.

Also, stretchy fabric is really important. In the past a woman would have to wear the same bra when she goes for the fitting and when she wears the cheongsam. Nowadays we make cheongsam from flexible and stretchy fabric. It is also important that the cut isn’t too tight so a woman can sit down comfortably.

Cheongsam Connect co-founder Donna Cheung

What’s your role with Cheongsam Connect?

I co-founded Cheongsam Connect with Anita Tsang over two years ago. It happened by accident actually.

I attended a social dinner and we all decided to wear cheongsam, which was the first time I’d worn the dress in 40 years. During the dinner, I was taken in by the elegance of the women wearing their cheongsam and this opened my mind to this beautiful dress. Since then Anita and I have organised more social events to promote cheongsam.

How do you promote cheongsam?

We wear cheongsam for all occasions. Traditionally it is associated with formal wear: wedding banquets or galas. We try to advocate wearing it to work in a simple plain colour or a modest colour. To wear with jackets or on business trips and even luncheons and teas.

We also have young women who wear cheongsam for sport. A lady actually ran the Boston Marathon in one. I play ping pong in my stretchy, casual one.

Text: Andrew Scott

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