Design Providence: The extravagant designs of enduring couturier Barney Cheng create extraordinary pleasure

In the collective mind of Hong Kong’s elite circle, Barney Cheng has been unopposed as their go-to couturier for three decades. But the prestige that comes with his title doesn’t interest him; he would rather be a Renaissance man. Not that he would describe himself that way. For the 56-year-old fashion and jewellery designer, arriving for our shoot in a soft blue suit jacket, trousers, polo shirt and white sneakers, it is not about gravitas or self-promotion; it will always be about artistry, a heartfelt respect for the craft and an unrelenting grind mindset instilled at an early age. 

 “I would like to think I’m affable. Or am I even close to being such? Ask my staff here … let them answer that!” laughs Cheng. “But seriously, I am not such an egomaniac that I need everyone to know who is wearing a Barney Cheng creation. I couldn’t care less if I get credited for dressing people, but when a client gets complimented that they are looking fabulous, then I’ve done my job because my job is to make them feel empowered and good about themselves – to make them love who they are.”

He has achieved this time and again over a colourful career kickstarted by a 1993 Young Designers’ Award win that gave him the confidence to start his own atelier. Ground-breaking feats followed thick and fast: the 2001 parade of his collection in Beijing’s Forbidden City; dressing Asia’s first Bond Girl, Michelle Yeoh, for the Oscars; staging a mammoth 80-outfit show at the HSBC headquarters in 2003; and designing costumes for an arts performance in the Japan Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. 

Being named on the first Forbes’ list of the most influential Chinese in global fashion reminded him that even though he spends long days hidden away in his Wyndham Street studio creating bespoke couture for VVIP clients, the outside world is not ignorant of the beautiful pieces he creates.

“I would have to kill you if I share particular stories of what it was like designing for these prominent figures,” he says, with a straight face before bursting into laughter, a frequent and endearing habit. “I’ve just been extremely blessed to be given so many opportunities to showcase my particular style and to try my hand at so many different things. I truly love what creativity has given me, enriching my life so very much.” 

Creator of Dreams

Cheng was born into a large, wealthy Hong Kong clan who called Kadoorie Avenue home. The family are Christian, though it wasn’t until later in life that their flamboyant son found faith himself. As a youngster, his haute-couture dream was paved with global learning. He earned a BA in Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo in Canada, took Textile and Design at the Royal College of Art in London, and studied Fashion Illustration and History of European Costume at the Parson’s School of Design in Paris. It’s a mouthful. But that’s Barney Cheng to a tee. A learner at heart, a lover of niches and a follower of curiosities.

“We create and fulfil dreams,” he says of his craft. “So, when people come to us and say, I want to be a princess for a day, or I want to be the belle of the ball, we do our best to fulfil their wishes. And when we do, they come back time and time again because they know that we’re dependable dream-makers. Time as they say, and these testimonials are the ultimate truth-tellers.”

His atelier, home to antique furniture, paintings, wine, and a treasure trove of jewellery and garments, can be seen as a timeless reflection of his body of work, a chronicling of his aesthetic that, he believes, hasn’t changed drastically.

“I have witnessed the power of fashion first hand, believe me. When I was young, my mom and my aunties would gather and gossip about the most mundane things, like whose child is getting fat and whose child is smarter,” he recalls. “But when her cheongsam sifu would turn up at our house to show them the latest silks and laces, she would be very excited, like a little girl in a candy store. It always instantly changed her mood.” Smiling, he adds a cheekily affectionate acknowledgement: “Hi Mom!”

Eternal Style

Cheng observes how the clothes he made then are clothes he would still make now. The ruffled and draped elements he would weave into creations from the noughties figure seamlessly into his pieces at present. The designer’s resonance with past work is guided by a proclivity towards the grandeur of bygone eras. His work is informed by research, and he often finds himself circling back to historical silhouettes and architecture.

 “I just love it when clients I haven’t seen for a while send me photos of them in a dress I previously designed for them and ask me to guess when I created it. Oftentimes the piece would be a decade old, if not more, and yet still as elegant and stylish as the first time they wore it. This isn’t fashion, this is Style with a capital S, and that is eternal,” he expounds with just the right amount of sass.

He has long understood the value of investing in the best fabrications. Clearly, the more luxurious the material, the longer it will last. Which again ties to slow fashion, to sustainability.

“I love unusual details, a misplaced seam, a skewed zipper, an extra drape where there shouldn’t be one. These perfect imperfections make my day and it’s a joy for the customer to see how a little something can add so much more to the design,” he shares.

Extraordinary Grace

Starting a fashion label is only half the battle. Staying in the business for 30 years and earning your peers’ and clients’ respect are crucial components of a successful designer. “I have no idea how a successful brand should be run, but having decades-long relationships with my clients must be a sign of a successful relationship, if not a business,” he notes.

Cheng’s persona and very visage have transcended the insular world of fashion and become culturally synonymous with glamour and luxury. He still delivers heroic doses of all his most recognisable personality traits: the impeccable old-world manners, the showy quirks realness, the devastating charm, and the outrageous provocations, with “Excuse my French!” utterances sprinkled through our conversation. 

But over the course of the shoot, he also reveals a new sensitivity – aside from having fun posing for the camera, he shares his modest plans for the next phase of his life. “My wish for the years to come? It’s as simple as to live a grateful life and to have a contagious, positive superhuman-like ability!”

As the fashion world continues to evolve, one thing remains constant: the enduring legacy of Barney Cheng. Together with his team of skilled artisans, he continues to push the boundaries of what is possible in the world of fashion, creating garments that are not just visually stunning, but make the wearer feel truly extraordinary. Now that’s divine!

Interview, Text & Art Direction: Joseff Musa   Photographer: Jack Law   Videographer: Jack Fontanilla