The mainland’s ‘fairy godmother of fashion’ is behind the Yu Prize, which celebrates and supports pioneering homegrown fashion talents. Here, Yu and the honourees from this year’s awards, including Hong Kong label Ponder.er, tell us about making a difference in the Chinese fashion industry

“Fashion has always been the starting point of everything I’ve done [in my career]—it has an incredible power to inspire, ignite passion and imagination, and that was certainly the case for me from an early age,” says Wendy Yu, often referred to as China’s fairy godmother of fashion. Yu is the daughter of Jingyuan Yu, who founded Mengtian Group, the largest wooden door manufacturer in the country, but she has made a name for herself as a fashion power player and mentor.

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Yu has worn several hats since founding investment funding company Yu Capital in 2015, which became Yu Holdings in 2017. “I was not immediately chasing the numbers as most financiers do; I was more interested in long-term impact and the wider vision,” she says of the businesses her company has backed. She is a long-time supporter of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute and Met Gala, and her investment portfolio so far includes Greek British designer Mary Katrantzou, Samantha Cameron’s womenswear label Cefinn and shopping app Fashion Concierge (now part of Farfetch), as well as technology giants DiDi, the Uber of China, and Tujia, the country’s Airbnb equivalent.

Unable to spend much time away from Shanghai since Covid-19 began, Yu has been able to embark on a spiritual journey of self-discovery, “studying professional meditation techniques, hypnotherapy, reiki, sound healing” and other forms of healing. But she is in no way slowing down her businesses or creative and philanthropic missions: over the same period, Yu Holdings has launched the Yu Prize, an annual fashion award and incubator programme; and Yumee, a cruelty-free luxury beauty brand. The Yu Prize was launched in 2020 to celebrate and support the most promising, pioneering homegrown fashion talents, with an empowering ethos of “making the bigger difference to the Chinese fashion industry as a whole” and “redefining the global perception of Chinese creativity”. 

Few domestic fashion design awards in China receive international recognition, but this one is run in official association with Shanghai Fashion Week and the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, and backed by a jury of industry heavyweights: designers Diane von Fürstenberg and Jason Wu, president of fashion group OTB Renzo Rosso, Judy Liu of Farfetch Greater China, and Simon Collins, the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University and former Dean at Parsons, to name just a few.

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I see the greater impact coming from having a more universal education and perspective, which is the case with most of the contemporary Chinese designers today.
Wendy Yu

As for Yu, “creativity, vision, individuality, business sense, scalability teamed with a personal chemistry” are what she’s looking for in a talent. The inaugural Yu Prize winner, designer Chenpeng went on to collaborate with Moncler and worked on the costume design for Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. “The product has global appeal—I know from Harrods, which is the Yu Prize’s retail partner, that the brand has done really well in store,” says Yu. Known for her love of freediving, Yu was also gifted by Chenpeng who collaborated with Shanghai Fashion Week on a NFT mermaid dress, adding to the favourites in her eye-opening collection of gown extravaganzas besides Giambattista Valli and Oscar de la Renta.

While her prize focuses on celebrating homegrown talent, Yu—who was educated in the UK and the US—is acutely aware of the benefits to creativity of a global outlook. “I see the greater impact coming from having a more universal education and perspective, which is the case with most of the contemporary Chinese designers today,” she says. “They have often studied, worked or lived abroad—and therefore have the advantage of eastern and western knowhow, culture and experiences.”

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Yu explains why she is optimistic about the future of the Chinese fashion industry by quoting her father: “Those who are visionaries, doers and problem-solvers with a positive mindset are those who would succeed in the long run.” Although it is restricted to designers of Chinese heritage, she sees the Yu Prize as having the potential to eventually carry the same authority as international fashion awards for emerging designers such as the LVMH Prize and the International Woolmark Prize. “We want to be the leading global fashion prize dedicated to supporting the careers of Chinese talents and building creative-cultural exchange between east and west,” she says, adding that she believes it is an opportunity “for the global fashion leaders to gather and exchange their ideas and make a positive impact in the creative industry”.

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This year’s 20 semi-finalists are a mix of relatively established designers—such as menswear brand Private Policy, which has been showing in New York since 2016—and younger labels such as three-year-old womenswear Didu, which has been making waves online thanks to its celebrity fans, who include Ariana Grande and Bling Empire’s Jamie Xie. The designers were tasked by Yu Prize collaboration partner Ugg to reimagine the footwear brand’s classic models with an empowering message for the younger generation. They were also asked by Yu’s beauty brand Yumee to design a digital pattern inspired by Chinese art. After narrowing down the 10 finalists, Li-Ning, the leading Chinese sportswear brand and the principal partner this year, challenged the designers to present two looks—one conceptual and one commercial—inspired by the theme “Soaring Aspirations”. 

Meet the seven winners now:

Ponder.er: The Yu Prize x Li-Ning Grand Award

The top prize went to Ponder.er, founded by Hongkongers Alex Po and Derek Cheng. Officially called the Yu Prize x Li-Ning Grand Award, it consisted of a cash prize of RMB1 million, a collaboration launch with Li-Ning, a spot at the Sphere showroom during Paris Fashion Week for two seasons, a 12-month mentorship programme with OTB Group—as did all finalists—retailing at Harrods, and promotional support on China’s social commerce platform Xiaohongshu. The duo both graduated from Central Saint Martins in London and, when they launched Ponder.er in 2019, made a pact to take an alternative approach to menswear. Yu says, “I love the soft, gentle mood of their work and how as a brand they have evolved from menswear into being gender-fluid, while always challenging the traditional gender stereotypes and social norms.”

Po and Cheng tell us by email they were in shock when they learned they had won. “We even asked the Yu Prize team if they had made a mistake with the scores. It’s not that we are not confident with our work, it’s the fact that we are less established than a lot of the other designers. It still feels quite surreal for us, but now we are focusing on how we can work with what we have to take Ponder.er to the next level, which is the important part.” The result is even more surprising given that Ponder.er didn’t make the top 20 when they entered last year. “Now, looking back, we understand why the judges didn’t think we were ready. It’s actually a great moment for us to review our progress as a brand.”

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The label has been reinterpreting the contemporary men’s wardrobe by dissecting and reconstructing traditional menswear. The autumn-winter 2022 collection, Formula Uncategorised, is an exploration of speed and dangerous behaviours. Drawing inspiration from motorsports, the genderless collection also incorporates Ponder.er’s signature smocking techniques and a hand-crocheted nylon craft that the duo developed a few seasons back. Often emphasising textures and crafts, the duo have previously worked with local craftsmen and creatives on projects that discuss social values and gender issues, and have added sustainability to their focus with the use of more eco-friendly materials and plans to include recycled and deadstock fabrics in future designs. “Ponder.er represents a fresh perspective in combining art, craftsmanship and the characteristics of Chinese culture,” says Ye Feng, group vice president at Li-Ning.

The designers are excited for what’s next: “Expanding our collection range is something we have been considering for quite some time, and with the support from the prize, we will be able to turn our ideas into reality more readily,” they say. “It has been quite a challenging journey launching the brand right before the pandemic, and this is the perfect opportunity for us to realise our global vision.”

AlienAnt: The Yu Prize Rising Voices Award in Partnership with Ugg

AlienAnt was founded in 2019 by Yuchen Han, who won the Yu Prize Rising Voices Award in partnership with Ugg and received a RMB100,000 cash prize. The Qinghai-born, New York-based designer has been trying to “bring absurd personal emotions from abstract dreamland to reality”. His three collections are inspired by a recurring, depressing childhood dream, which he remembered when depression struck during his first year on the Fashion Institute of Technology MFA programme. Interpreting his bad memories resulted in flashy colour combos, deconstructed silhouettes and a textile in which a minimum of five layers of fringe hair are compressed by hand.

The inspiration for AlienAnt’s upcoming collection comes from the designer overcoming his mental health issues after four years and feeling happy again. “This collection means much more than [just] my struggle because it’s such a global phenomenon, especially in this era,” says Han. “We care about mental health; that’s why AlienAnt is a sanctuary … for people who don’t feel [they] belong.”

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Yu and the jury were impressed by Han’s personal connection and futuristic aesthetic. The Rising Voices Award also includes a collaboration with Ugg, which will be put into production and launch next year. “We loved Yuchen Han’s futuristic imagination, his positive energy and his dynamic designs—we can’t wait to bring his interpretation of the iconic Fluff Oh Yeah [Ugg slippers] silhouettes to life with our future collaboration,” says Olivier Lorans, vice president and general manager of Deckers Brands China, which owns Ugg.

Han reveals that he is already thinking out of the box for this opportunity: “My vision is to make accessories for shoes. This design will let our customers define their voices and be their own creative directors by styling the accessories through the Clip N Go technology by AlienAnt,” he says. 

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Yu Prize Creative Impact AwardIn Partnership with Yumee

“I [found] it distressing last year to be witnessing so much talent through the Yu Prize, and yet we were only presenting awards to just a few designers,” says Yu. This year, an additional award was created, the Yu Prize Creative Impact Award. Of the five recipients, Yu said: “I commend them for their refined vision and individuality, and [for representing] the evolving versatility of China’s rising fashion industry.”

Louis Shengtao Chen

Louis Shengtao Chen launched his eponymous brand in 2021. The Chongqing-based designer and Central Saint Martins graduate sharpened his design skills by working at luxury houses including Loewe and Burberry. His aesthetic fuses romantic, dramatic storytelling with craftsmanship, as seen through his three collections to date. In Chen’s AW22 collection, he draws elements from his own closet—a dreamy mix of old-time glamour and modern silhouettes.

Yirantian

Yirantian Guo founded Yirantian in 2015. Based in Shanghai and currently stocked in 60 boutiques in China, the womenswear label incorporates Chinese heritage into a modern aesthetic. For her SS22 collection, she dived into the microscopic world of nature, creating elegant designs symbolising butterflies, flowers and waves using a wide range of materials, from knits to crystal embellishments.

RUOHAN

Minimalist Shanghai-based designer Ruohan Nie’s label Ruohan takes an effortless, subtle approach to everyday luxury, with a focus on exceptional fabrics and precise tailoring. The monochrome dresses, crisp white shirts and cosy coats from its AW22 collection are made for women whose style is timelessly chic.

Victor Wong

London-based accessory designer Victor Wong was the first to present an eyewear collection in a runway show format at London Fashion Week. Since he launched in 2015, Wong has continued to create eccentric eyewear that reinterprets cultural symbols and reflects his Chinese roots. His SS22 Timeling collection tapped into the metaverse, with the new pieces presented in a virtual fashion film with the natural landscapes of his homeland, western Hunan, as a backdrop.

Private Policy

New York-based genderless label Private Policy was founded by Parsons School of Design graduates Haoran Li and Siying Qu. The duo treat their designs as a platform to discuss issues, with a focus on one social topic each season, and have received international critical acclaim; in 2019, they were the first Chinese designers to be named finalists of CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. The brand’s AW22 collection championing downtown streetwear imagines an organic future, celebrating zero-waste designs and the potential of materials made from fungi.

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