Interview: Vivienne Tam


Hong Kong’s most internationally recognised designer, Vivienne Tam, speaks to Arthur Tam about promoting Chinese culture through design, her new store in PMQ and that ‘Mao’ collection. Photography by Calvin Sit

Vivienne Tam is an international icon. The acclaimed designer, who moved to Hong Kong from Guangzhou at the age of three, has been heralded as the master of prints as well as the queen of merging Western and Chinese aesthetics  – something she notably pioneered during the 80s and 90s, a time when the world was beginning to look at China with renewed curiosity and promise.

After graduating from Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 1978, Tam decided that she needed to move to New York if her career was to develop – somewhere she felt had creative minds that would appreciate her point of view. To her, Hong Kong was stifling and ‘didn’t have interest in her Chinese-inspired designs’ – the city wanted its style to come from Europe, America and Japan. 

So in 1978, a fresh-faced Tam arrived in the Big Apple and she hit the ground running – by 1983 she had started her company East Wing Code, and this marked her first commercial foray into fashion. A decade later, the experienced Tam launched her eponymous brand and made her debut on the runway of New York Fashion Week in 1994, with her contemporary women’s spring/summer line. It was an immediate hit, receiving rave reviews from editors and critics. However, it was Tam’s controversial 1995 Mao collection (which featured an Andy Warhol-esque print of the Chairman) that caused ripples around the world. The risk paid off – Tam rapidly became respected as provocative, forward-thinking, modern and edgy, ultimately becoming the poster child for Chinese designers. In America, Tam became a fashion link to China, much like Bruce Lee had been for the entertainment industry. People magazine listed her as one of the ‘World’s 50 Most Beautiful People’, Forbes ranked her as one of the ‘Top 25 Chinese Americans in Business’ and she was picked as one of the hundred ‘distinguished people’ to witness the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Further cementing her place in the design elite, Tam’s most notable creations have been housed at the Metropolitan Museum and the Andy Warhol Museum in the States as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Autumn/winter 13 ‘Obama’ collection (left)/ Summer/spring 95 ‘Mao’ collection (right)

Since then, the Vivienne Tam label has continued to expand, as evidenced by the many standalone stores  found in major cities across the globe, as well as Tam’s timely collaborations over the years with major brands such as Motorola, HP, Northwest Airlines, The Mandarin Oriental, Disney, Sony Animax and even WeChat.

Retaining relevance is, of course, important in the fickle world of fashion, but Tam is well aware of keeping her edge. Just last year, as Xi Jingping moved into office as President of the PRC, Tam released a collection using satirical Chinese propaganda-style President Obama prints – a symbol of the collaboration between two of the world’s most powerful and influential leaders. Just as was the case with the Mao collection, Tam wanted to open a dialogue and the media responded with ample exposure.

The now 56-year-old visionary has just opened up a brand new store at PMQ, an appropriate addition to the complex that gives over space to upcoming local design talent. We met Tam at her new shop to find out more.

Congratulations on your new store Vivienne. What was the concept behind the design? 
I wanted to do something more experimental for this store. For example, I imagined that the fitting rooms should be made out of traditional metal gates – transforming something that is normally used on the outside to be used on the inside. I also wanted more of a raw feel to the space to preserve some of the original aspects.

Since PMQ is all about promoting local talent, what do you think about Hong Kong’s design scene right now?
There are a lot of upcoming designers coming out now. PMQ is a great space to house many young talents as it provides a great platform for more exposure with cheaper rent. I think what’s important is to have Hong Kong people supporting their own designers. It’s hard to say who’s better in terms of design. But more importantly, we need to have more customers coming in to support us. What happened recently with the pandas and the night market really boosted the flow of people. It’s a great space to host such events and the atmosphere is amazing. I love it.

You moved away from Hong Kong for your career in 70s. When you come back now, what do you see has changed in the city?
Back when I started, no one really dared to open a shop to sell their own designs. The government seems to be providing more subsidy schemes to help young designers achieve their dreams. The energy is really exciting now. It is a very exciting time for artists in Hong Kong – it’s about time. There are a lot of incredible artists in Hong Kong.

So was it difficult when you first started?
It was very difficult. It was slightly easier in New York because people there had the freedom to be whatever they wanted to be. There’s an audience there and there are people who appreciate your individuality and creativity so long as your product is convincing. They couldn’t care less about your background. In Hong Kong, everybody said it was impossible in the 90s, saying there was no market for a designer like me. They told me: ‘You’re crazy to open a shop here. No one’s ever going to buy from you’. They’re all wrong. 40 percent of my customers are from China now. But still, there are people commenting that I might have to change a little for the Chinese market. Either way, I still believe that I should do what I want to do. It’s important to do something that you love.

You’ll always stay true to yourself then…
I think if you do that, you’ll have a voice and an identity that people can relate to and appreciate.

Do you identify yourself more as a Chinese designer or an American designer?
I’m a designer. I don’t mind how people label me either way. Everybody automatically assumes that I studied in the States but I’m always very proud to tell them that I came from Hong Kong.

Tell us a bit about your controversial Mao collection? Would you say that political messages are something you like to incorporate into your designs?
I think when I did Chairman Mao, that was when China opened up and I felt like there were so many stories behind such an icon. A lot of people advised me not to do it because they said I would run into problems. No factory or fabric maker wanted to create it and so I had to do it in Hong Kong and sign a paper to guarantee they wouldn’t run into any problems. When I showed it to customers in New York, they were so oblivious to the cultural icon that they asked if he was my father. And these weren’t young people either. These were older people, buyers.

What was your response?
I simply told them he was the leader in China, Chairman Mao [laughs]. That’s what I love about doing my collections. It’s educational to people who aren’t aware of Chinese culture. With my Buddha collection they wondered who Guan Yin is.

Did they ask if it was your mother?
They didn’t ask that, thankfully [laughs]. They just asked, ‘who’s this Buddha?’ I responded and said it’s the Goddess of Mercy, and they thought, cool, that sounds like a great concept. It became a big hit. Julia Roberts  was a fan and actually came to my store and bought that dress and then started coming to my shows regularly.

Did you ever think that the fashion industry in the States was ignorant to what goes on in the world?
No, I never thought that. I was just really happy that I could spread Chinese culture to the world. I think it’s great that I can do that with each of
my collections.

So what’s the message behind using the Obama print then?
During that time, we had a new leader in China and Obama came into office around the same time. I felt the movement reflected new hope and a new change in China and I wanted to promote that
open dialogue.

Are there any political leaders you’re going to use as inspiration next?
It’s so hard to look at the world now. There are just so many things going on now and reading the newspaper is really depressing. Sometimes fashion to me is a sort of fantasy. It can take you away into this whole different creative world.

It seems like you’re a person who keeps in touch with what’s going on in the world.
It’s always important to be aware of what’s happening around you.

What do you think about the current relationship between China and Hong Kong? Would you ever consider a July 1 protest print on a dress, or is that too controversial?
It’s all about the timing I guess. It could be interesting. I’ll think about it, maybe you’ve given me the inspiration.

Autumn/winter 14 ‘Silk Road’ collection

Tell me about your latest autumn/winter collection. What’s the inspiration?
The idea for this ‘Silk Road’ collection came from a Japanese documentary about the Silk Road. It was absolutely amazing – the cave paintings, the colours, the patterns, the stories. I was so inspired I left for the Silk Road within a couple of days to see it first-hand. This collection is about the Tibetan city of Dunhuang and the mystical Mogao Caves. When I started as a designer, I thought a lot about how I can give back to the community. It’s one of my main goals to promote Chinese culture and represent different Chinese provinces. I always try to incorporate a distinct Chinese flavour and to bring it to the modern world. I feel like it’s my responsibility to give back and to do something that is meaningful to life. It is never about
the money.

Speaking of giving back to the community, we know that you have a strong commitment to charity. What organisations are you working with at the moment?
Recently I got involved with LEAP and their anti-drug and rehabilitation campaign. I’m also part of The New York Women’s Foundation. I’m currently working on a project with the Yizu minority in Sichuan, China. We aim to help the women there by asking them to work on the embroidery in my collections as a social enterprise. A lot of them are affected by AIDS because they sell a lot of their blood to get money, often in unsanitary conditions. With this opportunity, they don’t have to rely on such practices anymore and I feel like I’m trying to empower women with their abilities. Through their beautiful embroidery, I really hope to preserve their minority culture because it’s such an important part of China. Currently, we’re still in discussions with the authorities to ensure that the whole process is  legal.

Already being such a ubiquitous and successful designer, what are the challenges that still lie in front of you?
There are always challenges, season after season. It always goes back to trying to make Chinese designs more relevant and whether something should look a certain way to attract more customers. It’s funny as the younger generation of Chinese people don’t like wearing traditional Chinese clothes. They prefer more European things. Luckily, things have changed now and the new generation is more curious and accepting of their culture.

Vivienne Tam SG03-SG07, PMQ, 35 Aberdeen St, Central, 2721 1818;,


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