Older Articles
South China Morning Post
Cover: Sunday Agenda
September 21, 1997

Barney Cheng is unleashing his considerable talent on Los Angeles, a city he loves because it mirrors his own passion for clothes and movies, writes David Cohen
He is a pioneer, a favourite of the rich and famous, a trend-setter. He is Hong Kong's 1996 Fashion Designer of the Year. He is about to become the first HK designer to introduce his own line in the United States. He is young, funny and charismatic. But right now, three days into his first visit to Los Angeles, Barney Cheng is jet lagged and very, very nervous.

"The first night, I was really tired," Cheng told us in Beverly Hills, days before the presentation of his first US show, "but then I got a phone call from Michelle Yeoh, saying that she would be here for the event, and after that it was like 'Aaaaah! Aaaaaaah!' and I couldn't sleep for the rest of the night."

"I guess I'm just a nervous wreck right now. This is America. This is L.A. This is Beverly Hills. It's a dream come true to have a show in the states."

Cheng, one of HK's top designers for several years, got his chance at this U.S. show thanks to John Schulman, director of retail stores for Giorgio Beverly Hills. Schulman encountered Cheng's designs on a trip to Paris and, in his words "completely flipped out." He calls Cheng "an artist and a tremendous talent." 

"Barney's a fabulous designer," agrees Linda LoRe, President and CEO of Giorgio, "We call him our star right now, and we're so happy to have him in the boutique with us." 
Still, Cheng is learning that in L.A., stars are expected to perform, period, no matter how many distractions surround them. We meet him on an indoor terrace high above the sales floor at the Giorgio boutique. Rodeo Drive bakes outside a picture window, shoppers stroll below, dance music throbs through the room, and our conversation has interrupted finish work on the creations for his L.A. debut, just days away.

"In Hong Kong, ninety percent of my business is custom ordered couture dresses, in which I have very personal interaction, so I have a very good rapport with whoever I design for," gushes Chang. He has done ready-to-wear clothing before, but never on this scale. "This is a new experience for me and... I'm very nervous."

His nerves vanish, though, when he begins to talk about fashhion and couture. "Whatever I do, I try to make them look better than they actually do. I think it was Yves St. Laurent who said that the purpose of couture is to make, to create the illusion that you're better than what you actually are. You make the client thinner, you make the client taller, you make them look more attractive, and if you can achieve this, then you've succeeded as a couturier."

If anything, Cheng is being modest. His designs are three-dimensional, moving sculptures and include a dazzling array of textures and fabrics. "All the fabrics I stock are European fabrics from the top mills. I try to offer something that's very very specialized and unique." The collection for his U.S. debut includes stretch nylon mesh catsuits, split brown satin trousers draped with long tresses of faux pony hair, lacquer red red silk cheongsams with faux fur trim and metallic chantilly lace dresses with sparkling metallic bead veils. Some creations are retro, almost traditional (but always with a twist), while others daring, sheer enough to leave the wearer almost completely exposed — hopefully, proudly so.

"The collection is definitely not for wallflowers," says the black-clad Cheng. "I design for people who are very comfortable with themselves, who know what they want. I wouldn't say aggressive, but strong, strong personality people. Drop dead gorgeous." He calls his new ready-to-wear collection through Giorgio "Very quality oriented, very luxe."

Longtime Cheng client Michelle Yeoh does not hesitate when asked how she feels in one of his designs. "Glamorous!," she laughs. "Sexy and glamorous. And I think sometimes when you have to go a special occasion, especially in my line of work, it's good to be, like, stunning. (laughs) And he makes me look well. I'm starting my new publicity tour in November and December, so we have to talk about doing stuff for me for the premieres and stuff like that."

Cheng, who calls Yeoh "a perfect clothes horse," always wants his clients to feel sexy in his designs, but he has a very specific idea of what 'sexy' means. "_Luxuriously_ sexy. Because a lot of times, when people think sexy, they always think about exposure."

That sense of luxury is part of Cheng's Hong Kong flair. "Hong Kong is known for good living. People there are 100 percent hedonists. I think of it as conspicuous consumption. I get inspired from that." He remembers one fortysomething Hong Kong beauty queen who asked him to design a dress for her. "She was to leave and I said I need a deposit. She said 'Oh, you think I'm going to run off without giving you money?' She actually pulled out wads of money, like thousand dollar bills. She actually threw the money at me and said 'See? I'm rich!' She left. She didn't even count it. I said 'Wow, that's the first time I actually had money thrown at me. That is such a great concept!'"
"So I used that. I did a fashion show and I had all the models playing mah jong and they're all like being really catty and bitchy, and then I had them coming down the runway throwing money at everybody. I thought, 'How very Hong Kong.' I love it."

Cheng was educated in the west, but his interest in fashion began when he was still a boy in HK. "I come from a really big family, I have indirectly 26 uncles and 18 aunts, not from the same grandmother," he laughs. "Whenever there were family dinners, there'd be like 200 of us, and every one of us would have to get dressed up. When they'd play mah jong, they'd dress in the cheongsams and they'd have the baubles and it was very glamorous. Then you go out on the streets and it's different. And I thought 'well, why can't everyone always be nicely turned out?' And usually when they're all dressed up they seem happier. So I thought it would be nice if I could be responsible for making them look good and making them feel happy."

He also remembers the Shanghainese tailor who visited his house each week. "When he came, all my aunts and my mother would freak out and be totally happy like little girls and they'd be giggling, going 'oh this fabric's so nice and I love this one.' It was like wow, he must be special, he can do this magic and make them stop bickering and make them all very young and lively. If you want to take it one step further, my grandfather and my father were in the family business, so they were hardly ever home. Other than the driver, he was the only other man that I'd see regularly at home. Yeah, he's cool, he's nice. They're happier to see him than they are to see my father or my uncles."
"So I thought I wouldn't mind being him. So it's been my childhood dream. I call myself a glorified tailor. That's what I do."

Movies, too, caught the eye of the young designer-to-be. "Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. Sofia Loren, I just think they are _so_ glamorous, and that's why I love L.A. L.A. is the land where all this happens, where the movie world mixes with the fashion world. This is where trends originate. Fashion, food, thought, everything. Things happen here."

Cheng's road to Los Angels went from Hong Kong to Canada to Paris, where he studied History of European Costume in Paris. He has very definite ideas about the fashion's place in the world. "People say fashion should be unrelated to politics. I believe that to a certain extent, but it's also a reflection of the current state of affairs in society. You can do fantasy wear, that's totally unrelated to what's happening around you, but I think as someone living in this day and age you have to be basically current with whatever's happening and just be in the know."

The theme of his Giorgio show is 'East meets West,' a cliche perhaps, but one that perfectly fits Cheng and his idea of what is current. "It's sort of like, there isn't such a thing as being Chinese or American or British. It's becoming very global. Even fashion wise, we're going timeless, we're going seasonless, we're doing bikinis for wintertime and we're using cashmere blends for summer sweaters. It's just all being diffused so that nothing is as square cut as it was before."

That free-spirited enthusiasm has helped Cheng attract a clientele that includes some of Hong Kong — and the world's — most visible women: Veronica Yip, Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, Sandra Bernhard and Liza Minelli. 

"I started by doing costumes for Veronica Yip," remembers Cheng, "She liked my ideas. She said 'Oh Barney, why don't you strike out on your own, make a name for yourself, start your own studio?' She's worked with other people, different designers, and she thinks I have a special touch that's different. So I entered the Young Designers Competition in '93, and I won it. I was really happy, and so after winning that I decided to start off on my own."

He began with a single client: his brother's fiancé. "The wedding was in Toronto. And so she came over for one fitting in Hong Kong." Cheng, who normally does three fittings on a one-of-a-kind piece like a wedding dress, was forced to build a perfect dress off a single fitting. "I was freaking out. I was actually more nerve wracked then than I am now."

The wedding was a success, and led to many referrals and new clients. "The first big break was Vivian Cho. She got married, and she totally loved my things, and she told the press that her whole wedding trousseau was done by Barney Cheng. From there I got other celebrities, and ladies who lunch and brides to be. That was four years ago."

He works closely with his clients to design a look that suits both the wearer and the occasion. "We'll decide on a style, for which I'll do three sketches, and then we'll critique the dresses together and say why I think this one dress is better. I'll tell her why I designed these three sketches for her and why I think they'll look great on her. She'll come back with her reaction and from there we'll come up with a finalized design." 

Then they choose fabrics, an aspect of design Cheng feels is often underestimated. "Most of my fabrics are very tactile. They're very textured. That's one of the reasons why I like beading, and embroidery work, because it adds onto the overall texture of a fabric. The velvet I've chosen is a very expensive couture fabric. It jacks the price up, but once somebody puts it on, once somebody feels it, you can tell the difference. It's very soft, it's light, it's airy, it hangs well, it just feels very luxurious. You want to be next to it, you want to be touched by it, be caressed by it. That's something that's very important to me, fabrics. You can have the most fantastic design, but if you don't have the fabric to go along with the design, it's just not there."

Weeks of fittings and consultations often lead to close relationships between Cheng and his clients. He counts Michelle Yeoh as a friend. "Michelle is fantastic. She is the nicest person. She is really easy to get along with. Sometimes, with other actresses, they're like prima donnas, like 'adore me, otherwise I won't talk to you.' But then she was great. She invited me out to dinner, and then said 'I think we're going to get along fine. Don't worry about it.' And it was great. It was easy to design for her. Perfect figure."
He had a bit more trouble getting close to Gong Li, though not because she was difficult. "I can't speak Mandarin, and she only speaks Mandarin. So we had to use a translator. She wasn't very demanding. I did her wedding gown. The only brief she gave was that the dress cannot overpower her. She wants to show her face and show her beauty and that has to be the focal point."

Liza Minelli, too, turned out to be easy for him to work with — though their first encounter was a jolt, to say the least. "I got a call at something like a quarter to twelve on a Friday evening and I was on the town and my client called me. "I'm having dinner with Liza Minelli. I'm going to pass her to you." "I only know Sam the Tailor in Hong Kong. I want to leave on Sunday with four dresses and they say you're the best, so you have to come and meet me now." I was like 'What???!!!" I'm freaking out. I'm like 'I can't! I'm at a party right now.'"

"So I met her Saturday, and we did the whole thing in her suite. She actually gave us a mini-concert Saturday night. It was a very rushed job. We couldn't actually do it in 24 hours, we did in 48 hours, we did one dress for her. So she still has a standing order of three other pieces I have to fill."

The world of celebrity couture is not without its pitfalls, though. During a phone interview with a journalist, he described the gown he had designed for Mrs. Lavender Patton for the handover ceremony. Soon the description was in the London papers. Mrs. Patton was not amused. "I didn't think to treat her like a bride. Brides don't want people to know what they're wearing. After the fact, I felt so bad, I felt we have to change it, we have to do something else. That first dress was being beaded, was being embroidered in India, so she came back in and we did a totally different thing."

The handover itself has simplified Cheng's life. "Before, people would come up to me and say "Oh, so you're from China." and I'd say 'Not exactly, I'm Chinese ethnically, but I'm from Hong Kong and Hong Kong is a British colony. Now when someone says 'Oh you're from China.' I can say 'Yes, I'm from China.'"

"And it gives Hong Kong people more of an identity. Even before, when I used cheongsams or Mandarin collars, people would say 'it's not trendy.' Now it doesn't matter whether it's trendy or not; it is part of my vocabulary. Because I was brought up there. I'm a western-educated Chinese person. I can basically milk all these thousands of years worth of history. It's fantastic."

He also has a warning for Hong Kong designers: competition is coming from the mainland. "We have to really keep up our design work. When I was in Paris, I met some students at the design schools from the mainland. They are getting the best education. They speak French. They are even more open to new ideas than the Hong Kong students are."

Cheng hopes to expand his couture clientele as more people see his designs, but he is content to go slowly in the ready-to-wear market, though. "I want to take it one step at a time, make sure I do everything right, that's why I really appreciate being here at Giorgio, so we can grow together, slowly fine tune the collection, get to know the U.S. market, get to know the L.A. market, and just take it slow. I've got plenty of time. I don't want to rush it and crash."

Nor will there be a Barney Cheng chain store in a shopping centre near you. "I don't do any advertising in Hong Kong, because I want to keep everything very exclusive, very special. Even for ready-to-wear, I'm working exclusively in America, for this couture dress line, with Giorgio. I'm not really interested in having my dresses at every street corner, because that's not what I'm aiming for."