YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Another Kind of Streetwear : Graffiti prints? Fabric wraps? William Tang takes many of his fashion cues from Hong Kong's homeless.


HONG KONG — In the eyes of designer William Tang, one of the best-dressed people around here presides on a corner near the gleaming storefronts of Prada, Armani and Gucci.

The man wears garbage bags, twisted into tiny pleats and tied with twine, in an avant-garde ensemble suggestive of Issey Miyake. His hair forms a foot-high dreadlock beehive, topped with a small cloth cap.

Aloof and original, this trendsetter is all but ignored by the tony shoppers who prefer to check their reflections in the shop windows rather than meet his eyes. He may have high style, but he doesn't have a home. He is one of Hong Kong's street people.

"The only creative dressers are the homeless," says Tang, 38, who makes a habit of talking to the poor and dispossessed about the way they clothe themselves. He then incorporates their ideas into his designs.

"These people are truly original," Tang says. "The rest of us only care about how others look at us, but they don't care what people think. They dress only for themselves, and that makes them much more interesting than the rich tai-tais [tycoons' wives] dodging in and out of Gucci."

Tang describes other muses he has discovered on Hong Kong's back streets:

* A woman who drapes herself in long swaths of fabric cadged from a tailor. "One day she'd be all yellow," Tang says. "Other times she'd be in all red. And the wrapping method was much better done than Comme des Garcons."

* The King of Kowloon, a grizzled graffiti artist whose calligraphy spiders over walls, mailboxes and bus stops across the colony. "Down with the queen!" it says. Or "The queen is a windbag." His bold, squashed characters form elaborate writs demanding the return of family property taken by the British a century ago.

Tang silk-screened a sample of the King's scrawls onto translucent fabric for an elegant strapless evening gown with a subtext--from the homeless to haute couture, East confronts West. It's ideal for one of the many balls that will be staged here on June 30, when Britain hands Hong Kong back to China.

"People ask, 'What is Hong Kong fashion?' " Tang observes. "This is my answer."

Designers John Galliano and Yohji Yamamoto have called Tang's brand of anti-fashion "most original."

Working in what must be the antithesis of the glamorous and trendy--an industrial zone--he creates utilitarian uniforms (his bread and butter) when he is not sketching his own designs or writing his fourth book of short stories. On weekends, he returns to a stone house in the centuries-old village that the Tang clan has occupied for 700 years.

"I'm not a slave to fashion," Tang says, padding by the pillars of an ancient ancestral hall in his Sunday togs: a T-shirt (black) picked up in a street market; stretched-out cotton pants that bag in the rear (black), and workers' thongs (black.)

He grew up here, amid rice paddies and stone pagodas.

As a boy, he wore traditional Tang jackets with the Mandarin collars and frog-button closures, loose pants and cloth slippers. At festival time, he drew pictures of the clan women attired in colorful silks with carefully embroidered panels--elements he insinuates in his contemporary designs. "The village is always the backdrop," he says. "I grew up here. I actually wore those clothes."

He has gone around the world since, studying economics in Canada, then crossing over to the London School of Fashion and traversing Italy. But unlike Hong Kong designers Vivienne Tam and John Rocha, who achieved success overseas, Tang came home to stay.


When he arrived on the fashion scene here in the late 1980s, he was held up as Hong Kong's hope for transforming a territory known as a mere manufacturing center into a laboratory for innovative design.

Tang didn't disappoint. He shocked audiences with a 1987 show called "Farmer, Worker, Soldier," a politically incorrect nod to modern China. Marching to the Cultural Revolution anthem, "The East Is Red," the models wore costumes inspired by Red Guard uniforms--the local equivalent of fascist fashion.

Now, in a bow to the streets, Tang erects makeshift runways in housing projects and shopping malls. "People expect shows to be elegant, filled with beautiful women and clothing," he explains. "But I wanted to show that fashion goes beyond that."

Fashion, Tang says, can be witty, political or a form of performance art. He puts an avant-garde twist on styles from his village past: peasant clothes in cashmere and Day-Glo silk; revealing dresses made from Shandong tablecloth lace; sexy cheongsams with sheer bodices, waist-high slits and kitschy silk-screened portraits of Mao Tse-tung.

Critics scolded him for the chinoiserie, afraid it would pigeonhole Hong Kong as the "exotic East" while it strived to be more international.

Los Angeles Times Articles