When East meets West in fashion

The Anna Sui boutique in New York's Soho neighborhood reverberates with loud music and is packed with hip Sunday afternoon shoppers. A customer examines a pair of funky suede boots with gold applique across the toe and behind the high heel.

The Chinese-American designer blends traditional Chinese elements with the hipness of youth culture.

Ms. Sui's semitraditional cheong sam dress (right) paired with combat boots is just one of the fashion fusions spotlighted in the exhibit "China Chic: East Meets West," at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan (through April 24.)

"China Chic" takes on the pioneering task of tracing the evolution of Chinese-inspired dress through the centuries. Special attention is focused on China's influence on modern Western fashion and on the fusionary creations of Dior, Chanel, and Sui, who represent a wide range of styles.

Valerie Steele, chief curator at the museum, and her colleagues combed the world for garments for the exhibition. The result is clothing ranging from an embroidered emperor's dragon robe dating from the 19th century to a red cheong sam worn by pop star Madonna.

"Asian styles are particularly important because the world is becoming more international and multicultural," says Ms. Steele, who holds a PhD in cultural studies from Yale University.

Mandarin collars that were formerly tight and uncomfortable have been cut more generously, and the restrictive slimness of the cheong sam has been modified for more comfort. Knotted buttons, embroidered fabrics, mandarin collars, and "frog" closures are Chinese details that have long been utilized in Western designs. But a score of young designers - many with Chinese backgrounds - have put a new twist on Eastern-inspired fashion.

"Asian motifs have been part of the Western design vocabulary for hundreds of years," writes Steele in her book "China Chic: East Meets West" (Yale University Press). "What may be new in our time is the intention on the part of many designers to integrate Asian ... iconography ... into Western fashion...."

The plain blue "uniforms" of Communist China inspired a satin-cotton "Chinese Worker" suit in Donna Karan's spring 1995 collection, for example. And the utilitarian ease of drawstring pants and loose tunics has been reinterpreted in the contemporary designs of Blanc de Chine, based in New York and Hong Kong.

Blanc de Chine defines its mission as one of preserving Chinese sartorial tradition but also modifying these fashions for consumers. "The cut of the garments is now more three-dimensional, making them more modern and easier to wear," says a designer at the company.

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