Hong Kong’s Janko Lam Chun-kuk, an award- winning cheongsam designer, prefers an innovative approach to the traditional wear, writes Alan Teh Leam Seng
THERE’S only one photograph of my paternal grandmother, Lee Saw Phaik, in my possession. She passed away a few years after my father was born. It’s hardly surprising then that I hold this lone black and white picture of her posing with her elder sibling very close to my heart. Despite not having had the chance to get to know my grandmother personally, thoughts of her always surface whenever I look at this beautiful image.
Even though this photo was taken in the late 1930s, grandmother casts a modern image clad in her beautiful cheongsam. Back then, this cheongsam style was relatively new in Malaya having just been introduced in Shanghai some 10 years earlier. She is in stark contrast to her elder sister, Saw Choo, who opted to wear a traditional Nyonya kebaya outfit for the photoshoot.
So imagine my excitement when a chance visit to Hong brought me face to face with the city’s award winning cheongsam designer. What sets Janko Lam Chun-kuk apart from the other contemporary designers is the fact that she uses discarded fabrics to make her own interpretation of the classic cheongsam.
Realising that there’s simply too much wastage in the fashion industry, Janko approached some mass production manufacturers who were just too happy to give her all their unwanted leftovers that would otherwise be destined for the landfill.
Putting things in context, Hong Kong’s textile manufacturers dump, on average, as much as several hundred tonnes of textile waste daily. In mainland China, the world’s largest textile exporter, the amount of cotton fabrics thrown away alone each year is estimated to be much more than the amount in Hong Kong.
Among the more daunting challenges that Janko faces is that the materials she receives come in all shapes, sizes and colour. She shares that she spends a fair bit of time sifting through the mountains of stuff before arriving at the ones that she needs. Says Janko: “It’s all about creativity, patience and persistence when it comes to recycling the little bits and pieces in order to create a beautiful carbon-neutral dress.”
HOW IT STARTED
Life certainly hasn’t always been a bed of roses for this expecting mother of one. Janko, who is from Hainan province, moved to Hong Kong when she was a teenager and enrolled in Caritas Bianchi College of Careers. Her three-year-stint at the Department of Fashion and Textile Designs helped to fire her early interest in textiles. Soon after graduating in 2008, Janko continued to pursue her lifelong passion by designing costumes for Cantonese drama at Television Broadcast Limited (TVB). She confides that designing the elaborate period clothing from the Qing dynasty was what she enjoyed the most.
It was her success at the inaugural Redress’ EcoChic Design Award in 2011 that was to be the turning point in her life. This annual world’s largest sustainable fashion design competition challenges emerging fashion designers to create high-appeal clothing with minimal textile waste. Leaving TVB a year later, Janko signed up for a year-long incubation programme. During those 12 months, she participated in a variety of ventures to gain experience. Her true grit is aptly illustrated in the way she drove her label, Classics Anew.
With a wry smile, Janko recalls the trying days when she used to sell her clothes at Hong Kong flea markets. It wasn’t easy back then to convince consumers to accept her novel interpretation of the traditional cheongsam. It was a huge challenge.
“There were no fixed areas for stalls at the flea markets and very often I would find myself next to a stall selling salted fish,” she says, laughing in recollection. “My customers also didn’t have a proper place to try on their clothes. I had to innovate by preparing a makeshift changing room using a hoopla hoop with a long piece of thick cloth draped all around it. Thinking back, it was quite hilarious how my assistant and I had to balance the contraption for customers to try on the clothes.”
It was also during the incubation programme that Janko met two other participants, Jino Yeung and Ben. The trio clicked immediately. Her new found friends had their respective areas of expertise, with Ben a whizz at making tailor-made nostalgic spectacles for men while Yeung, a paper product illustrator, drew locally-inspired interpretations specifically for children.
Calling themselves Three Artisans, their combined products catered to the entire family. “The women would come to my section while the men would check out the eye pieces. Meanwhile, the kids were entertained by the cute drawings. All in all, no one would feel left out when they came to our outlet. We believe in interaction with our customers where consumption can be stimulated through in-depth communication,” adds Janko.
DESIGN AND INSPIRATION
When it comes to her creations, Janko prefers light earthy colours. She designs, chooses the materials and sews each dress individually. “Although I incorporate modern tastes into my clothes, I still hold dear the basic traditional Chinese designs, which make the cheongsam so stylish, desirable and versatile,” confides Janko, while making a start on altering a dress already ordered by a regular customer from Kuala Lumpur.
Bowing to the overwhelming demand from her followers to learn the art of making denim cheongsam, Janko opened a studio in Kowloon’s industrial area of Kwun Tong. To date she has taken in more than a thousand students. She shares that surprisingly it’s the older women who are more interested in learning her new style while the younger generation prefers to take up the more traditional techniques.
Looking thoughtful, Janko says that she believes the young have a preference for the more traditional styles possibly due to influence from their mothers or elderly relatives. Also, some schools in Hong Kong still incorporate certain aspects of the traditional cheongsam design in their uniform designs.
Some time this year, the enterprising Janko plans to further her label by opening her own outlet. She recalls a time when she was approached by a Chinese entrepreneur who wanted to mass produce her clothes. The businessman had put it to her bluntly that she could be rich a lot faster if she would just follow his plans.
Recalls Janko: “He asked me to choose between bread and gold. At that point of time I really didn’t need to decide. I had already made up my mind a long time ago. Classics Anew is my baby and I want to nurture it my way so that I can see it achieve its potential.” With a smile, Janko adds that she has never once regretted her decision to stand firm and do it her way.