Iconic Hong Kong designer Vivienne Tam has always looked at the world through her creative, global lens. Championing an East meets West aesthetic, Tam’s debut New York Fashion Week collection in 1994 made the cover of WWD and featured supermodel Naomi Campbell on the runway, while her designs went on to be worn and loved by the likes of Jill Biden, Lady Gaga and Gong Li. The designer approaches everything she does with empathy and purpose, establishing the Lovfinity S fundraising project in partnership with Hong Kong Cancer Fund and Hong Kong Breast Cancer Fund to give support to not only those with terminal illness but also to support family members who may be enduring a painful time.
We spoke to the designer about her breakthrough moments in the industry, how Hong Kong inspires her designs and the importance of giving back to the community.
You have mentioned your mother is your muse. How has she inspired you? Have any other women inspired your designs?
My mother is my muse. She taught me to use my hands – to touch, to feel and to create. That shaped my approach to design.
When we were young we were not wealthy but every Chinese New Year my mother would bring me to the flea market and buy scrap material to make new outfits for the whole family. She would tell me “This dress is the only one in the world. It’s so beautiful; it’s so special.” That is how I learned how to be an individual and essentially that is how I started making garments.
My mother made her own cheongsams from her imagination. She did not follow a pattern but instinctively knew how to cut the fabrics. It was magical to me. I watched her transform into pure elegance when she put on her self-made cheongsam. She looked so different. It made me realise that this is fashion, that fashion can change people’s aesthetic and image and it brings joy and magic.
Everybody is my inspiration, my fans, my customers, and people on the street, every body is an art to me. How different people style themselves and present their characters through what they wear is a form of art in itself.
When you first started, what was it like navigating the industry as a female Asian designer? What were some breakthrough moments where you felt you had “made it”?
I never think about whether I’m a man or woman, Asian or Westerner, I am just who I am as a person doing what I love. I’m a global citizen, it just happened in New York, I don’t have that kind of boundary in mind.
The most magical moment was when I finally staged my first fashion show at New York Fashion Week in 1994 with my own savings from the business. My collection won the cover of WWD and Naomi Campbell was on my first show. I could not believe I did it and it got rid of my fear. When I came out on the runway to take a bow to my applauding audience and the spotlights all on me, that’s when I first felt ‘Wow! I’ve made it!’
What advice would you give to young designers and entrepreneurs starting out?
Be who you are, believe in yourself, find your passion. When you know what you love to do you’ll find happiness in life. Be confident and have your own style. Have soul in what you’re doing, let your passion and mission bring joy and meaning, make an impact to the world and give back to society whenever you can. The fashion industry is extremely fast paced, everything changes quickly and full of uncertainties, you’ll need patience and persistence. There are a lot of talented designers but many gave up too soon, you will only achieve your dream if you Never Give Up. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
You partnered with Cancer Charity Funds to offer support to families struggling with terminal illness. How important is it to give back to the community and empower others?
It is so important in life that we can give love and help each other. When my loved one was diagnosed with cancer, I have experienced being the caretaker of a cancer patient and understand that it is crucial to give support to not only the patient but also the family who are suffering. So I started the “Lovfinity S” fundraising design project for various charities such as Hong Kong Cancer Fund and Hong Kong Breast Cancer Fund with a message of “Love yourself, Heal yourself”.
I believe when you love yourself and be empowered with positive energy, it can help heal yourself and heal others. Stay happy and you can make anything happen. It’s very magical. If an egg is broken by outside force, life crumbles. If broken by inside force, life begins. Find your inner strength through your struggles and break through to let great things begin.
How has Hong Kong played a role in shaping your brand? What are some common misconceptions about being a Hong Kong designer?
I grew up in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is like “East meets West,” and I am the embodiment of “East meets West culture”.
I grew up in a traditional Chinese family, but the surrounding society was westernized. I sung hymns in Catholic school but went to temples with my parents on weekends. And I love our Chinglish, where Chinese language is twisted in a western way, such as “迷你裙” coming from the sound of “mini skirt”, it’s a fusion of two cultures and lifestyle just like I am. I grew up with Hong Kong movies, so the values and virtues of martial art films and classic TV dramas influenced my designs too. Hong Kong is so fascinating, it’s like a melting pot of people from all origins, with East-meets-West architecture and amazing nature so close to the urban jungle.
I found my passion early and it has led my brand to become an East-West hybrid style that appeals to a worldwide audience. So in 2000 when Harper Collins published my book China Chic, I was recognized as the ambassador of Chinese culture and aesthetics that speaks the language of the western world.
You have dressed some incredible women, including Jill Biden, Lady Gaga and Gong Li. Who would you like to dress next?
I love to dress everybody, my designs are increasingly more inclusive and genderless. Each of us is different and beautiful in our own unique way. I want to advocate the message for everybody to “Love your Style”. In my latest unisex collection, I invited Wheelchair Fencing Paralympic Medalist Alison Yu to join my fashion campaign on the mountain trails. She’s so gorgeous and cool with an admirable heart and cheerfulness, not defined by her presumed disability and has made it her strength with her determination and resilience. She’s an example of “Love Your Style”.
How do you define success?
Success, to me, is when you find what you love to do, you free yourself without boundaries, and it becomes your purpose and mission which drives you to enjoy what you are doing. At the same time you bring joy and love to people through your work. You can inspire people and give back to the world as you are doing something impactful and meaningful. When you know who you are, you will be happy because you are contributing to the world! The purpose of my designs, besides bringing together different cultures and art forms, is a vehicle to share love and happiness to people. I want them to feel special and empowered when they wear my clothes.