Just when China’s glitterati were beginning to think they’d seen it all, a bold bash on the outskirts of Shanghai opened their eyes to a whole new fashion-as-art world. The stunning Red Ball thrown by Diane von Furstenberg’s DVF label Thursday night began, for most, with a road trip to a gritty former pipe factory on the fringes of the city, ending in a sprawling industrial compound with graffiti on the walls. (Disclosure: von Furstenberg is married to Barry Diller, a director and co-owner of The Newsweek Daily Beast Company.)
The journey to Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s vast studio simply heightened the Alice-in-Wonderland effect. Contrasting with its brick walls and corrugated-iron roof, the interior of the one-time warehouse had metamorphosed into a sumptuous fantasy of gigantic Buddhas and thumping music and delicately painted Chinese paper lanterns outlining the “DVF” logo. Everything was highlighted by veering crimson trajectories of hundreds of laser-pointers wielded manually by male attendants wearing feathered Venetian-style masks.
There were luxuriant furs draped over plunging backless gowns (DVF’s red-lacquered invitations advised “dress warmly” since Shanghai nights can still chill, and Hong Kong socialite Pearl Lam handed out fur wraps to several women in her entourage before heading to the party). There was Hollywood celebrity Jessica Alba, in an elegant black sheath that sparkled as she moved. There were Chinese beauties stepping gingerly in their red-soled Louboutin heels.
There was Christian Louboutin himself, in a bright red jacket. His luxury-shoe brand is starting to design with Asian women’s feet—generally smaller but wider than those of their Caucasian counterparts—in mind, and plans to open its first store in China this year. Recession in the West has pushed many high-end luxury brands to seek new markets in developing nations (though a pair of Louboutins, costing at least $2,000, would eat up the take-home pay that many Chinese receive in a year).
Diane von Furstenberg always had intended the Red Ball to be “ a celebration of East and West,” not just a fashion gathering in some hotel ballroom. She was introduced to the 500-plus crowd by Zhang Huan, one of China’s most cutting-edge artists: “Twelve years ago I went to New York and found my American Dream. And today, Diane has come to this humble place to realize her Chinese dream.” Von Furstenberg, who recalls being fascinated by news from the Middle Kingdom even during the chaotic Cultural Revolution, declared: “When I was a little girl I always dreamed about China…Today is a celebration of the many people who can have dreams and make them happen.”
Recession in the West has pushed high-end brands to seek new markets, though a pair of Christian Louboutins would eat up the take-home pay of many Chinese.
Rubbing shoulders with such icons is heady stuff for 29-year-old American entrepreneur Sara Villarreal. In October 2009, she opened a spacious Shanghai boutique that promotes 22 American brands—names such as Proenza Schouler, Derek Lam, and Vince—a lot of them entering China’s market for the first time. “Many realized that focusing on the Western market was a limited view of the world,” she said during a lull in the music. “Due to the recent financial crisis, they felt they needed to look outward.”
And in China, customers are waiting. Villarreal exchanged air-kisses with a client, Taipei fashion guru Mia K, who was wearing a Marchesa crimson organza sheath bodice dress purchased in the boutique just that morning. “At first some people thought the store opened before its time. But things have really picked up recently; the timing was actually just right. Everyone wants to be in China now—as you can see from all this,” said Villareal, gesturing at the red-infused partygoers.
Big Western names aren’t coming just to sell to wealthy Chinese. Von Furstenberg says she hopes to help open channels between Chinese and American designers. Not long ago, legendary U.S. Vogue editor Anna Wintour visited China for the first time, on behalf of the Vogue Fashion Fund. It is planning to offer support and resources to aspiring Chinese designers, who face many challenges in a nation where factories have little time for high-quality, low-volume output.
The evening came to a head with dance performances choreographed by Jin Xing, one of China’s top choreographers (who had been a male dancer in a military troupe before undergoing a sex-change operation). The performance took place in a stylized Ming Dynasty temple constructed indoors, its architectural beams fitting easily under the studio’s soaring 30-foot-tall roof. Then when the performance ended, guests themselves began dancing on a nearby dance floor as jittery red laser-pointer arcs played across a giant, twinkling light ball overhead. It could have been a tongue-in-cheek version of a Western disco mirror ball—or a vast red Eastern sun at dawn.
Editor's note: a disclosure has been added to this article.
Melinda Liu is Bejiing Bureau Chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, a veteran foreign correspondent, and recipient of a number of awards including the 2006 Shorenstein Journalism Award acknowledging her reporting on Asia.