Dragon rising year for designer

The year 2015 is a big one for Laurence Xu.

On Jan 27, Xu became the first Chinese designer to present a catwalk show for two years running at the Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week. From May through August, three of his signature dresses will be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York at its major exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass.

Haute Couture is an expression of French national pride and Parisian self-belief, so the committee has a very tough procedure to approve foreign designers' applications. But Xu's couture impressed the committee so much that he was invited to return.

China: Through the Looking Glass is this year's themed exhibition of the Met's Costume Institute. Anna Wintour, US Vogue's editor-in-chief, and curator Andrew Bolton selected designs for the exhibition that explore how China has fueled Western fashion's imagination. Xu is one of the few Chinese designers who stand alongside some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Tom Ford, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld.

"It's my honour to be considered the Chinese representative at such international events," Xu says.

"As a designer, I want to make beautiful dresses. If my works can serve as a window through which people can see Chinese culture, that would be wonderful."

Xu first impressed the world in 2010 when Chinese actress Fan Bingbing wore his "dragon robe" on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. The gown was made using Nanjing Yunjin brocade with a dragon pattern that was only used for emperors in ancient China. It was listed among the top three gowns in the Red Carpet Fashion Awards of that week.

The "dragon robe" was later collected by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and will be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum this year.

The Victoria & Albert Museum describes it as "an eye-catching example of the luxury fashion popular in contemporary China. It also illustrates the growing interest Chinese have in their cultural heritage".

Curator Bolton chose the gown because he believes Xu was influenced by Tom Ford's dragon robe. Tom Ford was influenced by Saint Laurent and Saint Laurent was inspired by something from Shanghai. "That's how the East and West influence each other," Bolton says.

Last year at Paris Haute Couture Week, Xu presented a collection of 36 gowns that continued to draw on the traditional Chinese dragon motif. This year, he presented 30 gowns in the theme of Dunhuang.

Dunhuang, in Northwest China's Gansu province, was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road and is best known for its Buddhist caves with murals and sculptures.

When Xu was young, his architect father told him about Dun-huang and how many Chinese artists learned painting and copied murals at the caves. Those beautiful folktales haunted him for many years until last July when he finally visited Dunhuang and was inspired.

"From those paintings, I not only saw Buddhist rituals and beautiful dance, but found 'fashion'. I found people in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and earlier dynasties wore trousers with braces and trench coats!" Xu says.

"I borrowed my ancestor's designs for my work and wish to create a modern look juxtaposing both Western silhouettes and the Chinese flavor," he says.

Like all luxury brands, special materials are vital to Xu's collections. He paid homage to the traditional handicrafts of China, as each couture piece was made in the Nanjing Yunjin brocade.

Literally meaning "beautiful could in the sky", Nanjing Yunjin was a complicated textile incorporating materials such as silk, gold and peacock feather yam. Only made in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu province, it was once used to produce royal garments. In 2009, UNESCO named it among the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

"Xu's vision involves all the necessary elements for a luxury haute couture brand: craftsmanship, history, cultural heritage, storytelling, emotion and endless elegance," says Christine Zhao Qian, director of Paris Chinese Haute Couture Association, who recommended Xu to the Paris Haute Couture Week.

Xu, 41, was born and raised in Zaozhuang, East China's Shandong province, not a fashionable area in China but the home province of Confucius and rich in traditional Chinese culture.

Xu, the second child in his family, had two interests when he was young: accompanying his mother to see the local opera and altering his father, sister and brother's clothing.

"My boyhood dream was to be a local opera performer because I thought the costumes were amazingly pretty and the gestures full of imagination. The actor waves a whip to symbolize riding a horse and demonstrates embarrassment by covering his face with his long sleeve," he says.

As for his passion for clothes, he recalls once cutting the collar off his father's shirt but before he could make a new one, he was discovered by his father and got a good smacking.

In summer, he "mixed and matched" many clothes and pretended to perform on his bed-he considered it a stage-and was laughed at by other boys.

He also tailored a qipao, a traditional Chinese cheongsam for his sister. She rode a bicycle while wearing it, and he sat on the back to show her off across the small town. But he was very embarrassed when the hemline got tangled in the bicycle wheel.

In 1997, he studied design at the Central Academy of Art and Design in Beijing, going on to further study in Paris in 1999.

After returning to China, he started to design costumes for theatre and film, getting to know many actresses such as Fan Bingbing, Zhang Jingchu and Zhou Yun, for whom he started to make red-carpet gowns, gaining wide acclaim.

Xu now has a studio in Beijing and specializes in haute couture and wedding gowns.