Sitting in his small atelier on Hong Kong’s Wyndham Street, fashion designer Barney Cheng says that his bread-and-butter falls somewhere between haute couture and prêt-à-porter. “I guess you can call it couture-a-porter,” Cheng says with a laugh.
Cheng is perhaps Hong Kong’s best-known designer, and numerous actresses, among them Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li, and Shu Qi, turn to him when it’s time to walk the red carpet. American audiences were introduced to his work when Yeoh wore one of his creations—a 35-pound, beaded, tiger-striped cheongsam—to the 2001 Academy Awards when she was nominated for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The year before, he became the first designer to hold a show in China’s Forbidden City.
But most of his work comes from special orders from Hong Kong society. Oftentimes, a society matron sees a design elsewhere and asks Cheng to come up with his own interpretation. Many don’t ask Cheng to do that out of thriftiness—though getting a good deal “is a very ‘Hong Kong’ mentality,” says Cheng—but because of their impatience.
For example, a renowned Paris jeweler told a Hong Kong lady who lunches that the 3 million euro necklace with which she became enamored would not be available for several months. She wasn’t about to wait, so she talked to Cheng. “Hong Kong is the only place that you get everything instantly,” Cheng says. “People here don’t say no.”
He was completing the work on her piece when we spoke. “The quality will be very close,” Cheng says, adding that he brought the piece in for about a third of the original’s cost.
He has dressed society women for every kind of event imaginable. “I’ve done two divorce banquets. People will call and say, ‘I got a nose job’ or ‘My daughter got a nose job,’ and I want to throw a party.”
His clients are not the customers filling the European luxury boutiques that seem to dot every Hong Kong street corner; those are often the nouveau riche, usually from the mainland.
“Hong Kong [society] can afford to go to the flagships in Paris or Milan,” Cheng says. “It’s not just about having a Kelly bag, it’s about having the latest Kelly bag—they want the best of the best.”
He attributes the city’s ultra-conspicuous consumption to an ever-present awareness of its very modest roots. In the end, he says, “It comes down to the fact that we were a fishing village way back when.”
Barney Cheng’s work can be seen at barneycheng.com.