New Traditionalists: Janko Lam

This article appeared in Baccarat’s March 2016 issue as part of ‘Back to the Future’, a photo profile on five young individuals and duos who are reinventing traditional arts for a modern audience.


“I look so chubby,” Janko Lam exclaims as we huddle over the photographer’s camera. “It’s taking quite a while to recover,” says the Hong Kong fashion designer, who had given birth to a baby boy a little less than a month before we meet in January but was already back on the job. Irons, a weaving basket and a few menacing fabric shears lie scattered on two long tables at her Chai Wan studio, where she has just taught a class. Clothing racks line one side of the wall; vibrantly hued Indian-influenced qipao styles for an overseas client abound on one while another displays Classics Anew’s latest collection.

Born in Hainan in the post-80s generation, Lam developed an early interest in textiles – “it was just sewing bits and pieces of textiles lying around”. After moving to Hong Kong in her teenage years, she pursued an interest in drawing by enrolling in the department of Fashion and Textiles Design at Caritas Bianchi College of Careers. Soon after graduation, she nabbed a gig at TVB as a costumer. While she explored many styles during school, it was Chinese traditional clothing that spoke to her, as it allowed the costumer more freedom and control. Her favourite period clothing was that of the Qing dynasty. “It was a very class-based society so a lot of strenuous research was involved,” Lam explains. “Costume designing wasn’t – isn’t – as serious for contemporary dramas.”

After leaving TVB, Lam marked her official foray into the fashion industry with a few contemporary fashion lines, but soon realised the difficulties of breaking into the market. “It was hard to compete with the big brands as an independent fashion designer, not to mention the proliferation of fast fashion in this day and age,” she says. It was then that Lam started exploring eco fashion. In 2011, she won Redress’ inaugural EcoChic Design Award. Classics Anew was set up the same year.

Lam speaks of the two approaches to modernising traditional Chinese qipao-making – either by simplifying the style itself, or by integrating the style with materials that might appeal more to a modern audience.

Contemporary qipao styles usually feature simpler patterns – “the younger crowd doesn’t want to be seen wearing a huge dragon or phoenix” – and a softer collar. “While a stiffer collar accentuates the contours of a slender neck, it’s also quite uncomfortable,” Lam says with a smile. “I made a collar out of leather once.” Depending on the client’s age and the occasion for which it will be worn, the length and material of the qipao can be customised. While traditional qipao are usually made of silk, satin or silk brocade, one of the materials that Lam has experimented with is denim, as much for aesthetics as for its eco credentials. “All of our denim is sourced from factories that haven’t got a use for it anymore, so every piece of our denim qipao is unique, as they all have different dyes,” Lam says. As such, Classics Anew doesn’t trade in seasonal collections per se – “we launch whenever we’re ready.”

While Lam’s mentor – a qipao si fu (master) she met during her TVB days – is very open-minded when it comes to an ever-evolving culture, Lam worries that the traditional craft of qipao-making will soon disappear. “Few have the patience to sit down in front of a machine and sew for hours on end,” the designer says wistfully. “Even if there are qipao-making workshops, most who learn regard it as an interest rather than a profession.”

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