A Costume Drama
by Sun Shuangjie (via The Global Times) – Audiences in Shanghai were thrilled last week by the screening of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House’s version of Madame Butterfly. The production was one of the most critically acclaimed versions of Puccini’s masterpiece in recent times. Not least of its superlative qualities was the widely praised costuming. But what few people know is that the woman responsible for the design and productions of these costumes is a Nanjing native.
Vogue China once described Han Feng as “the first successful Chinese designer in the New York Fashion world,” where prestigious design schools, such as the Parsons School of Design has frequently invited her to give lectures to students. The operas on which she has worked as chief costume designer have become some of the most famous in history, but Han usually plays down her achievements, attributing her success to good fortune.
Born in 1962 in Nanjing, Han majored in decorative art at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. In 1985 she moved to New York with her boyfriend and married there. In 1993 she presented her first ready-to-wear collection in New York, and since then she has expanded her talents to furniture, accessory and costume design. Han came back to China in 2005, and opened up a studio in the Jin Jiang Hotel in Shanghai.
Han describes her style as “simple, but classic,” and which doesn’t yield to fashion trends. She favors asymmetric cuts and geometrical shapes in her clothes. “Some designs are cold, which makes the wearer distant to others, but my design starts with the concept of making the wearer feel comfortable and relaxed, thus making them more confident and happy in themselves,” she told the Global Times.
When Han first arrived in New York in 1985, wearing her favorite jeans and T-shirt, she found that everyone was wearing “glamorous and fashionable” clothes while she felt like she looked like a “refugee” seeking asylum.
Her poor English didn’t help in the design classes she undertook, and she made ends meet by working in a clothes shop.
Later on she got a job with a fabric seller who she first met in the store and that was when she began to learn about different textures and fabrics. While working there, she began to make some scarves out of discarded fabric that nobody wanted. One day, these scarves caught a customer’s eye and it signaled the beginning of Han’s designing career.
In 1993, she was asked to send 52 designs to a fashion show, which brought her to the attention of the New York fashion world.
Susan Sarandon, Jessye Norman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Martha Stewart are all loyal customers, and also friends, of Han Feng; as are Hong Kong-born choreographer Carolyn Choa and her late husband Anthony Minghella, who directed this version of Madame Butterfly and who first introduced Han into the world of costume design.
Han knew almost nothing about opera costumes, but she was determined not to let Minghella down as he had shown such faith in Han’s capability.
She repeatedly watched previous versions of this, and other, operas, she studied the history of World War II ( in which the story is set), and researched the military uniforms of the time. She surprised Minghella with her accurate and distinctive designs. “The dominant colors change from red to gray as the story proceeds, while the colorful kimonos are replaced by single-colored garments to reinforce the sadness of the characters,” said Han.
After Madame Butterfly, Han cooperated with other directors in opera productions such as The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Semele and Feng Yi Ting.
In 2010, Han Feng was a recipient of the Mercedes AMG National Spirit Achievers Award alongside eight other luminaries in the fields of art, fashion and education. Also honored was the film director Feng Xiaogang, the actress Fan Bingbing and the theater director Meng Jinghui.
“I was so flattered to receive this award, but it also reminded me that I should cooperate with Chinese stage directors as well in the future,” said Han. “It’s a pity that all my former partners on stage have been overseas producers.”
Her studio displays a wide range of her designs, including scarves, earrings, necklaces, and origami-styled flower accessories similar to those used in Madame Butterfly.
Han exhibits eclectic tastes in her own artistic preferences.
She prefers to read architectural design magazines and cookery books over fashion magazines, and loves nothing more than to talk to chefs about new recipes.
“Barring any big job at my studio, I’m going to take a break and travel to Europe and the US to accumulate knowledge, read books, and finding a professor to teach me about the history of aesthetics,” Han told the Global Times.