Three key components mark a prosperous Chinese New Year — good food, wonderful company and, of course, new clothes. Whether you hold fast to the belief that mint wearables help welcome luck and success, or just fancy having an excuse to add items to your wardrobe, the yearly shopping spree has become a tradition in its own right. However, styles like the qipao and samfoo have experienced a decline in popularity over the past couple of decades. Nowadays, many who celebrate the occasion opt for modern, non-traditional items, usually in tones of red, yellow and gold.
This is not to say traditional clothing has completely lost its appeal, but rather, reinterpretations that incorporate modern elements are now preferred. These reimagined styles are not only reflective of current tastes — and thus have greater rewearing potential for the average city-dweller — but exemplify the importance of expressing one’s personality through clothing while carrying on the traditions of our ancestors into the future. For proof, look no further than local indie designer Jewel Sum, whose 2024 CNY collection for her eponymous label embraces the best of past and present.
The 26-year-old, who graduated from the Manchester Fashion Institute in 2021, has long had a knack for incorporating unorthodox details into her designs. In fact, the curved edges seen on several of her creations so far have become a brand signature that is very meaningful to Sum. “For my final year collection [in university], I experimented with curves, which led me to want to do something unconventional,” she says. “My recent Spring/Summer collection, titled ‘Where It Begins’, tells the story of how I started in fashion. The curve symbolises the challenges I went through in my journey, and the vibrant colours are a celebration of how far I’ve come.”
At first glance, Sum’s CNY collection may not stand out immediately. But upon closer inspection, one notices the small, unique details that adorn each piece, bringing traditional fashion into the modern age while paying homage to its history. Across 10 designs in various saturated festive tones and dusty neutrals, this year’s zodiac animal, the fearsome Chinese dragon, becomes the focal point, adding a mythical touch and air of elegance and sophistication.
If a form-fitting qipao is on your 2024 CNY wish list, Sum offers two versions — the chilli red number comes with contrasting piping on its winding front panel, dotted with pistachio-hued cylindrical bead buttons that mimic the look of pale jade, while the tangerine sister piece with brown piping and emerald green buttons features a classic straight closure and keyhole detail just below the neck.
For the practical fashionista, a staple that can be worn time and again throughout the year comes in the form of a flared skirt with rounded panels and decorative button loops, perfect to style with the burnt orange sleeveless top with a mandarin collar and ruched side seams to create a scooping draped look at the front and back. Those who love a good pair of pants will adore the high-waisted straight-fit ones that come in off-white or powder blue with a centre slit below the knee, offering additional intrigue.
The collection also caters to those with a penchant for masculine style. Samfoo tops in pale blue and ivory catch the eye with curved lines and striking deep teal dragon prints that evoke calligraphy brush strokes.
Art was a heavy influence in Sum’s design process. “I thought about oil paintings,” she mentions. “[My team] experimented with different effects using Procreate on an iPad, and we explored different colours to make the prints.” The details do not stop there either — spin around to see a single pleat running down the back of the azure top and the continuous dragon’s tail that encircles the torso of the cream version.
The pièce de résistance of the collection, and Sum’s personal favourite, is a bottle green top and skirt set. A third dragon design graces the top, which is also available in blue. Glass-like cylinder beads decorate the beast’s form, adding texture and a touch of shine under bright lighting. Even more interesting is the semi-exposed back, fashioned from two curved overlapping panels that resemble tulip petals. When worn with the wrap skirt (which can be made in orange too, for anyone who would not be caught dead in green), the pairing finds the sweet spot between figure-hugging and boxy, truly revamping traditional style without losing the aspects that make it special and culturally significant.
What sets this collection aside from countless others on the market is Sum’s ability to mesh old and new, producing pieces that have modern, unexpected details but still exude vintage refinement — a reminder of the beauty of Chinese fashion. “We did not want this to be a very traditional Chinese New Year collection,” she points out. “Right now, people like things that are more fashionable. They want to show something unique about their style. And I also want them to feel special.”
She adds that “comfort and uniqueness” are what she strives to deliver with each collection, hence “you won’t see very tight-fitting pieces”, a facet of the original qipao silhouette that has deterred many from considering it in recent times.
As the years pass and the world changes, customs and traditions shift along with society. Some could argue that current CNY clothing trends symbolise cultural depreciation and loss. But designers like Sum beg to differ, choosing to view this as an opportunity to revive yesteryear styles in modes that work for the 21st-century consumer. It is an exciting prospect for historical fashion enthusiasts, especially as younger generations warm up to traditional clothing and even earlier styles like the hanfu. What matters most, particularly in the Dragon Year that invites fearlessness and loyalty, is to don attire that speak to the soul and set the tone for the season’s family reunions and social gatherings. Sum, who plans to wear her new collection with her family as they did last year, intends to do just that.
This article first appeared on Jan 15, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.