Versace, Gucci ... Ooi? China Designer Makes Splash

Model tall and model thin, Joanne Ooi strides confidently into the New York outlet of Shanghai Tang, the clothing line she is working hard to make China's first luxury brand.

Ooi is Shanghai Tang's creative director, and under her leadership the ready to wear line is becoming hot. U.S. sales have grown by almost 50 percent in each of the last two years.

The designs are a place where old China and new China meet, a fusion of 5,000 years of Chinese history and modern style.

Shanghai Tang has now drawn the attention of Hollywood celebrities. Actors from Angelina Jolie and Liv Tyler to Keanu Reeves (there is also a men's line) are big fans.

"I decided very early on that for the brand to really have legs it was very important to present a collection that had real roots in Chinese culture and history," she says in her surprisingly deep, direct voice, "not just some pastiche that I would create every season for commercial reasons."

Once a moribund label, Shanghai Tang has for several years found success in Asia, riding economic growth in that region (outside Japan), which still accounts for 80 percent of its sales.

Ernst and Young forecasts annual growth in luxury sales of 20 percent over the next decade in China. By 2015, predicts Ernst and Young, China will overtake the United States as the world's second-largest consumer of luxury goods, after Japan.

"The goal, even in Asia, is to be the ambassador of the new China," says Ooi. Her spring 2006 collection consisted partly of miniskirted versions of the qipao, a traditional Mandarin collared dress. But the colors were bright, not Cultural Revolution dull, and the dresses were emblazoned with patterns based on paintings by artists in Beijing.

Next spring's collection was on parade recently in New York City. A townhouse in Greenwich Village was transformed into an Asian atelier. Two dancers in colorful Chinese costumes waved huge Oriental fans alternately to ethnic Chinese music and jazz compositions.

Western models in bobbed wigs evocative of 1920's Shanghai showed off the new designs -- all swirling silk, short skirts, bold, bright colors, decorated with Chinese symbols and patterns drawn from Asian artists.

Ooi, who is 38, stood on a staircase watching her models show off the collection to the crowd of potential buyers and fashion writers.

"I do get very excited about their product," says Anne Slowey, fashion news director for Elle Magazine. "They're trying to create a fashion industry within China that will be taken seriously."

Slowey adds, "They're exciting women to their own heritage and cultural artistic details."

It is surprising to many, then, that Ooi is the driving force behind this Chinese brand.

"It's quite ironic," says Ooi, "given my upbringing in Cincinnati, Ohio."

Cincinnati, Ohio?

Ooi's parents emigrated to the U.S. Midwest from Asia. A young Joanne found herself the only Chinese child in her Cincinnati school, which, she says, caused her to reject anything -- absolutely anything -- Chinese.

"My first goal when I was going through school in Cincinnati was to assimilate; I strove to assimilate," she says -- and that even involved rebelling against her parents.

After Cincinnati, Ooi's pursuit of assimilation took her to the Ivy League. First, she went to Columbia University in New York for an undergraduate degree. Next was law school at the University of Pennsylvania, and a career in business.

In the 1990's she followed her future husband to China and rediscovered her roots. The marriage ended but Ooi stayed in China and found a new life.

"It's taken me this many years to actually embrace my heritage," she says. "But I think of it as one of the greatest gifts of my life."

But first, since she spoke only English, she needed to learn Mandarin and Cantonese. Ooi quickly overcame that and is now the creative force behind what could be the most famous Chinese brand in the world, one that may soon play with the big brands in Europe and the United States.

"I realized that there was a huge treasure trove of inspiration that had never been mined before, especially not by a luxury brand," she says with her big dark eyes sparkling, "and which the consumer was absolutely ignorant of."

"Even Chinese people think of Chinese culture as what they can find in Chinatown," she adds.

Will she succeed in making Shanghai Tang the next Ralph Lauren or Gucci? Don't sell Ooi short, says Elle Magazine's Slowey.

"Joanne is probably one of the most dynamic, energetic, committed women I've ever met," she says. "She's very exciting to be around."