Vivienne Tam, Fall 2013: Red, Black, and Obama Pop Art

Showcased as part of New York Fashion week, Vivienne Tam’s Fall 2013 collection was perhaps one of the most visually graphic and adventurous of all the designers that showed. It was also undoubtedly the most political, even if its message was somewhat garbled in true-art/fashion style.

Tam — who was born in Canton, China, and grew up largely in what was then the British colony of Hong Kong — launched her career with her “MAO” and “Buddha” collections of “East meets West” chic.

For her Fall 2013 collection, Tam drew partly from Pop art, and partly from China’s visual and clothing traditions. Showcased on the Chinese New Year’s Eve, the collection’s color palette was a simple red (the Chinese favorite), black, and white.

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On the evening of the show, Tam tweeted: “I posted 10 photos on Facebook in the album ‘OBAMA Pop Culture Print FALL 2012′. ” The Facebook page tells fans that the “original pop-art print featuring President Obama” was used for evening wear, outerwear, and casual wear. “Regardless of your [political] leaning,” the Facebook page declares, drawing on Obama’s campaign slogans, “hope, change, and conversation never go out of style.”

The print shows a party of Barack Obamas, wearing sun glasses. The style of the image appears to have been adopted from the woodblock-type propaganda prints of Chairman Mao, China’s notorious communist dictator.

However, if you think Tam might be lauding the US President as a new communist leader, or perhaps implicitly criticizing him by placing him within the context of the 20th century leader responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese people, you might want to step back for a moment.

Fashion can be read in different ways. But Tam herself throws off this line of interpretation — intentionally or not — by including a reinterpreted Mao jacket in her collection, with the phrase “Wan Sui” embroidered on to the arm. These words are taken from the old Chinese expression “Tang-chin, Huang-ti, Wan-sui, Wan-sui, Wan-sui.” Interpretation: “May the reigning Emperor live ten thousand years, ten thousand years, ten thousand years.”

The Maoists hated everything China’s Emperors and pre-Maoist tradition stood for, and embarked on two “Cultural Revolutions” to expunge the nation’s traditional culture. Perhaps Tam means to laud the US President as “Emperor.” But, if so, is her collection a nod to the communist dream or to an anti-communist one? Is Obama presented through her collection as a representative of equality or elitism and traditionalism? Like Tam, we’ll leave that up to you to decide.