Bored With Fashion: Dion Chang

Being viewed as a national fashion guru can be hard at the best of times. But you know that the role is becoming downright uncomfortable if you get annoyed when simply asked ‘what’s in’ for the season. Perhaps it’s a natural maturing or just too much of the same thing, but Dion Chang admits that he is bored with fashion. These days he’s re-positioning himself as a lifestyle consultant and social commentator and less of a fashion oracle. It allows him to take his work a little deeper than chintz and taffeta.

I met with Dion at a noisy Jo’burg bistro. Friends had told me that he was smart, interesting and open about his life, which includes being out about his sexuality. I discovered that my friends weren’t far off the mark. He’s an intelligent, grounded and likeable figure, which is not all that common in the arena in which he’s made his name.

Dion’s career has been an interesting journey. He discovered, in the midst of a Paris scholarship at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, that fashion design wasn’t really for him. He then began to make a name for himself as fashion editor at magazines such as True Love and Cosmopolitan. 1996 saw Dion scoop the coveted position of fashion editor for Elle when it launched in South Africa. He also came into the wider public view by regularly appearing on television as a fashion industry icon and presenter. He‘s since developed into a journalist of note; his magazine career has won him 5 Mondi Magazine Awards for fashion editing, and one Pica Award for fashion journalism.

Most recently he was program director and official spokesperson for 2004’s celebrated South African Fashion Week. Add to this, the roles of cartoonist and corporate lifestyle trend consultant and it’s clear that he’s not just a pretty face. He seems conflicted by his irritation with the superficiality of the fashion world, yet also aware that it is this same realm that has made him what he is.

Where did the desire to get into fashion come from?

I hated maths! (Laughs) I was one of those weird freaky kids that actually knew what they wanted to be in Standard Seven. I went to study design at Durban Technikon. When I finished, I got a scholarship in Paris. And that’s where I fell out of fashion. I didn’t really, really like what I was doing, so I trained as a makeup artist. Then my visa ran out and I stayed in London for a couple of years. I was going to settle in London, and I came back here just to wait for working papers to go back and then I was offered a magazine job on a teenage publication. And I cut my teeth on that. And from there I just fell into magazines.

And your parents' reaction when you told them that you wanted to be a fashion designer?

I have amazing, amazing parents. Their thing was, “it’s your life and if it makes you happy then go for it - but go for it wholeheartedly”. I know that my parents received a bit of flack and snide comments, and the Chinese community in Pretoria is a very small and close community. Luckily it’s turned out for the better and some people have had to eat their words. I take my hat off to them [his parents], for making that part of my life easy. Even coming out to them was a breeze. I’m blessed with that.

You’re in a long-term relationship. How does that fit in with the notion that fashion embraces a debauched sort of life?

Having the profile that I have, it’s a really, really stabilizing thing. My partner [a television producer] is in current affairs so it’s like chalk and cheese. You almost live a Jekyll and Hyde existence. You do the fashion thing and once you get home, it’s very grounding. Thank god for it actually. The fashion industry is dangerous. You get too close to it and you end up like a cheap hooker on the corner with too much makeup and bad dress sense. We’ve been together so long and I think once you reach the ten year mark you get automatic role model status.

Tell me about the ‘state of fashion’ in Dion Chang’s life?

It’s a very strange thing, having built an entire career around fashion, but fashion bores me completely now. Firstly, I think that fashion in the 21st century is not fashion as it was. I will run screaming if someone asks me, “what’s in fashion, what must I wear”? And my response is, "I don’t really care", and "wear what makes you happy". I don’t think those kinds of questions are relevant anymore. I don’t do hardcore handbags and shoes, and where I’m positioning myself now, is as a trend and design consultant. This year I was asked to be part of the selection panel for the International Design Biennale of Saint Etienne. It’s less about fashion and more about design. It’s not about the fads, or you’ve got to wear pink or wear ‘camo’, it’s about what drives those things.

Fashion doesn’t seem to be an independent thing anymore. It’s become so intertwined with design and pop culture in way that it perhaps wasn’t before.

That’s why I say you can’t look at something in isolation. And, what finally made me gag on fashion was that we had all these military trends coming through. In the past eight years we have had three military trends! And I say to people, have you all lost your short term memory? For the last five or six years fashion has just been regurgitating itself. And a lot of people are not designers, they’re stylists. They can throw an outfit together but there is no cutting-edge stuff. There are pretty frocks and nice outfits and things, but there’s nothing tangible or with a philosophy behind it.

Why is that?

I just think that the world has changed. There are different things that are emphasized. Whether a hemline is up or down is of no consequence to anybody. Whoever you speak to, in décor or fashion, people want a sense of soul, and fashion is not giving people that.

It’s as if fashion has fallen into an inescapable postmodern black hole.

If you think of globalisation, global brands; everyone’s become clones. So, what really is in fashion is the need to stamp your own character. But there’s still a populace that’s desperate to hear “you have to wear green” and “you have to wear this and you have to wear that”… What I’m also finding out is the power of what you say. It’s taken verbatim. No one questions it. That sort of scares me as well. It brings home how careful you have to be with what you say. Because people take it completely at face value. It’s quite frightening how people can’t think for themselves.

But if the public isn’t given those guidelines, what’s the point then of the fashion industry?

Well, there are too many stylists out there and too few designers. I’m on various panels and one that I’ve been most on for quite a few years is Smirnoff [Smirnoff International Fashion Awards] which is a nice, big, big platform. And I just came back from Cape Town and the theme this year was “threads”, which was a really nice thing. Threads, what links us, what threads run through humanity... And everyone went so literal and did like cloth threads and you got a lot of nice texture but when you actually looked at the stuff, there was very little design. There again, window dressing and nice effects, but there’s actually nothing behind it. That’s why I’m becoming my own fashion fascist, why I’ve sort of turned on it.

So how does that tie in with you representing SA Fashion Week?

We’ve got this rich heritage, and we’re slowly tapping into that. And that’s why I can still speak with conviction about SA Fashion Week. After the 1994 elections there was this wave of African Nationalism and African Pride, but then you has this weird scenario of funny white women going to Parliament in full Nigerian regalia…And you think, “have you looked at yourself, you really look quite ridiculous”? But what happened at this year’s Fashion Week, and [designer] Craig Native said it, is that people always expect South African fashion to be brown and with beading. And he said that the Sandton kugel and toothless wonders on the Cape Flats are just as much part of South Africa as the rest of it. We’ve got such a mixed community and I think we’re growing up and that’s what excites me about local fashion. It’s not trend-based. It’s nothing to do with what Gucci’s doing or what Louis Vuitton is doing. It’s establishing an indigenous identity which we’ve never had before.

You’ve now become a celebrity…

I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with it. I grew up in Pretoria in the 70’s and the Chinese community was very, very small, so I’m quite used to people staring and pointing. People stare and point for a different reason now. What I’m not used to is people seeing you as a solution to their problems. It’s a very strange thing. If you’re a high profile person or you’re a soap-star, people will come up to you and say, “Oh, we recognise you”, and they’ll ask for an autograph and then they go away. With me, people kind of want you to solve their career problems and other things, and it’s a different kind of demand, which freaks me out. It’s too much pressure and responsibility.

The meterosexual ‘movement’, if you will, is all over the popular culture. Is there actually something to the 'meterosexual'?

I actually think it’s a very significant movement. It is a big shift. It redefines gender roles and I think we haven’t really seen the full impact because, for joe public out there, it’s still a “I’m not sure, am I, aren’t I” kind of thing. But you’ll probably find that people that won’t classify themselves as meterosexuals will be interested in doing things that even five years ago they would never have dreamed about. So it’s a shift that‘s going to catch them unawares. I do think it’s something we haven’t seen the last of and it’s almost like a social or sexual revolution.

Cynics would say it’s just another opportunity for consumption. That marketers have saturated the female market with beauty products, so why not start selling the stuff to guys?

Could be. But I think it’s part of a big cycle. A recurring cycle. I mean you look at Louis the 14th and there the men were the dandies. They were the ones wearing much too much makeup, big powdered wigs and high heels.

Do you think it really reflects a progression in our understanding of sexuality and gender?

Well, I think it’s a big shift in attitude as well. It reflects being more in touch with your feminine side. But also, it’s just how we live. The boundaries are being broken down. If you look at mainstream TV sitcoms and the amount of gay characters there are. I think commercially it plays out in products and buying products but for me it’s also an acceptance of who we are. Spread the love round a little bit. (Grins) The world needs that right now.


By Luiz DeBarros © 2004