On the Saturday 1st October 2022, one of the most exclusive events of the Paris Fashion Week took place in the hall of the Shangri-La hotel: the BOF 500 Gala. This annual prestigious night – often overlooked by conventional media and to which the general public stays oblivious – is organized by Business of Fashion, an insider publication for fashion business executives. The journal provides insights and in-depth analysis of the fashion industry from a business perspective and is famous for publishing a yearly index of the 500 most influential people of the fashion industry. This index is the basis of the gala’s invitation list. As usual, attendance comprised worldwide stars regularly sporting big brands runways as well as top designers, but most importantly of all the discrete but crucial architects of the fashion system constituted the majority of the crowd: magazines editors, influential writers, successful photographers, PR, concept store owners and buyers. Sherry Huang, founder of ENG (wearing a full Didu outfit) was one of them for the first time. This invitation acts as an acknowledgment of their stand-out approach to curation, and of the meteoric rise of the ENG concept store chain. In the covid years, ENG has been cementing its unavoidable status on the global map of high-end, multi-brand stores.
ENG’s success story indeed has been nothing but unusual. Huang launched the first store in 2019, inside a mall in the heart of Shanghai’s Pudong. Three years later, branches have flourished all over China in nine different cities, and even more are scheduled to open in 2023, notably in the capital city of Beijing, and in Sichuan’s cultural hub Chengdu. Such achievements in so little time are exceptional even by Chinese standards and are rooted in Huang’s radical approach. ENG stands for Exploring, Navigate, Generate and encapsulates the group’s philosophy: “our stores are places of cultural exchange with multiple artistic collaborations and musical events happening regularly,” says Huang. “Our commitment is to build a community gathered around shared values and vision.” In contrast to other stores, ENG positions itself not as a spectator to cultural shifts but actively seeks to define and shape youth culture, unafraid of taking a stance or deciding what to spotlight. This attitude is at odds with the safe policy of established retailers and demonstrates an acute grasp of the transformation of the fashion industry over the past decade.
Fashion as a cultural engine [insert reference] has been so much discussed that is almost a cliché. Its interpenetration with all other artistic fields and its pervasiveness in all aspects of cultural life can easily seem like it was always this way but it was not. Technological change (notably the democratization of smartphones) and the rise of social media have deeply modified our relationship to culture which has become increasingly visual and aestheticized over the last ten years. Fashion is now integrated in the larger culture ecosystem that it both feeds and grows within. It can not be dissociated from it anymore and permeates every of its field. Where does the fashion experience stop? Video game character design has steadily increased its influence on clothing design, especially among Asian creatives: one can think of Hyein Seo’s Lara Croft-inspired outfit or Post Archive Faction’s sleek and futuristic silhouette. Blackpink’s music videos (arguably the biggest girl band in the world) just look like three-minute-long fashion ads. Each of the four band members is the muse of a French luxury house (along with top actors) but they wear the same Didu top that underground powerhouse Shygirl or the same Windowsen platform boots as the experimental singer FKA Twigs. Similarly, contemporary art connoisseurs have long spotted household names such as Anne Ihmof (winner of the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale in 2017) and Eliza Douglas on the runway, or in the crowd at Balenciaga shows since Demna Gsevalia took over. The video artist Jon Rafman is a brand long term collaborator, which was also involved creatively in the last Kanye West tour.
Almost no serious fashion event happens now without featuring an artistic performance, a set design involving a major contemporary artist, a dedicated soundtrack or a musician/DJ model (or all at the same time). After being a key figure in the forward-thinking New York party Ghetto Gothik, the musician Arca was involved in the creation of the Hood by Air label, performed for Prada a few years later (and dedicated a song on her last album to the brand) while soundtracking art works in different museums and galleries (the latest one being Philippe Pareno’s in the Pinault Foundation, Paris) in addition to the Hood by Air shows. Two months ago, she was the first model to walk the Proenza Schouler show in New York. This phenomenon is not limited to fashion (singers venture more often into acting, make up, design or vice versa) but puts it center stage. Fashion brands have always associated themselves with artists that connected to their aesthetic or with muses. But now, from the creative process to the public presentation of the collection, fashion is more collaborative and referential of other artistic forms than it ever was. This culminates in collection displays through grandiose, multi-layered and multi-media shows.
ENG unfolds these hyper-concentrated synesthetic/multi-sensorial narratives that the brands create, providing a glimpse of the aesthetic and musical roots of the creative team’s inner vision through playlists, art collaborations and ambitious in-store events. These are also a platform for up-and-coming designers who do not always have the means to orchestrate maximalist displays each season on their own. This attitude appeals to artistic crowds that share similar tastes, and to the general public that can get a small view of what’s behind the curtain of that fantasized industry. In this way, anyone can approach a world normally exclusive to the very limited list of the western Fashion Weeks, and inaccessible to everyone else, especially to most of the Chinese audiences.
On social media, ENG’s policy is to go beyond the carefully constructed Instagram profile made of artistic and architectural “inspo” and references inherited from the tumblr years. In this new era where lines are blurred, ENG is not afraid to shape the culture of today and to set up trends, a role that fashion brands had historically taken up. The store’s brand mix comes with a fair share of unknown designers with big growth potential, and store-led, daring artistic projects highlight local and international artists with radical aesthetics, such as Carlos Saez (with his huge metallic arachnid made out of industrial waste). These are conducted with overwhelming confidence and demonstrate that ENG is not a trend-chaser: something does not take place at ENG because it is already cool, it is cool because it takes place at ENG.