Victoria Kuan: Key promoter of the local fashion industry

The garment industry in Macau marked the rise of the local fashion industry. The industry has experienced decline and is restructuring. Up until now, designers have begun to pursue new directions for development. Ms. Victoria Alexa Kuan Chan is playing an important role as a key promoter during this process.

By: Johnson Ian 

From 1970 to 1990, the garment industry was one the pillar industries of Macau. At that time, large plants and cottage factories could be seen everywhere, with one always nearby. With the decline of the industry, gaming came into vogue and became the driver of economic development, which doubled the number of tourists and enriched local residents. Industrial restructuring gradually happened, garment factories faded out and fashion stores sprang up.  

For many years, Macau Productivity and Technology Transfer Centre (CPTTM) has been the main driving force of the fashion industry in Macau. Ms. Victoria Alexa Kuan Chan, Deputy Director General of CPTTM, who has been engaged throughout the process of Macau’s transformation from garments to fashion design, took the position of Director of WorldSkills Competition as a designer.  

“Why did I join CPTTM and actively help young designers? Because I understand that you might feel embarrassed to ask for help. I hope they can enjoy a better environment,” Victoria stressed, with the local fashion industry still at an initial stage. She hopes the public can provide more support. To enhance the ‘corporatisation’ of Macau’s fashion designers and brands has not only been Ms. Kuan’s personal goal but also the target of CPTTM. 

Victoria became bound up with fashion at a very young age. When she was twelve or thirteen, she helped at her father’s garment factory, where she got the opportunity to meet customers in Hong Kong and draw samples. After Form 5 graduation, she worked in her father’s factory whilst studying fashion design. Taking the risk of being blamed for not helping the family business she worked for another factory a few months later. And after two years, she went to the UK for further study.  

Occasionally, Victoria returned to Macau as the garment industry fell into decline. She finished several series of clothing and joined the newly established CPTTM in 1996. During her job interview, she first met Dr. Yeung Tsun Man, Chairman of the Centre, and recalls: “I introduced my thinking of setting up an institute like House of Apparel Technology, point by point. The interview lasted two hours.”  

The conversation inspired the establishment of House of Apparel Technology, the place where Premier Wen Jiabao visited in 2010.  

Ms. Kuan pointed out that the clothing industry of Macau enjoys rich contents – and sound reputation, timing delivery and high quality are comments from foreign buyers. Although the industry declined because of the abolition of the quota system, the SAR Government never treats it as a sunset industry but invests a lot of effort into it like introducing foreign-funded enterprises and promoting new production models.  

With the clear aim of enhancing the competitiveness of the local manufacturing industry, as well as responding to industrial reconstruction and policies, CPTTM continually adjusts its work and curriculum. The Centre also organises industrial delegations to visit plants overseas for the latest equipment. Exploration however, was difficult: “At the beginning, most of the training was conducted for older factory workers. When factories moved to the north, CPTTM started to provide training for young people. After more than ten years, trainees at that time are noe designers or businessmen running their own business.” 

Breakthrough Development 

Victoria Kuan believed that CPTTM achieved a breakthrough in 2003 by clearly determining its position and targets, including formal vocational education, WorldSkills Competition, professional diploma programmes and so on. During that year, the Centre joined hands with the Education and Youth Affairs Bureau to open a professional fashion design course per a regular curriculum at Escola Luso-Chinesa Técnico-Profissional.  

Ms Hung Won the Silver Medal for Macau in the Fashion Technology category of the 41st WorldSkills Competition

“We were so happy. My colleagues once asked if any cities had a fashion school,” she said. CPTTM was also appointed by the Labour Affairs Bureau to participate in WorldSkills Competition – Victoria described it as another turning point for the fashion industry in Macau. She remembered after the first meeting between both parties that they drove back to the Centre and passed through a tunnel in Horta e Costa area.  

She was still nervous in the car, considering the competition “mission impossible”.  

“What should I do? My boss asked me to be an expert, but there are so many manufacturers in Macau. How can I do it? Are any manufacturers willing to go with us? Are there any young workers in factories who can join the competition?” She asked herself at the time. “There were so many questions. But having gone there we have awakened. With years of hard work, we turned something impossible into something universal. After twenty years, there is no need for us to tell stories to convince someone to join.” 

A world class professional competition, the WorldSkills Competition has a history of more than 60 years and is known as the ‘Skills Olympics’. The competition takes place every two years for participants aged 22 and below. Every year, it attracts more than 1,000 participants from all over the world. It is also highly valued by countries, while the highest authorities usually greet winners of the competition. In Macau, the government honours winners by awarding them the title of ‘Honorific Title – Merit’.  

During past editions, Macau has won a silver medal and four outstanding performance medals in the fashion technology competition. In 2003, Victoria was selected as ‘Expert’ for the first time. She not only selected, trained and led competitors, but also took part in the organisation of the event. Her work was highly recognised. For many years, she has been voted Deputy Chief or Chief Expert of the competition. This year, Ms. Kuan was appointed Fashion Technical Director for the 45th WorldSkills Competition in 2019, to be hosted by the city of Kazan, Russia.  

Ms. Victoria Alexa Kuan Chan chairs a meeting for the competition

The organiser sets the position for the first time, in a bid to co-ordinate the entire event. Ms. Kuan underlined that what WorldSkills Competition means to Macau is not only awards; more importantly, it is about the latest international standards and industrial trends, while those experiences gained from the Competition formed the scope of today’s fashion image of CPTTM – namely the Centre’s scale and standardised training. She is also engaged in the reform of the WorldSkills Competition, making fashion technology more challenging and attractive, adding vitality to the event. 

Currently, the fashion and image session under CPTTM provides instruction for about 3,000 trainees every year, with curricula designed for different groups such as interest classes in various schools, fashion design courses conducted in Escola Luso-Chinesa Técnico-Profissional and vocational courses provided by institutions. Moreover, the programme includes children’s wear, menswear, women’s wear, suits, eveningwear, sportswear, shoes, hats, accessories, etc., as well as training in design, pattern, sewing, make-up, beauty, health, manicure, fashion photography, modelling, window display, gift packaging, retail courtesy and English.  

Chio Weng Chong won the Medallion for Excellence for Macau in the Fashion Technology category of 2017 WorldSkills Competition

The Centre even provides courses on the correct pronunciations of international brands. CPTTM works with University of Saint Joseph to host a Bachelor’s degree programme in Fashion Design, which started in September 2016. It can be said that the fashion training programme of CPTTM is now covering interest classes to university level. 

For her professional achievements in the promotion of fashion design, Ms. Kuan was awarded the Professional Merit Medal by the SAR Government in 2011. Looking back at the past 20-year development of CPTTM, she feels like every day is a new day because the standards and levels of students vary every year. The development of fashion is also changing rapidly. The WorldSkills Competition is conducted to industrial standards, while its subjects should also be reviewed by the industry.  

Competion is rigorous. The contents of the Competition are used as a teaching plan for secondary and middle vocational schools, both with schools in Macao and other places. Therefore, CPTTM has to review its curriculum every year, adding new elements as well as actively communicating with teachers and students, and monitoring its classes.  

“If we don’t pay attention to evening diploma courses, students will leave because they can feel how much effort you put into the programme. We are so proud to say that the training programme in Macau is finally built.” 

Discovering the true self  

CPTTM used to view training as its top priority in the past, while many local fashion designers are its students. As the number of students increases year by year, and the government strives to promote the creative industry, fashion design has been positioned as one of the key sectors, with the Centre constantly adjusting its strategies. In addition to training, it helps students pursue their dreams and professional development.  

“We hope to keep close contact with students, even though they have graduated from CPTTM. We would like to keep offering opportunities which allow students to demonstrate their capabilities. Hence, a series of activities have been derived. At the beginning, there were some leisure activities, and slowly it moved towards commercial or even the professional stage.”  

Internally, the Centre organises Macau Fashion Week annually and many other competitions. Externally, CPTTM gathers Macao designers or brands together to join exhibitions overseas. The popularity of Macao fashion has greatly improved in recent years.  

“Before or just after the reunification, how can we go to Hong Kong to participate in those professional fashion shows? Now we go proudly. Just as a few years ago Hong Kong hosted Centrestage, which was the best and the most recognisable fashion event in Asia. Recognition by the international jury was taken as one of the eligibility criteria. During the first year, Hong Kong came to Macau for promotion and invited Macau to participate. We dared not participate but only attended as an observer. For the second year, I made up my mind and encouraged local designers to sign up. The outcome was amazing. Eight brands from Macau were selected. For this year, we received 14 registrations, with 12 selected for the trip in September.”  

CPTTM provides assistance in terms of organization in order to reduce the costs of manpower and resources and to allow participants to be more focused on design and production. Creative industries are promoted by cities around the world, while fashion has become a battleground. You have to have a strategy for a breakthrough, maintains Kuan, pointing out that Macao has several promotion strategies.  

“First, we should go out together and use the name ‘Macau Fashion Parade’, which is the name of the Macao Fashion Show. Macau has the momentum to attract media coverage. As long as there is potential and there’s a willingness to invest, CPTTM would like to assist and take them out.”  

Secondly, try to separate different types of designers and brands for exhibitions and shows, she says, citing daily wear, evening wear, sportswear, etc., and promote the diversity of the fashion industry of Macau.  

Third, the Center takes the initiative to ask directors, models and other professionals for comments and suggestions on local designers. It gradually improves its standards through seminars and workshops: “Macau fashion designers are nice and easygoing,” she laughs. 

There are many fashion stores and fashion events in Macau, and society has different reactions. Some residents consider Macao fashion a positive industry, while others say that there are too many fashion stores in Macao. As one of the teachers of those designers, Ms. Kuan says both ideas are wrong. “Usually, I worry about whether they are able to do business. If we meet, I will ask directly, when you come to the event does anyone help you to take care of the shop?”  

In fact, Macau’s fashion industry only established its niche a decade ago. Now, it is in the beginning and learning stage. Designers have to invest a lot of time to learn their craft, materials and management. They have to work hard to stand firm. As local designers are still focused on hand-made creations no more than two series of designs can be launched every year.  

However, mature brands are able to launch at least four seasons a year, while some large brands can even have new products in two weeks. Macau designers also have their own way. For example, some have received offers from the Mainland to be film art directors. After earning enough money, they return to the city to rent shops and make a series. You may say they are successful. In fact, they are facing a tough operating environment. The ultimate goal of the Centre is to promote the industrialisation of fashion design in Macao.  

“For many years, we have been hoping to persuade designers to design for money, which means products have commercial value, and companies can be ‘corporatised’. Nowadays, Macao fashion design still belongs to small enterprises, which relies on handmade products. Operators are able to get benefits but not big money.”  

Fashion design and industrial development depend upon the social environment. It will benefit from related industries. For example, if local entertainers and singers like to use local designs, and if they enjoy well-developed careers, local fashion designers can help them as art director and costume designer, then designers are able to earn money to support their career. 

Macau fashion should be unique and special 

As for the abundance of fashion stores in town, Ms. Kuan smiles and saying: “In my time, many students’ dreams were to open a fashion store in Pak Tat Mall. Even now, opening a fashion store is a dream for many girls. Because the cost of purchasing from Hong Kong or flying to Korea today is not too high. And many students accept parents’ advice to study a popular subject at university. Upon graduation, they then come to CPTTM to study fashion design. They all work hard to fulfill their dreams.”  

CPTTM assists entrepreneurs in different aspects such as marketing, display design, and so on. It also encourages them to enroll in the fashion design courses of CPTTM, with the aim of strengthening professional knowledge. Moreover, it encourages designers to contact fashion stores for sales on consignment.  

“It’s all healthy. At least, during tourists’ visit in Macau, they can find some unique fashion stores in every district. The whole atmosphere is positive.” 

Speaking of fashion, ‘Quick Fashion’ has been a standout in recent years. H&M, ZARA, Uniqlo and many other brands are known for their large variety of designs, fast shipping, stylish and cheap price. It is believed that you can always find one of these brands in every family’s wardrobe. This trend has created intense competitive pressure for individual designers and small brands.  

Victoria says that besides ‘Quick Fashion’ since the advent of the Internet the fashion industry has changed a lot. The so-called order has been completely chaotic. In the past, major brands would decide upon a schedule for a new series launch and plan activities for attending. Today, some traditional brands in the UK have already set up their own schedules of new series releases.  

Fashion designers have to be clearly aware of the major environment, but there is no need to be greatly affected, nor complain about it. “You can never control the sounding environment, changes happen rapidly, and it can’t be predicted. So designers shouldn’t be influenced too much by the environment, otherwise it will be difficult to work.” 

She emphasises, though, that while fashion is always changing it also follows some rules. The most important thing for a designer is to have original ideas, skills and work properly. Macao designers should form their own characteristics and create value-added products in order to keep the business growing. These products cannot be found in normal ‘Quick Fashion’ nor can they be matched at will. On the contrary, products created by Macau designers should be better to be outstanding and unique. Customers who buy these designs go out to look for some quick fashion for matching.  

“I often tell local designers that since you have chosen this industry you must guarantee the quality of your products. If someone is wearing your black shirt outside but the bottom white shirt is dyed by black, or if threads are not cut nicely, or cutting does not fit, it will be difficult for designers to survive. You should meet all the basic requirements, then create your personal characteristics and be outstanding. Macao fashion design must maintain the good reputation of the garment industry of the past.” 

International fashion brands and the industry have always attached importance to the WorldSkills Competition. For instance, renowned British designer Paul Smith once provided a lot of suggestions. As one of the key co-ordinators of the event, Ms. Kuan has been dealing with experts and brands from all over the world, learning the industrial trends and tips. According to her, designers should have good positioning, set a timetable for design release, and have a clear sales target, choice of online platforms, target cities and target exhibitions or fashion events.  

If a designer really has no idea, work for others is what Victoria recommends: “There are many designers who joined those major fashion companies after graduation, learning whilst working. After three to five years, they developed their own brands and finally achieved good results. If you really love fashion, you can go to factories on the Mainland to learn the operation of the entire design department and the production process.”  

Famous brand stores can be found around the city. Young designers or trainees in Macau can walk into those shops and take a close look at clothes produced by a famous designer. At the same time, we can also make good use of the advantages of Macao.  

“In the end, is going to a small town in Finland more convenient than Macau? It takes us two hours’ drive to Guangzhou to buy cloth, one hour to Hong Kong by ferry, while travelling to Helsinki from a small town in Finland costs five or six hours. The number of famous stores there is less than in Macau, while there is no market or material supply from the Mainland. It is not even easy to buy a button.  

“According to a teacher from Montreal who works for WorldSkills Competition, they have to wait for the cloth dealer to take a box of cloth to the school. What can be used is all in the box. Friends in Mauritius go to Shenzhen to buy clay figures. Nowadays, a lot of brands go to Vietnam and Cambodia to find manufacturers. It is closer from Macau to Vietnam than to Paris. So what about the supply chain in Macau? It depends upon how you look at it – and if you are willing to travel.” 

With ideas and crafts, and the willingness to travel, other issues are style and outlet. Ms. Kuan realizes that many designers in Macau, involved in fashion, graphics and even movies, are subconsciously biased towards the Chinese and Portuguese cultures. Many fashion designers prefer the everyday elements of Macau such as road signs, blue and white, the Macau Grand Prix and so on. They hope to announce their Macauness identify through their designs.  

Reality cannot change style easily, which can only be subtly influenced by the experts’ opinions during courses, seminars and exhibitions.  

“Only one signature feature should be enough for a brand, while its style is not too rigid but with diversified changes.” Ms. Kuan notes, adding local designers should not undervalue themselves. According to the Hong Kong Centrestage survey, Macau designs are within the top 20 products on the purchasing lists of international buyers, with two of them the most popular brands for buyers.  

Designers and brands from Macau have now started to attract the attention of many fashion bloggers and media outlets. High-end personal tailoring is one of the directions of the industrial development for local fashion. Today, no-one would like to wear the same dress as others while attending banquets or events. They also want to display their style and taste through what they wear.  

“So, I hope that local designers can achieve ‘corporatization,’” she concludes. “Expertise may be high-end customisation. As the designer becomes increasingly famous a group of young designers can use the brand to produce some everyday clothing and sell them in fashion stores. The famous Chinese designer Guo Pei is a very good example.” 

Steady and devoted 

Interviewing the Macau fashion icon Ms. Victoria Alexa Kuan Chan reminds me of The Devil Wears Prada, a movie about the fashion industry in the United States. However, it is not an appropriate reference. As her name Victoria is so steady and easygoing, she is nevertheless willing to fight for justice. This is the pervading characteristic of the Director of WorldSkills Competition.  

Many is the time Ms. Kuan has stepped out from her comfort zone to search for breakthroughs and enhancements. She did not want to grow up in the greenhouse of her father’s factory but preferred to work for others and study design. Dissatisfied with her own education level, she went to the UK, studied and worked. The dream of fashion had not yet come true, Victoria grasped the opportunity to switch her job to CPTTM.  

Being a grassroots person, Ms. Kuan is more “steady” than other dreamcatchers. To those who have dreams but have no idea about how to make fashion, she suggests working and studying. She emphasises basic skills and believes students should do their jobs. She also pays attention to detail. She took a lot of photos at her first edition of WorldSkills Competition, sharing these images with colleagues be it even a stitch or a thread.  

Being her student is both challenging and happy. Her high requirements make it challenging, but in fact, it is good for the student. The happiness is that she is willing to listen and values others’ feelings and opinions. She even meets with parents. In order to achieve good results and create a positive image in the Competition, she is willing to offer any help.  

Where can such a good teacher be found?