Pic by Pierre van den Bosch for Elle
Being seen as a fashion guru can be hard at the best of times. But you know the role is becoming uncomfortable if you get annoyed when simply asked ‘what’s in’ and ‘what’s out’ 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 including 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.
“…there are too many stylists out there and too few designers.”
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, also aware that it is this realm that has made him what he is. But he flits elegantly between both damning and praising popular and couture fashion.
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 what was your parents’ reaction when telling them that you wanted to be a fashion designer? Not something most boys would look forward to…
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 the fashion industry embraces a debauched and ‘loose’ 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 a very grounding thing. Thank god for it actually. The fashion industry is a dangerous thing. 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 international 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 for me, what finally made me gag on fashion was that we had all these military trends coming through. In 1996, we had a military trend then, and 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 dÃ©cor or fashion, people want a sense of soul and fashion is not giving people that.
It’s as if fashion has collapsed into a postmodern quagmire.
Well, I was on 3 Talk [TV talk show] and it was like, “what’s in for the new season” and I was like, “oh god, let’s not go there”. And they also had designers there. And the same chorus kept coming from these interviews, which is, what’s in fashion is individuality. Do your own thing, stamp your own identity. 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 ye