Tibetan Fashion

Maybe She is a Nomad in Disguise…

I first met Renzhen Deki when she was working in a Lhasa teahouse where I often went late at night to find quiet and write-up my daily notes. Then she was only twenty-one and ducked behind the bar, avoiding customers to instead weave colorful belts made from nomadic fabrics. Today Renzhen Deki is arguably Tibet’s most promising, up-and-coming fashion designer.

Her work reflects a unique alternative style fusing hip emotive sensuality with Tibet’s rich nomad heritage. The strong ethnic approach expressed in each of her fashion designs evokes a feeling of vast freedom only found on the open plains and mountain ranges of the Tibetan plateau. Renzhen Deki frequently travels throughout the Tibetan regions visiting monasteries, sacred mountains and lakes, from which she searches for inspiration.

The current Lhasa approach to fashion relies largely on Nepalese Indian influences now competing with western and Chinese modern. Renzhen Deki’s strong desire to break from this trend, search and reach back to discover her own Tibetan roots, caught the attention of Shambhala Foundation directors last year. Shambhala Foundation supports young Tibetan artisans and talent seeking to sustain their cultural traditions and ethnic identity through modern approaches to entrepreneurial-ship. With foundation support, Renzhen Deki has opened the ‘Nomads’ boutique in Lhasa and is now setting new trends in fashion and ethnic revival running against the tide of Chinese tourists flooding into Lhasa on the new train.

Her boutique opened in House of Shambhala heritage hotel, kicked off the summer fashion season with a yoga series highlighted with understated laced turquoise and classic Tibetan fabric. Her “Alternative Road” series, already popular in Lhasa, fuses actual antique nomad jewelry into classic Himalaya and pop wear to juxtapose our senses. The following are Renzhen Deki’s thoughts on her fashion revolution and the underlying messages of ethnicity and cultural sustainability of her Tibetan people against the backdrop of a fast-changing and modernizing Lhasa.

Drinking tea in her shop which radiates with blasting Indian-Tibetan-fusion rock music, Renzhen Deki reflects upon the influences which brought her to become Tibet’s most alternative fashion designer. “When I was a little girl in Amdo I used to like to collect clothes from other places. The clothing might be Chinese, western, or Tibetan, it did not matter. I used to cut it up with mom’s scissors and then sew it back together mixing up the fabrics and styles. I always did this in an erratic way, without any fixed lines or concepts. I just thought it was fun.”

“Then after I was twenty I felt a strong love for Tibetan things, from ivory to Buddha mala beads. Most of the young girls my age liked western or modern things and rejected traditional Tibetan clothing and style. But somehow I felt different. I was largely attracted to my Tibetan heritage, to the things of my people. I also liked wearing different types of clothing and felt the more alternative and hip the better.”

“But what made you so determined to break with the conformity around?” I asked sipping another cup of yak butter tea.

“I really loved wearing huge silver rings, earrings and bracelets. Some of the jewelry I collected was simply too big and glaring for most Lhasa people to wear, as here in Lhasa there is still an element of conservatism. I felt everyone around me was living and dressing in a box. So I wanted to just shatter the box. There was no way I would be like everyone else. I wanted to break new ground. Everyone always tries to follow trends and be alike. This is the pattern of fashion and the entire industry is based on this kind of lemming psychology. But I like to be different so all of my fashion designs strive to break through the standard paradigms of our society.”

“But why the determined Tibetan ethnic revival theme?” I asked. “It permeates all of your clothing and jewelry designs.”

She poured another cup of yak butter tea, leaned over and said with half a whisper, “I am a Tibetan. I feel I must wear Tibetan clothes and express my ethnicity and heritage. But I am also 23 years old, living in a fast changing modern society so I cannot just wear a traditional Tibetan nomads robe all day long either. So I seek an alternative look but one that can richly express my culture and tradition.” Then her soft voice raised to a higher pitch laced with an inner nomad toughness. “I am extremely proud to be a Tibetan. Because being a Tibetan means never to submit to any authority whatsoever. As a Tibetan I will never lower my head to anyone. That feeling of standing up for myself and my people is what I try to express in the alternative and radical approach I have taken to fashion design. There will never be any sign of conformity in any of my fashions designs.”

I looked at the clothes, torn jeans sewn with shells, turquoise and brass clips from antique horse bridles. Her necklaces and bracelets made of real turquoise almost resembled the Navajo jewelry which paralleled both the revivalism of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. I asked how she comes upon her design inspiration.

“I find comfort in designing clothes. As I start to threat a turquoise bead or sew a small conch shell onto a pair of jeans a pattern emerges. When the pattern is right it feels good. This is what I seek is the comfort in color juxtapositions and in revealing an ethnicity under the cool tapestry of color and materials which emerges. This makes me feel good. The process is almost more important then the result. That’s why many in Lhasa do not consider me to be just a fashion designer but an artist.”

“As an artist what is your inspiration,” I asked sipping more tea. “More specifically, what is the message underlying your work?”

“The creation of my fashion line symbolizes a kind of revival of Tibetan ethnicity and pride. As I wandered through the fashion boutiques of Lhasa over the past few years something disappointed me. All of the hip clothing comes from either Nepal, India or Thailand. So there is nothing which is really Tibetan. From last year I began collecting different fabrics and patterns. Then I began collecting Tibetan antique pieces, many from my home region of Amdo. I was determined to open my own fashion boutique and create a purely new age Tibetan line.”

“With support from Shambhala Foundation, I opened the ‘Nomads Boutique’ this July. My theme is ‘Tibetan style by Tibetans for the nomad in us all.’ I think a lot of people come to Lhasa searching for something but they cannot find it. Maybe this is spiritual maybe it is just a kind of desire for unlimited freedom which our modern high-paced society does not offer. Sometimes I sit in my shop threading turquoise necklaces and see tourists visiting from overseas or other parts of China. They seem so stressed while I feel so relaxed. If they can break out of their suits and ties and wear some of the things I do, then at least in the end they may feel a bit freer.”

In addition to her experimental inroads as fashion designer, Renzhen Deki possesses many talents such as yoga instructor, actress and model. She was selected as the top Tibetan image model for “Tibet-Youth Song” Competition and has made numerous appearances on Chinese television.