Chinese designer Yi adds ethnic colors to international fashion

Silver jewelry designed by Longhong Ziwei Photo: Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei

Inspired by the silver beads on traditional ornaments made by the Yi ethnic minority of China, a pair of “little lantern” earrings are crafted from finely hollowed out silver beads with soft arcs that weigh just 11 .7 grams.

Another pair of ear drops, “Star”, made from rich layers of star-like discs in the night sky, is based on the stargazing tradition of the Yi people.

These ornaments closely related to the traditional culture of the Yi ethnic group were designed by Longhong Ziwei, who was born and raised in the compact Yi community of Yunnan province in southwest China. In 2017, she created her own fashion brand Soft Mountain.

Since its establishment, Soft Mountain has been committed to cooperating with excellent Yi craftsmen. Based on respect for tradition, the brand seeks to protect, through innovative contemporary design, those traditional skills that are at risk of disappearing, Longhong told the Global Times.

The designer has always considered ethnic culture as the source of her creations.

“There are 56 ethnic groups in China, each with their own cultural heritage and craft tradition. What I want to do is keep their vitality,” she noted.

Step by step, Longhong brought her brightly colored ethnic works into the fashion world. In May 2019, the international fashion magazine Vogue named her one of the seven most avant-garde jewelry designers in China. In 2020, she presented her designs at London Fashion Week.

Longhong said she believes traditional ethnic culture can play a big role in fashion with the help of local artisans who have inherited their skills through generations. Meanwhile, providing a platform for these artisans is a convenient way to revive ancient traditions.


Longhong Ziwei, creator of the Yi ethnic group Photo: Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei

Longhong Ziwei, creator of the Yi ethnic group Photo: Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei

Work with local artisans

Longhong said the most prominent feature of his brand is his insistence on cooperating with artisans from the Yi ethnic group.

After studying art design in London and starting the fashion label in 2017, Longhong and her team returned to her hometown to be inspired by local adornments. They visited local history museums, walked the streets and found shops selling silver ornaments.

“The locals are very warm. Once a grandmother heard that we were looking for Yi-style ornaments, she rushed home and brought her ancestral jewelry to us so that we could enjoy it,” says remembers Longhong.

Traditionally, the Yi wear silver accessories. For example, Longhong’s grandmother used to put on her accessories as soon as she got up every day.

Longhong found eight artisans to work with his workshop. One was even persuaded to return to the village from eastern China’s Shandong Province, where he worked as a construction worker.

Unable to survive by making jewelry for a living, many local craftsmen in the village have abandoned this ancestral know-how and left to find jobs in the big cities. Longhong said this livelihood dilemma almost spelled the end of traditional Yi craftsmanship.

Offering a living wage is one of the ways Longhong has preserved traditional skills while achieving its goal of advancing its brand.


Yi women attend a traditional dance festival in Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province.  Photo: CGV

Yi women attend a traditional dance festival in Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. Photo: CGV

Enter the international scene

With the help of local artisans, Longhong’s creations have been gaining more and more attention overseas.

In 2019, Longhong received an email from the famous British e-commerce platform Net-a-Porter, which described his works as brilliant and adorable. The email boosted the confidence of Longhong and her team and since then the designer has set her sights on the international market.

When she attended London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2020, Longhong took the opportunity to do a small exhibition titled The pieces we are at the city’s Arthill gallery.

On a white wall, black-and-white photos taken by photographers such as Guo Jianliang of folk craftsmen making silver ornaments took visitors to the mountains and rivers where the Yi people live. During the two-week exhibition, people showed great interest in the culture of the Chinese ethnic group.

Longhong recalled that an elderly couple wandered around the exhibit for nearly two hours, asking many detailed questions about the ethnic group.

Longhong isn’t the only ethnic minority Chinese designer to break into the international arena. Jin Jingyi, a Daur ethnic clothing designer, organized a search team to engage in the rescue, protection and heritage of ethnic minority clothing in northern China.

Jin extracted cultural elements from traditional Daur and Qroqen clothing and transformed them into modern clothing designs and styles which she then brought to China International Fashion Week.

After appearing at London Fashion Week, the fashion scenes of France, Spain and the United States are now on Longhong’s agenda.

“Foreign countries show special enthusiasm for the diversity of Chinese ethnic minority culture and value it very much,” she noted.

Silver jewelry designed by Longhong Ziwei Photo: Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei

Silver jewelry designed by Longhong Ziwei Photo: Courtesy of Longhong Ziwei