If you approach Jasper Huang at his clothing shop near Yuanshan MRT station, you may attempt to tag him as a clothing designer but, if you ask him, you'll hear another story. Jasper Huang is a self-described, "creative designer who seeks to live an artistic lifestyle."
Originally from Tainan County, he is the son of a heavy vehicle mechanic. He revealed that his rural family did not fully support his decision to become a designer. Essentially, he had to convince his family that he could make a living from designing. The Taiwanese tradition of "study hard and get a professional job" put the burden of proof on him. For example, he said, his parents were willing to invest in an encyclopedia set, but would not buy him books about design.
"I am a hard worker," Huang said. "Most people in Taiwanese culture do not have a good impression of [design] work... Taiwanese value work that comes with a certain kind power."
He said that when he first started out, he had little or no support.
"I came to Taipei on my own to study at Fuhsing Senior High School... It was my own choice... I studied assiduously," he said.
It was only after his family realized that Huang could make a living as a designer, that they accepted his career choice.
The fact that he won two major awards and gained recognition by Jay Chou - one of Taiwan's top stars - did the trick.
In 2001, he won the number one prize in ELLE magazine's ELLE Young Talents award. It was in the process of creating of this project that he formulated his "artistic life" concept. The prize money was enough to keep him going for a while and served as an incentive to the young designer.
One year later, he won was the international 2002 Salvatore Ferragamo young designer award. His design of an elegant white leather shoe won an honorable mention, and was placed in the permanent collection of the imperial palace in Florence.
In Huang's case, the story makes the man. His individualistic way of doing things has created an image of him as a loner who takes full responsibility for the projects that he accepts. His has earned respect for this achievement-oriented way of life and no doubt this has contributed to his puristic approach to his work.
In 2002 while he was studying in New York, Huang was approached by a members of the team that was organizing "The One" tour for pop star Jay Chou. They asked him to return to Taiwan to design outfits for the show. He accepted the offer although, at that point, he had never even heard of the "Chairman of the Board," as Chou is often called in Chinese. He was not even that much into popular music and he said he had nothing to go on other than the name of Chou's album when he first started the project. But after becoming more familiar with Chou's musical style, he discovered Chou's brand of R&B was not completely Afro-American, but included many Far Eastern elements.
Commenting on his own style, Huang said that there is a trend to find ways to remake "the cultural" into something "modern."
"I use modern aesthetic preferences to comment on Asiatic themes," Hunag explained. "[My style] is therefore neither Chinoserie, nor is it ethnic ... You can say it's post-modern, but I don't make reference to pop culture ... People are in search of styles that have nationalistic or ethnic cultural elements."
'Everything is possible'
Huang has had to face one of the harsh facts of surviving as an artist in Taiwan - it is simply impossible to stay afloat without government subsides, a wealthy sponsor or corporate projects to fund creativity.
Huang made acquaintance with Hewlett-Packard Taiwan creative team members Jack Liao and Garphy Chang on the company's "everything is possible" ad campaign. HP wanted to prove its printers could reproduce the clear images and vivid colors created by a modern designer like Jasper Huang.
The ad campaign produced a booklet that creatively describes the history of printing, from the early use of paint to the advanced coloration of HP Vivera printer inks. These inks are capable of producing 72.9 million distinct colors and bond to photographic paper to produce long-lasting photos, and HP chose Huang help emphasize that fact.
Huang's designs are reminiscent of a jeans line for a major urban clothing designer. He works with flushing colors, like the festive "Taiwan red." His recent collection includes machine-brocaded phoenix patterns tacked on to T-shirts and dresses. A resounding presence of peonies - a Chinese symbol of love, affection, and feminine beauty - appear on T-shirts and dresses.
He ventures into a rougher concept in his clothing design with a printed image of two hands holding a cleaver, a black rubber dress and a couple of other pieces that convey a tattered disheveled image.
He keeps to cotton as a staple base for most of his creations, but there is plenty of denim.
Just about every clothing designer seems obliged to answer the question: "What do I do with jeans?" Jasper avoids bleaching and is very modest with holes, but, as with many other designers, he obviously cannot not resist the urge to tear the denim into tatters to expose the white cotton underneath. The resulting holes he covers with vivid red linen patches. He is attracted to peacock feathers and many of the other trappings used in retro high-end designs.
Even as recognition of his talent virtually exploded on the domestic scene this year, Huang has slowly been making waves beyond the shores of Taiwan. His designs have appeared in publications in Beijing and Singapore.
At home, he is currently in discussion with the Council of Cultural Affairs to design clothing for an undisclosed project.
Huang is bent on paving a futuristic path by blending Asian traditions and Euro-American modernism. He projects a positive message that less developed regions of the world can produce world-class works because local traditions are a rich source of creativity. His is well grounded in his roots and admits that he does not mix and mingle much with the fashion set.
So, what does the future have to hold for Huang? A peek into his scrapbook provided an exciting glimpse of what this young Taiwanese intends do with colors, concepts, patterns and textures. He pays tribute to tradition with elegant pre-20th century sensibility and incorporates cool colors to produce gothic and sometimes aquatic images.
Huang plans to continue to work with these images until he gains a commission for a suitable project in fine art, graphic design or clothing design. Or perhaps he will create a new line of clothing for his shop, he says.
Wherever Huang decides to go with his indisputable talent, it promises to be an exciting exploration.