Face painted yellow and white with long braids draping her shoulders, a model in voluminous grey robes walks down the runway – an image of Tibetan grace in the heart of China’s political power.
It was the first appearance of an ethnic Tibetan designer’s creation at Beijing’s twice yearly fashion week, now in its 20th year.
Aj-Namo, who hails from a predominantly Tibetan area in the southwestern province of Sichuan, first made her name as a singer, but has since branched out into clothing.
Today she is known for her eponymous AJ-NAMO brand and is based in Beijing.
At the show, not far from Beijing’s vast Great Hall of the People next to Tiananmen Square, the centre of the universe in Chinese politics, a stream of Tibetan and Han Chinese models paraded colourful outfits inspired by Tibetan attire but altered to suit contemporary tastes.
It was a moving moment for Aj-Namo, whose face trembled with emotion as she took her bow and audience members expressed their approval by jumping on the catwalk to wrap traditional Tibetan scarves around her neck.
“Tibetans have many talented designers, but there’s no platform to promote them,” Aj-Namo told AFP Thursday after her debut.
China has 56 officially recognised ethnic groups, but the vast majority of the country’s more than 1.3 billion people are Han.
Tibetans number roughly 6.3 million, with most living in China’s western half – the autonomous region of Tibet, as well as the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan.
Many ethnic minorities live in relatively poor areas, where limited education, language barriers and a heavily agricultural economy provide scant opportunities for young people to pursue a career on the national stage.
“I hope that thanks to this experience, more ethnic minorities, more Tibetans – especially models – will be inspired to put themselves out there,” Aj-Namo said.
Expressions of Tibetan ethnic pride can be fraught in China. Beijing says its troops “peacefully liberated” the region in 1951, but many Tibetans accuse the central government of religious repression and eroding their culture.
The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has been exiled in India since 1959, has accused the Chinese government of committing “cultural genocide” against the Tibetan people.