Xuzhi Chen uses the word “poetic” — a lot. “Subtle and poetic — these are the sentiments that drive me in my creative process,” says the Chinese-born designer, inside his east London studio. “You have to be very humble and reserved in Asian culture but there’s a certain poetry and strength in that, which I think comes through in my designs.”
This young designer’s fascination seems to lie in fabric play — mainly twisted, braided and bonded yarn that make up his gloriously textured, voluminous pieces. “We hand-braid yarn and lay them on a pattern and stitch them one by one onto fabric,” he says. “So the pieces look like knitwear but they’re actually closer to embroidery.”
Chen is the latest in a rising pack of young, Western-educated Chinese designers, including Huishan Zhang and Masha Ma, who are bounding up the tiers of the global fashion industry. Straight after graduating from Central Saint Martins (BA in womenswear design), Chen debuted his autumn/winter 2015 collection during London Fashion Week and has since been shortlisted for the LVMH prize and the International Woolmark Prize this year.
We visited the designer as he prepares for his spring/summer 2017 presentation for the upcoming London Fashion Week, to talk humility, nuanced beauty and, of course, the poetic in fashion.
Q: Would you say your Chinese upbringing influences your designs?
A: I think everything I do has an Asian element. It may not show in my work, as a direct Chinese cultural reference or design element but there is always that reserved and humble sentiment. At the same time, it’s quite lyrical and poetic. It’s a quiet sort of beauty.
Q: You have a very unique approach to handling material. What is your process?
A: I developed this braiding technique where I hand-braid all the yarn and bond onto fabric bases. Every piece I make takes at least a week so it’s a lot of work and that element of craft goes into every single piece. For spring/summer 2017, I want to translate this technique into making more casual pieces.
Q: Speaking of your upcoming collection, what can we expect?
A: I was inspired by the Painting the Modern Garden exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts recently. Monet’s Water Lilies in particular was a great inspiration and I wanted to have a go at an Impressionist’s take on fashion. I wanted to discover a way in which I can make a poetic, blurry image with clothes by manipulating fabric and colours.
Q: Are you influenced a lot by art?
A: Yes. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is someone I really like. His work often has a very simple message but the repetitiveness in his work and the scale is what makes it so strong. You can’t not see the message. And I feel like it’s a very Chinese way of working, being raised in a country where there are 1.4 billion people and everything is mass-produced. You get really close to the concept of quantity.
Q: What is it like being based in China and London, going back and forth?
A: There’s an interesting transformation in China now where it is slowly becoming a place that produces high quality products because it’s lost its competitiveness in price compared to many emerging markets. The fashion industry is growing at a fast pace there. But I still love London for its creativeness and embracing young brands and new techniques.
Interview by Jainnie Cho