Rui Xu’s haute couture is the futuristic and innovative manifestation of her Chinese roots. Here, she explains her journey from Beijing to London, where her work is displayed in some of the world’s most renowned institutions
With its extreme couture shapes and innovative material manipulation, to look at designer Rui Xu’s work is to bear witness to a lengthy and meticulous processes of making.
“Letting this playfulness inform everything she does, her collections fuse fashion and fine art to push the boundaries of silhouette and structure.”
But for Xu—a London-based designer exploring the links between Chinese tradition and contemporary fashion—accidents are as important to her designs as careful planning. “I want to create an encounter, an accident,” she describes. “We always have surprise results; it’s our way of working. Like a painting, or any great art, most of them are accidents.”
The surprises Xu refers to are the results of her experiments with collaborator Dr. Kinor Jiang, a textile scientist with whom Xu discovered how to plate delicate and natural fabrics with metal. “When metal experiences combustion with burning it will produce images on its surface. But that’s hard to keep, you know? So I want to write down the beauty of the moment, like notes on paper. Notes on material that people are familiar with.”
Hard metal married with paper-thin materials is typical of the extreme contrasts—and even contradictions—that lie at the heart of Xu’s design universe. Having trained at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, today she translates the visual markers of China’s cultural legacy into future-facing, even postmodern, fashion.
“I’ve been studying the connection between traditional Chinese literati and radical fast fashion for 14 years,” she explains. “There’s a misunderstanding between West and East about Chinese traditional culture, so I want to find a special way to explain the phenomenon.”
The fruits of this mission are Xu’s signature experiments in form, inspired by ancient China’s high society, where individuals treated dressing up as a pastime, just like music or dance—in her words, just like “playing a game”. Letting this playfulness inform everything she does, her collections fuse fashion and fine art to push the boundaries of silhouette and structure; a Chinese hanfu robe is transformed with a western collar, a bulbous lampshade is countered by a sharply tailored bodice and deconstructed layers are lightly crinkled with a shimmering iridescent pattern across their surface.
Anchoring this myriad vision is Xu’s background in fine art and calligraphy, a passion for the authentic material history of her country that finds a new home in her couture creations. “I am also a traditional Chinese painter, so I always want to put landscape images on the fabric; even with these new techniques, we still insist on a Chinese traditional landscape style.”
Wary of a Western interpretation of Chinese fashion that overly focuses on embellishment and decoration, Xu is determined to articulate a more nuanced expression of her country’s design history; one that pays tribute to slow craft rather than the glittering surfaces. “Chinese traditional culture requires us to learn and pay more attention to our experience and the rules of nature,” she describes. “It’s about the progress, rather than the results.”
For her own part, Xu has based her studio in London, where she already oversees two brands and plans to expand her business even further this year (when we speak, she is beaming about London’s Victoria and Albert Museum acquiring her work, to be included as part of its permanent collection).
As for those alchemical adventures, she hopes to discover “some material between textile and paper” in the year to come, but she remains mysterious on this point, careful not to reveal the secrets to her magic. As to the future of fashion in her home country—Xu, alongside names such as Laurence Xu, Shang-Xia and Guo Pei, is herself part of an emerging generation of Chinese designers on the global stage—the designer remains optimistic. “Fashion in China is only just beginning,” she explains. “Due to political reasons in past years, our fashion history is yet to be told. We’ve always known that Chinese designers transfer patterns, decoration and colorful embroideries onto the surface of the textile, but the focus has not been on inner aesthetics. I think this is very important; fashion is not just decoration, and that goes for fashion everywhere, not just in China.”
She continues, her musings keeping pace with her thoughts much like they are articulated so evocatively onto her materials. “I think that although the design process of the East and the West is different, the destination is the same. The most important thing is the spirit.”