Shii Said is the lingerie ready-to-wear label inspired by cosplay
CSM grad Shi Fan tells us how anime, fetishwear and ‘going out’ have inspired her gender-fluid designs.
Photos by Younghan Song and gifs by photographer Thomas Graham.
For Shi Fan, every day is Halloween. At least, in spirit. “Growing up, I had a fascination with Halloween costumes. That was my main interest,” recalls the designer. She remembers spending the weeks leading up to the holiday poring over the costume flyer sent out by her local party shop, sketching the characters from the pages and taping them up on her walls. Beyond childhood, Fan’s precocious obsession with costumes has become a lifelong endeavour. It spanned her teenage years, when she abandoned the Halloween catalogue and began making the costumes herself. It followed her to Central Saint Martins, where she would pull all-nighters in order to perfect the cosplay creations she’d wear to Comic Con. And, finally, it’s culminated with the launch of her namesake label, Shii Said.
“My dad was the main influence in my creative life. He’s why I became interested in art,” says Fan, speaking to her formative years. The designer’s father, who emigrated from China to California with Fan when she was 11 years old, was a painter and an art teacher. As a result, Fan grew up in museums and art galleries. “I always knew I would do something in the creative industry. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” she elaborates. Committed to pursuing an art school education, Fan enrolled at Parsons for a BA in fashion design, at age 18, but would never graduate: during her second year, she elected to study at Central Saint Martins in London and fell in love with the school life there. She never returned stateside.
During her time at CSM, Fan discovered the world of cosplay -- an iteration of fandom that blends performance and costume, perhaps best described in this context, as a ‘grown-up’ version of Halloween. Or, as Fan, herself, describes it: “fantasizing to be a character and become part of their world.” With her friends, a small community of CSM cosplayers, Fan attended events like MCM Comic Con in London, dressed in meticulously-crafted coordinating costumes, most of which required all-nighters -- sometimes between exams -- to complete. For Fan, it was a labour of love: “I had a lot of fun making those costumes. That was the starting point in my interest in making clothes.”
At some point, the costumes Fan made outside of class spilled over into her school work. “I used to have a bit of a darker aesthetic. But for my graduation collection, I wanted to do something more colourful that would make me happy, probably as a way to escape the pressure or nervousness I was feeling during that year,” she says. Her resulting BA collection -- which would later become the debut offering of Shii Said -- was an effusive explosion of cartoon-hued lingerie armour, inspired by the anime characters Fan loves to dress up as.
Her favorite look from the collection, an intricately constructed pastel set, was inspired by Mecha anime. “It’s a genre where people transform into huge mechanical organisms to beat up their enemies. It’s super geeky,” she laughs. Fan tweaks and reimagines the already architectural aesthetics of traditional lingerie -- corsetry, boning, garters and stockings -- to mimic the armoured shells, the articulated arms and legs of these Mecha robots. The two worlds are not that far off, it turns out. At the other end of the things, surreal shoes and head pieces adorned with colorful ‘BB gun pellets’, designed in collaboration with fellow students Zia Lee and Dan Linh, read as straight cosplay, finishing-touch accessories to complete the fantasy.
This notion of costumes and, more specifically, the characters they engender, is at the forefront of Fan’s designs. For Fan, it stems from the desire to freely express one’s other (perhaps, truer) ‘selves’, the hidden larger-than-life personas that exist within all of us. “Everything I design is a fantasy of something I’d like to wear. Growing up, I never dressed exactly the way I wanted to -- maybe it was because I lived with my Asian dad, who was quite conservative,” she laughs. “But I always had this urge inside of me to show something. This is why I love dressing up, either for cosplay or to go out. I’m able to express something more extreme that I wasn’t able to express in my daily experience.” For Fan, the right piece of clothing, in the right place, at the right time, can be cathartic.
This is part of what draws Fan to lingerie -- and specifically fetishwear -- as a category. Her designs, which she describes as “lingerie ready-to-wear”, draw upon the unique way that fetish garments can summon a persona or draw out one’s innermost desires. “Clothes have always been an important element in fetish culture,” she says. “When you step into a [fetish] garment, it either enhances your natural instincts or whatever that thing is that you want to let out.” Drawing on the powers of fetishwear, Fan’s garments act as a conduit through which one can express deeper parts of themselves, namely their sexuality.
And Fan’s clothes are all about fully embodying one’s sexuality -- no matter what it is. The moniker of Fan’s namesake brand, Shii Said, a playful wordplay on her given name, is also a nod to this ethos. In her own words, Shii Said is about “women expressing themselves”, “people expressing their femininity.” But gender and sexuality, to Fan -- and in terms of how they figure into Shii Said’s offering -- are completely fluid. “I think femininity doesn’t only belong to women. There are many men who identify as feminine. It’s not about just being a biological woman. And some women identify with being more masculine," she says. "In my designs, the point I want to bring out is to feel free about your own sexuality and to be confident in who you are.”
When I speak with Shii, she is currently somewhat stranded in Saigon. Her original plans to visit relatives in China (after making what should have been a quick pitstop in Vietnam to visit her best friend, Dan Linh) were foiled by the strict lockdowns enforced in the wake of COVID-19. She’s making the most of it, however.
While in Saigon -- and before the pandemic hit -- Fan became involved in the city’s vibrant creative and LGBTQ communities. And when someone found out that Fan was a designer, they introduced her to a local production team who could help her create her current (and upcoming) collection. “It was totally unexpected,” she tells me, ebulliently, over the phone from her new home studio. “So now I’m working at home every day designing patterns, making samples and sometimes I go out to source fabrics. Then I work with the production team here to get the pieces made.”
Saigon’s subcultures -- specifically, the friends she’s made during her long layover -- have also served as inspiration for some of the upcoming designs Fan is quietly bringing together from her makeshift studio. “[The next collection] has a lot to do with the times I’ve had here. I’ve met a lot of cool people who are quite inspirational,” she says. “We love going out and always dressing up for those events. Dressing up is the main thing about going out. Sometimes my friends would borrow clothes from me to wear when we went out and that made me feel really nice. So now, in the back of my mind, when I’m designing these new pieces, I’m always thinking: “What am I going to wear to the next event, once this coronavirus is over,” she laughs. Despite being halfway around the world, Fan’s designs still embody the unadulterated fun and freedom of a costume.