Delving deep into the dualities of her past, present, and future, the Fujian-born, London-based designer showcases the power of identity.
"After living in London for four years, I went back home and was inspired by my Chinese heritage for fall/winter 17," Renli Su explains over email. "It really made me think about the culture differences that exist between China and Britain, as well as those between the small town of my childhood and the fast-paced city I work in today." Returning to her roots, Renli Su's thoughts linger over memories of her small seaside hometown in China's Fujian province, specifically to the sea itself: its changing shapes, patterns, and colors. From the moment she launched her eponymous line in 2013 and began working from her landlocked studio, the designer has continually sought solace and inspiration in nature, using the great outdoors as the bridge between her Chinese heritage and Western surroundings.
Renli studied painting and fashion at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and has continually blurred the boundaries between the two disciplines. After moving to the UK to earn a MA in Fashion Design and Technology Womenswear at London College of Fashion, she has focused her practice on handcrafted design and manufacturing. Now that she lives and designs in London, she delights in these dualities and discoveries as she weaves East with West, art with fashion, country with urban, and tradition with innovation. While she explores her transplanted identity for fall/winter 17, she fondly looks back to both 19th-century oriental workwear and to the female silhouettes of the Victorian era. The result is undoubtedly modern. While time is teased and tweaked, the garments are manipulations of memory. Ultimately, her aim is to craft clothes that not only retain the physical traces of their past, but also form an intrinsic bond with their wearer through a shared past, present, and future. As she exclusively shares her Alice Neale-shot, Victoire Simonney-styled fall/winter 17 lookbook, the designer takes us on a tour of her two worlds.
Could you tell us about your childhood in China?
When I was little I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and it was lovely. Especially my granddad who is skilled with traditional Chinese instruments and in calligraphy. Watching them influenced the way I see Eastern culture. The town where I grew up is also heavily influenced by Buddhism, so there are many local craft places that produce the outerwear and embroidery for the religion. That has always inspired me. I often visit those hand-crafted places that remind me of home when I'm abroad.
What sparked your interest in fashion? When, where, and how did you know you wanted to become a fashion designer?
I always loved the arts and history, and when I see the imagery from the past — what people wear in those specific moments in time — that's always the starting point, I think. I think clothing is the object that I'm using to create, to evoke memories and history.
How would you say your Chinese heritage and Western surroundings influence your work?
My Chinese heritage plays a big part in my inspiration and helps to create a different view on my Western surroundings. Also being a Chinese person studying and working in Britain made me think differently about my own culture and how that intertwines with my roots.
Is there a conflict that your work looks to resolve?
I want to create meaningful clothing which has a tone of quiet femininity. I try and introduce a way of looking at the Western world of womenswear from an Eastern point of view. My clothing tries to maintain a balance of both cultures.
Where do you feel most at home in 2017, China or the UK?
I feel the UK has become more like a home since I have been living and working here, especially now that I have a team who work with me. We encourage each other, there are also a few Chinese students who work with me on the brand, it's like a small community in which we help each other to overcome the difficulties of working far from home. Now, it feels even warmer than actual home.
At the end of last year, as part of The Southbank Centre's China Changing series, a number of designers and industry insiders debated whether contemporary Chinese fashion has an established aesthetic. What are your thoughts on contemporary Chinese fashion?
China has many talented designers with unique tastes and styles because they are developing and willing to explore their own identities. Contemporary Chinese fashion is still developing and that's a positive situation because it allows individuals to choose freely.
What's the best thing about being creative in London in 2017?
People encourage new ideas and are open to new and different perspectives.
Since launching your eponymous label in 2013, what have been the biggest lessons learned?
How to collaborate and how best to communicate with other people.
What's the best piece of advice you've been given?
How would you describe Renli Su (both the designer and the label itself)?
Renli Su (the designer) is very personal but Renli Su the label crafts clothes for any woman regardless of age, occupation, body shape… I wanted the label to celebrate diversity, exploring different perspectives depending upon who wears it.
What do you know now that you wish you knew back in 2013?
I wish I knew that creating a business is more difficult than it first appeared.
What advice would you give the next generation wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Cultivate a strong identity for yourselves; I always think quality is better than quantity, and knowing your personal strengths can only drive you forward.
What drew you to 19th-century oriental workwear and Victorian-era silhouettes in the latest collection?
I used to read and encounter a lot of 19th-century Chinese imagery and books and I was always drawn to the clothes because you rarely see anyone wear them in China today. From this starting point, I compared them to those worn during the Victorian era. The Victorian clothing helped to explore the idea of "Time and Memory." The garments not only retain the physical traces of their past, but also form an intrinsic bond with their wearer through the memories associated with them. I was also thinking of how the internet has helped build a bridge so to speak, where we can break the boundary in the physical space, we can share the same information with one another, so I thought it would be great to intertwine both and create something new to the society now.
What one thing do you hope viewers take away from your lookbook?
The Renli Su spirit.
How would you like to see Renli Su grow in 2017 and beyond?
It is a journey, I hope this year and moving forward, we can discover, explore, and create more work that evolves organically.
Finally, what excites you most about tomorrow?
That every day is different. I'm most excited when I am being creative and am able to design something new.
Text Steve Salter
Photography Alice Neale
Styling Victoire Simonney
Set design Amy Stickland