First published by T Magazine on 29 August 2016
In a crowded corner of London’s Dover Street Market, the Chinese designer Renli Su is standing in front of her eponymous collection: one rail carrying embroidered dresses, jackets and skirts in a creamy, warm beige. “I heard they sell very quick this season,” she confides, quietly.
Su grew up in Fujian Province, “near the seaside,” and studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing; she arrived at the London College of Fashion’s MA program in 2010, and founded her label after graduation (fall/winter 2016 is the seventh collection). Her aesthetic is informed by her fascination with fashion history — something that she had only limited access to in China, where many garments were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In London, at the city’s vintage fairs and markets, she has been able to get up close for the first time with 19th- and early 20th-century textiles. “After I came here, I found so many clothes from the Victorian era,” she says. She’s intrigued by what old clothing can reveal about social history, and she observes the pieces with an academic eye for detail.
The influence of the past is evident in Su’s separates and dresses for fall/winter, which are mostly monochrome: cream cottons and linens hand-embroidered with tiny cream flowers and branches. They have a roomy elegance; their distinctive shape, she says, comes from an ancient Chinese method of pattern cutting, in which fabrics are cut flat, on a table, rather than on a three-dimensional model. The pieces reward those who look closely: they are immaculately finished and lined, with neatly gathered waists, slashed sleeves and velvet-ribbon hems. They also have a reassuring weight — some pieces have three layers.
Su thinks carefully about her customers, who are young people largely based in the UK, Japan and New York. “I’m 30 now, but my biggest customer base is 18 to 25, so we don’t want to make them look old — they still need to be very active and very bright,” she says. She believes they’re “independent” people — gallery staff and students. “They’re happy to wear something with more character, and show their characters, and they’re happy to have a lot of fabric, so the silhouette is very big.” On this weekday morning, she herself is dressed discreetly, in a Breton-striped T-shirt and navy cardigan.
For a line that has amassed numerous stockists (including Dover Street Market New York, Opening Ceremony and LN-CC), Su has kept a relatively low profile in the fashion world so far. But the designer is ready to take things up a level, she says: She intends to expand the collection, add men’s wear pieces and eventually offer shoes. For now, she’s concentrating on new accessories — her spring/summer ’17 collection will introduce bags.
These plans are outlined in the measured tone of a designer who seems to have very little ego; in fact, one of the key inspirations for the brand is Su’s own practice of Tibetan Buddhism. “I like humble, quiet, subtle things,” she explains. “I like to transfer it to the collection: I believe people can feel it.”