Constructing & Consuming Modern Chinese Design

This interview was first featured in the bilingual Chinese-English magazine  Elsewhere. Qiu Hao asked me to help him transcribe his answers into English but this turned into hours of discussion, dinner and wine. The distillation of these ideas is featured in the Elsewhere interview, with questions by Marlo Saalmink. Their printed interview in Chinese and English is included below. My own story about our meeting is featured here. 

On Bonsai Trees: A Meeting with Qiu Hao

Qiu Hao is a remarkable figure. Dismissive of consumption and celebrity, he is irreverent, elementary, outspoken and slow: everything Chinese designers are not. Each of his collections revolve around a primitive fabric – untreated leather or boiled wool. His designs are sophisticated and unhurried; he is intuitive, philosophical and, among other things, an artist and gardener.

Qiu Hao’s international acclaim – a Central St. Martin’s background, winner of the prestigious Woolmark prize – has misleadingly encouraged comparisons to other internationally recognised rising stars among Chinese designers. Huang Huang, nicknamed ‘China’s Oprah’, lamented that her vast retail space ‘Brand New China’ didn’t receive any of his Fall collection until December, and even then received only six pieces. “I managed to sell them right away. But I just wish some financier would back him and help him, he needs his Pierre Bergé.”

This sweeping misunderstanding is an astute portrayal of Qiu Hao’s philosophy. Precision, quality, rumination. Qiu Hao prizes almost every other aspect of his work above explosive commercial success. He refuses to produce collections for the sake of keeping pace with others.

His studio has three vast collaged canvases – delicate black tissues paper has been crunched and folded into graceful curves which sweep across the canvas. I just made this in for fun, in my space time. A gallery wants to sell it but… He shrugs. Mirrors reflect his white walls back and forth; now and again glimpses of grasses catch these reflections like pea-green pyrotechnics.

In China, people want their children to be 栋梁 dongliang… A straight, tall tree – wood which is used to build houses. These beams originally formed the framework of houses in China but now the expression takes on figurative meanings too, referring to pillars of the community.

They want more and more and more dongliang. Children are urged to grow up strong, tall, straight: pillars of society.

In the world’s fastest growing capitalist society, Qiu Hao’s metaphor for nation building is strikingly apposite.

In nearly every era, in every society, history points to the burgeoning middle classes. But in China, social mobility and mass urbanisation go hand in hand and it’s on a stupendous scale. The CCP’s commitment has been unwavering. They have promised to expand pre-existing cities, as well as build 220 new cities over the next ten years. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, China now has 15 megacities – cities with a population of over 10 million. In contrast, Europe has 5 and America has 4.

But for me, this wood represents the desire for material objects. Endlessly multiplying houses means escalating consumption. Each construction site means another consumer. Qiu Hao’s term donglian captures the symbiosis of these projects. According to him, true luxury is the object which lasts forever.

My brand and my designs should be like a plant or tree which grows naturally… That is why my company is called Bonsai. I don’t want to be a straight, huge tree. Gently, Qiu Hao gestures out to the sides. Delicately, arbitrarily he flutters his fingers.

A bonsai is a little tree which grows up slowly. People think they’re useless but for me they’re beautiful. After you build a house it’s empty. What can you put in it? Now, you need a bonsai tree.

Elsewhere Magazine: Sincere Tales

Author: Marlo Saalmink
Interviews, finishing: Rebecca Choong Wilkins
Chinese translation: Bohan Qiu, Juan Wong
Often we meet through introductions by others. Conversations unfold and we gain a sense of intuitive connection. When such a connection is forged, one can only marvel at its profoundness. When Linda Loppa, the director of the acclaimed Polimoda Institute in Florence, introduced me to the works of QIU HAO, I simply had no choice but to immerse myself in his wonderful universe. Our dialogue turned out to e one of reflection, depth and exploration. Subtle yet outspoken, Qiu crafts his universe from his Shanghai atelier with great intent. After winning the Woolmark prize in 2008 and being featured on many “who’s next” shortlists, Qiu Hao continues to insist on building his brand pensively from his Shanghai studio. This expresses so much love, commitment and understanding of his craft that it is rather moving to observe. Therefore, it is a true pleasure to invite you further into Qiu’s world.

一般情况下,我们都是通过别人介绍认识新朋友。当双方的对话慢慢展开,彼此都会获得一种直觉性的联系。一旦这种联系形成,我们都会为这种非凡的意义感到惊喜。

当“安特卫普六君子”的幕后恩师Linda Loppa将邱昊的作品介绍给我后,我已经不能自拔地沉醉于他的世界中。我们的对话真实,并且具有深刻的探索性。这种感觉,很微妙。

2008年,获得Woolmark Prize全球冠军后,邱昊一直被注视着下一步会有怎样的发展和成就。可他选择低调,只是借助着这份荣耀,在上海默默发展自己的品牌。现在,邱昊在上海靠近外滩的工作室内铸造属于他自己的世界。在这个工作室内,邱昊对工作,对品牌充满了爱、承诺和理解。

所以,今天我很荣幸能邀请你一起来探索邱昊的宇宙。

M:Could you tell me about your up bringing and what steps led you to where you are today?

Q: I don’t think any single step can make someone become who they are, everything is cumulative. I can’t identify any single thing which brought me to this moment now. My father was always doing Chinese painting whenI was very young.

When I was four or five years old I would try to grab his brush and eventually he taught me how to draw. He was an architect and interior designer so I helped him to do a lot of technical drawings during high school.He made the choice for me to study space and interior design in college but I was bored because his projects were very broad.

To cut fabric and make clothes seemed a simpler form of expression. I suppose one influential step was the decision to cut fabric.

M:你的成长经历如何帮助你走到今天?

Q:就我个人而言,我从来不认为人可以一步登天,必须要经历时间的磨练和考验才能成才——这是最显而易懂的道理。我父亲是一名建筑师和室内设计师,我记得在我四五岁时,他总喜欢画国画,我也总喜欢玩弄他的画笔。于是,他教会我很多绘图技术。读书的时候,我也会帮着他一起画设计图。受他影响,我决定大学去攻读室内设计师,可由于性格关系,我很快就厌倦了这一行业。相比之下,我认为剪下一块布料,做成一件衣服反而容易得多。有时,当我剪开一块布,这会直接影响到我设计的下一步。
Qiu Hao

M:When we look at functionality,your garments are heavy on process and tactility. Could you depict your way of creating and what is important to you here?

Q:The actual process of design is the most important act. Each collection we try to use a single technique to develop the collection- boiled wool or woven leather or bonded silk. Working with a material we then try out different treatments. We source the material, find the right technique and develop designs – the whole process is an act of discovery. It’s sometimes very difficult and stressful but also stimulating in the end.

M:看到你作品的第一反应,是觉得你很着重服装的制作工序。你能描述下制衣过程中你最注重什么?

Q:设计的实际过程都是围绕着美学所展开。其实每一个系列,我都从一种工艺去发展。我们会决定使用哪一种材料时,会选择不同的方法。然后,我们会去寻找材料,探索制作的方法和技巧,譬如高温煮过的羊毛、纯手工编织的皮革、重磅复合的真丝——整个过程都有美学的展现。说真的,过程可能会有一点艰辛,有时会有很大的压力,但结果往往是激动人心。

M:We live in a time of fast consumption. Your designs allow for a pause. A breath of reflection. How important is craftsmanship to you and the connection to your atelier?

Q:Our brand and my designs are not about delivering a service, we try to offer a different choice. We don’t follow the market, we don’t target trends. Our customers are all different, so its easy for me to follow my heart – doing what I really want to do, creating beautiful work and letting them choose if and what they like. They find us and we find them very naturally. Craftsmanship is most important part of my practice as a designer.

At the very beginning it was incredibly difficult to get the right fabrics so I started to use normal and simple material, like wool, cotton, silk or leather and use different techniques or treatments to give it character – that was how we started. This is a very different process to other designers, we put a lot of energy and care into the garment so it comes to embody all our energy and all our love.

This is why we don’t take customized orders. I can’t make something for someone I don’t know. In the end, we just offer someone a choice.

M:说到工艺制作,我们现在身处一个快速消费的时代,而你的衣服却像一个停止符。坚持工艺和质量为第一,对你,以及对你的顾客都有着什么重要影响?

Q:我的品牌和设计不单是一个制衣的服务,我们想要提供一种不一样的消费选择。我们不会跟随市场的流行趋势,我们的客户很独特,都有着自己都喜好和品味——这也可以让我有的放矢地做我喜欢的设计。我和客户们相互寻觅,相辅相成。

作为一个设计师,我觉得工艺是一个很重要的过程。一开始,我们很难找到合适的材料,所以我选择最普通和简单的材料,譬如羊毛、棉、真丝和皮革,然后运用不同的工艺,让这些材料变得有趣而不同。我们投入很多爱和想法,QIUHAO这个品牌是我们心血和结晶。这也是为何我们不给顾客量身定制,我也不去揣测顾客的想法——我们只是给顾客提供一种选择。Qiu Hao

M:Origins. Lets return to your Chinese heritage. I find your work interesting from a progressive perspective. How do you connect to your Chinese following and is your identity important herein?

Q: I deliver Chinese design because I’m Chinese but I don’t try to please or find my customers. We present our work and let people choose. We live in a culturally mixed environment, we take different inspiration from everything and develop it in our own modern Chinese way.

What is Chinese identity? What is modern Chinese design?These are things which take time to understand. I would like to base things more directly in Oriental designs but it’s difficult because it doesn’t quite fit with modern life. There is no single garment which can represent Chinese culture because it’s so varied. We don’t use one type of traditional garment during celebrations in the way that Indian or Japanese cultures do.

Even the city’s streets, every 300 or 500 years, bits were destroyed to make way for new dynasties. We don’t have a linear historical narrative. Tang, Song, Qing – they’re all totally different, each period wanted to destroy the past and create their own identity. I am Chinese so I create modern Chinese design, but what this means isn’t clear.

M:你的衣服有种循序渐进的叙述方式,你是如何把设计与中国人身份连接起来的?

Q:作为一个中国设计师,我传承的是中国设计,但我不会去讨好顾客或寻找顾客。就像我之前所说,我是展示自己的设计,然后让别人去选择。我们生活在一个文化相互交融的世界,我们会从不同事物中提取灵感,再融合现代中国设计风格。

不过我一直在思考,什么是中国风格?什么是中国设计?这是一个持续性的,需要时间去沉淀才能理解的概念。作为一个中国设计师,我当然希望能做东方的设计,但很多时候传统的服饰并不符合现代人的生活需求。在中国历史中,从未出现过一种服饰能定义我们民族整体的文化。中国不像日本印度等其他亚洲国家,在各种庆典中,会有统一的传统服饰。我们的文化有着太复杂性和多样性——历史上,唐、宋、清,每一个新朝代都会毁掉前一个朝代都东西。我是一个中国人,我能设计出中国风格的服装,但至于可以有着哪种代表,我也不知道。

M: How do you shape the visuals of each collection? How do you see the power of the observer?

Q: I start with sourcing the material and the technique and collect all these things together. Sometimes I just sit there and do nothing, I just imagine the possibilities.

I don’t think about the collection as a whole, the starting point is how to develop one single technique. I push the boundaries to let the technique become the design element, and then put this into different parts of the look. Sometimes I start with one technique to create a garment.This develops into a look and one detail from this connects me to another creation.

The observer is important because we don’t seek out a market or clients. We want people to be observers, we want to give people the choice to take or leave our work.

M:我明白你的意思,贯穿古今文化不是一件容易的事,但你需要向客户展示你所表达的内容,那么你是如何用衣服传达概念?

Q:这个过程很本源的,我通常都会结合材料寻找和技艺革新这两个步骤。有时候,我只会静静地坐着,两手空空,思考着任何可能的方案。当遇到系列整合问题时,我先不会以把系列看作一个个体,而是把制作技艺延伸为一个起点——我仅用一种技术去设计衣服,反而会出现独特的效果,并且其中的细节会让我有全新的想法。 在这个过程中,我所做的只是等待或观望。

就像我之前所说,我们不会主动去寻找市场和顾客,我们先给顾客提供一个了解和发现我们品牌的机会。至于她们喜欢与否,那就是后话了。

Originally published April 2015, in Elsewhere Magazine. 

Bonsai Photo: Daniel Faro

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