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.
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：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：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：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： 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.
Originally published April 2015, in Elsewhere Magazine.
Bonsai Photo: Daniel Faro