She has been described by Vogue as a young designer to watch, here we catch up with Peckham-based fashion designer Renli Su and learn about her latest fashion collection ahead of London Fashion Week AW15
Tell us about your latest collection, what we can expect and the inspiration behind it?
I wanted to build a strong yet feminine, modern collection and the inspiration for this was independent, elegant girls from the mid-late 19th century. I use only organic fabrics, with an emphasis on traditional skills and hand-made techniques. Specifically “Summer Fabric” (a traditional Chinese linen made mainly from ramie) plain woven by skillful craftsmen, hand-dyed block printed organic cotton from India and an innovative cotton and linen blend from Ireland.
Using chequered block print, jacquard weave cotton and oriental fine lace, giving garments a comfort and simplicity in design. I wanted this collection to be made up of wearable and practical garments, with timeless styles that last beyond the season.
Why do you only use organic fabrics?
I want to use only the highest quality fabrics and those that have a story behind them and come from different corners of the world. Chinese Summer Fabric; Indian Hand Woven Cotton; Indian Block Print Organic Cotton and Irish Innovative Cotton Linen all feature in my collection so my pieces are both intricate yet wearable and practical and the best part is that the designs age beautifully, unlike other clothes. All the fabric I use is handwoven. There is no way that a machine can replicate this unique craftsmanship.
What’s your favourite piece from the collection?
My favourite piece is the stripy dress made from ramie fabrics. We got some high quality ramie yarns from a yarns factory in China. The factory has been shut down for 11 years, but I was determined to use their material as it had such a beautiful quality and subtle colours. We brought the yarns to some traditional ramie weavers, who worked their magic hand-weaving them into a beautiful fabric for the dress. It’s very important for me to source the most beautiful fabrics and therefore each collection takes me at least three months, when I have finished one collection, I’ll start source fabrics for the next collection immediately. I also like to work with people I admire and so nothing happens too quickly, as I am determined to not compromise my designs and keep true to my passion for materials, countries and tradition.
Who do you picture wearing your clothes?
I picture women with a relaxed, feminine style wearing my clothes. Someone who is independent and sophisticated in the way they dress – Kristin Scott Thomas is always elegant.
Where do you get your creative inspiration from in London?
My inspirations come from everyday life, I talk to people and see what they like and what they need; sharing some books or good stories; or even activities such as seeing exhibitions in Saatchi gallery or V&A and going to antique fairs such as The Mayfair antique fair and Hammersmith Vintage Fair can bring inspiration to me. I like the work by Mira Schendel, she has strong sensibility as a female artist, I can always get inspirations from the colours, the textures and spatial arrangements of her work.I work from my studio in Peckham so the multitude of synthetic fabric and retailers have made me even more determined to strip fashion back to the bones, letting the cut and quality of the fabric do the talking.
You’ve travelled a lot, how have your travels influenced your designs?
I am always discovering new traditions and techniques in the most unlikely of places, so travel is a huge part of my designs as I am able to combine these methods in one collection to bring something I hope is unique. I went to some small towns in Guizhou, China and Tibet last year to visit some local weavers and handicraft men. Most of the young people in the small town have gone to bigger cities to work, and there are only old people and children left. They have very basic living conditions. Because hand weaving and embroidery are very time consuming, an old weaver told me that in their town, young people would prefer to move to bigger and modern cities, rather than staying in town and learning traditional weaving techniques. I hope to build up a working relationship with the local weavers, if they can have some income from their traditional techniques, then at least we are not going to lose them, and it’s also a good way to remind people of the traders who are still working very hard to keep the traditional hand weave / handmade techniques going.
How does fashion differ in London from China?
To me, I don’t see too much difference between London’s and Chinese fashion among the majority of people. Some girls would go for a more casual or sporty style, while some girls would go for a very feminine style. But I found more designers use new materials and fabrics on garments in the UK, and more guys would still wear formal three pieces suits here.
Why do you think this is?
I think it’s mainly because London has a longer history of fashion and fashion education. It brings a lot of creative people.
You’ve been described as one to watch by Vogue, what does this mean to you?
As a new designer, it is a huge encouragement for me. I am absolutely thrilled.
When did you decide you wanted to be a fashion designer?
I studied art for my BA, and in my second year I decided to change my major to Fashion. My work is all about fabrics, how they hang on the body and taking fashion back to craftsmanship. With my collections I hope to make very comfortable clothes for people with different fabrics, whilst also bringing my own aesthetic to the designs.
Which designers do you admire the most?
I admire Rei Kawakubo the most, although the style is very different from my work; I am amazed by her creativity and the business she has built.
What was your big break?
It was the decision to settle down in London and start my brand RENLI SU. We decided to use a lot of handmade fabrics and support handicraftsmen in India and Tibet. It’s a big risk, but so far it is going well.
What is your greatest ambition?
It would be to open a few boutiques selling RENLI SU collections and other handicrafts from all over the world.
What is your style like? Is it reflected in this collection?
I like subtle, earth tones and organic fabrics. It’s important that the garments are very comfortable but still feminine, which I think is definitely reflected in this collection.
What’s the best piece of fashion advice you’ve been given and by who?
My pattern-cutting tutor, an old and experienced tailor in China used to tell me when I had just started learning, that “colour is the first thing to consider when you are designing a garment, as colour would come first when people see a garment. Then it’s the patterns, textures and finishing.”
What do you do in London when you’re not working?
When I get some time to myself, I like to go to different cafés around London to relax. I usually go to central London – Holborn, Warren Street and Soho, where there are many nice cafes such as Hubbard and Bell and Kaffeine. I also go to some boutiques, such as EGG in Knightsbridge and Livingstone studio in Hampstead. As I’m a Tibetan Buddhist, when I’m not working I also enjoy reading books about Buddhism, do meditation at home, or go to the Buddhist temple near Oxford Circus.