Translating the poetic sentiments of imperial China is Xu’s prime concern. Embedded in his works are multiple references to literature, painting, calligraphy and religious art in classical China. By synthesising these ideas with those drawn from his vocabulary of Western shapes, Xu gives energy to traditional Chinese dress. “I like to make the old into the newest fashion. A thread, a needle, a silk roll—this is what compels my research and keeps me awake at night.”
An extract from Laurence Xu by Chiu-Ti Jansen (3030 Press, January 2020)
In particular, Xu’s reinterpretation of decorative embroidery has become a signature of his clothes. His collections are an encyclopaedia of embroidery techniques, from French and Indian styles to a variety of Chinese schools, including Suzhou, Hunan, Sichuan and Beijing—four of the most prominent. Yet it is yunjin brocade, a form of intricately woven silk fabric, for which Xu is best known and which provides a consistent theme in all his major collections. So named for its opulent appearance and soft texture, yunjin has a history of more than 1,500 years, and for more than 700 years was the de facto fabric for imperial attire during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. Production was strictly controlled by the state and concentrated in three main centres, the most famous being Nanjing in Jiangsu province. The proverb, “One inch of yunjin equals one inch of gold”, is suggestive of its preciousness and distinctive luminosity, which is created by intertwining pieces of gold- or silver-leaf with silk threads, which are then woven by hand into the design. Other materials, such as peacock feather, are also used.
The tremendous value of yunjin brocade and its special place at the imperial court meant that no expense was spared to improve production technology. By the eighteenth century this had resulted in huge, vastly complex looms capable of manipulating up to 1,000 bobbins to produce the most intricate designs. In 2009, UNESCO included yunjin on its “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list.
By his own reckoning, Xu’s first use of yunjin was in 2006 as part of a private commission. Yet it was in his first fully realised collection, entitled Xiuqiu, or “Embroidery Ball”, that yunjin brocade found its first profound expression in his work. The collection features a range of Chinese and Buddhist decorative motifs as well as evocative shapes and design elements, such as embroidered mini-capes that recall Peking Opera costumes, and a sumptuous reinterpretation of the cheongsam, embroidered with a stylised wave design. The collection was presented at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week (Autumn/Winter 2013-2014) at the invitation of the French Haute Couture and Fashion Federation. One piece, inspired by the glittering Everlasting Homeland (jinou yonggu) Cup of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), featuring a gold bodice gown with yunjin brocade of pure gold threads, was named as one of the season’s fifteen most beautiful haute-couture gowns. Although not his first overseas show, this recognition in Paris provided a particularly sweet moment. “Many people think there is no fashion in China. Paris is the temple of fashion in the world. I want to show the world what Chinese fashion is like.”
The Mogao Caves, also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, lie twenty-five kilometres to the southeast of Dunhuang and are the best known of hundreds of ancient cave sanctuaries and temples located around the city. Today they contain some of China’s finest examples of Buddhist art, expressed in sculptures and colourful fresco paintings, as well as thousands of delicate painted scrolls. Commonly, these include scenes from the life of Buddha and portrayals of an ordered, courtly paradise, but also secular representations of the caves’ aristocratic patrons. As such they offer a vivid record of changing fashion styles in ancient China.
For Xu, who spent more than a month in Dunhuang, they were a thrilling revelation. “They were more provocative than our times,” he says of the different costume designs he found preserved on the grotto walls. A result of this is the rich array of decorative motifs in his Dunhuang collection, including lotus—a key Buddhist icon, hibiscus, hydrangea, orchid and chrysanthemum. The drape around the waist of a royal blue and purple gown is made of yunjin silk and features an embroidered white lotus pattern on a midnight blue background made of zhuanghua silk gauze, which is technically, one of the most difficult and time-consuming fabrics to produce. Further illustration of the collection’s astonishing workmanship is an extraordinary jumpsuit, layered with a soft silk overskirt in a fine filigree of gunmetal and gold beading, while one of the collection’s most dramatic pieces is a hooped, white wedding gown with a beaded and embroidered bodice and white gauze overlay skirt, accented at the waist with lotus petals—the overall effect suggests an inverted lotus bloom.
In several pieces from this series, Xu pays homage to another devotee of Mogao, the celebrated ink painter Zhang Daqian (1899–1983), who spent more than three years, from 1940 to 1943, copying the Buddhist art in the caves. Xu was familiar with Zhang’s works from his boyhood, when his father had shown him pictures of the artist’s studies of the famous cave frescoes. As a result, the extraordinary shapes and flowing lines of Dunhuang can, in many cases, be traced to Zhang’s intricate paintings of flying apsaras and other deities from the Buddhist pantheon. The Dunhuang collection was debuted in January at Paris Haute Couture (Spring/Summer 2014-2015) to huge acclaim, with several commentators drawing comparisons between Xu’s rejuvenation of traditional Chinese brocade techniques and Chanel’s support of the Métiers d’Art in France. Particularly pleasing for Xu, it marked the first time a mainland Chinese designer had presented a catwalk show for two years running at the prestigious event. Writing of the collection, the fashion critic Ao Ran commented: “Though many designers try to use traditional Chinese elements, they fail to capture the essentials. However, Laurence Xu has managed to do it with his great understanding, experience and knowledge. More importantly, he interprets it in a modern way.”Guo Yiming, ‘Laurence Xu: Taking Chinese culture to the world via haute couture’ (21-6-2017). China.org.cn (accessed 19-08-2018)
A few months later, such ideas were to ripple through the blockbuster exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass held at the Met in New York. Xu’s dress, Auspicious Cloud of the Orient, was prominent among several gowns by contemporary Chinese designers included in the show. The event, which explored ways in which Chinese art and design have fuelled the Western imagination, underlined Xu’s position as one of the mainland’s preeminent designers, and highlighted the idea—implicit in his work since the early years of his career—that it is the link to its historical past that gives meaning to contemporary Chinese fashion. “The application of any element depends on the designer—his style, experience, taste, and the culture he or she comes from. Western designers have made great works based on their own perspective [of Chinese art], but they can never express it as authentically as a Chinese designer,” Xu said of the exhibition.Catty Shame, ‘Interview with Laurence Xu – China Power at 2015 MET Ball’ (4-5-2015). Haibao Fashion Network (accessed 26-07-2018)
In the second half of 2015, Xu returned to the decorative possibilities of yunjin. Entitled simply Yunjin (Autumn/Winter 2015), the collection was first shown at in July at Expo Milan 2015. As part of the expo’s Nanjing Week, Xu was nominated to represent the city as its yunjin ambassador in recognition of his efforts to highlight the cultural significance of the fabric. He had an entire replica dahualou loom shipped from the Nanjing Yunjin Museum to Italy. The closing event included a fashion show at the Pavilion of Contemporary Art in which Xu showcased thirty-seven pieces. The collection was presented the following year at the World Historical & Cultural Cities Expo in Nanjing. In a behind-the-scenes documentary shown on China’s Hunan TV Network about the show, Xu reflected on his career: “I started making Chinese style couture a decade ago, when female stars wore only qipaos to international events. Many criticised me [for this kind of work] and many of my clothes ended up in a corner gathering dust. I had to wait many years for the Chinese ‘spring of haute couture.'”
Chiu-Ti Jansen is a writer, TV host and founder of <a href="China Happenings, a multimedia platform about contemporary Chinese culture. She is a columnist for the FInancial Times's Chinese edition.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↩||Guo Yiming, ‘Laurence Xu: Taking Chinese culture to the world via haute couture’ (21-6-2017). China.org.cn (accessed 19-08-2018)|
|2.||↩||Catty Shame, ‘Interview with Laurence Xu – China Power at 2015 MET Ball’ (4-5-2015). Haibao Fashion Network (accessed 26-07-2018)|