On Sunday, February 9th, myself, Kiko Mizuhara, Lil Mama, and Tinashe—one of these things is not like the other—coalesced around the runway at Spring Studios to experience designer Kim Shui’s contribution to New York Fashion Week. “Experience” is a more applicable verb than “see” for the crowd’s engagement with Shui’s Autumn/Winter 2020 collection; cheers replaced polite golf claps, and I itched to get on my feet as the audience bounced in their seats to a Jennifer Lopez remix by native Brooklyner ddlinkz. Like light dancing on silk, bits of movement flashed from every facet of Shui’s show: layered ruffles on a cobalt blue skirt bounced and flopped down the catwalk, and a leathery fabric stretched and shone on a model’s legs before flaring out into a silhouette not unlike that of a hammer pant.
A different designer, Shui says, might call a wobbly catwalk “unprofessional,” “awkward,” “uncomfortable.” Not Shui, who sees a misstep from a model as an expression of energy rather than amateurism. “They should walk like that, and they should just be whoever they are, even if they’re a little nervous on the runway. That’s what I want in the show.”
Bringing potentially unwelcome elements to high fashion is a sort of Shui tenet; her work feels like opening the windows of a pristine showroom and letting in some welcome, raucous noise from the street. A daughter of Chinese immigrants who spent her adolescence in Rome, Shui shows her appreciation for her heritage through innovation, manipulating traditional fabrics for the base of many of her outfits. “The brocade that I used, they’re traditional brocades that are used for the traditional qipao dresses…I kind of reimagined them in a different shape,” she tells me, by which she means that she sliced and flipped the fabric to expose the side that usually only ever touches the skin. Innovation inevitably meets criticism; Shui says she’s gotten DMs that accuse her of being “disrespectful” for “messing up tradition.” But like her garments, Shui’s response is ready to go and full of verve: “Do you want to keep these elements in the coffin?”
Purity can grow tiresome, and this includes the sequestering of high fashion from both the pedestrian and the overtly sexy. “Basically my vibe is usually just like having things look expensive, but at the same time looking like you might’ve gotten that from Chinatown for $10,” she says. Shui has accrued a mass of followers for her grade of commercial glam after a 2016 VFiles runway show featuring a front-row Kylie Jenner and performance from Tyga, a couple that then defined “sexy” in the American imagination. Considering the designer’s disparate background and frenetic imagination, Shui walks us through her 2020 moodboard, which spans from bodycon to Bruce Lee. Though of course, she emphasizes its plasticity. “Usually I mix all the images together. My inspiration doesn’t necessarily come from one image at once.”
“I found that somewhere on the internet. I liked the sari element in that photo. I mean, the water, the nature part of things. There’s something so calm about that image. It’s the draping of what they’re wearing, and there’s the water splashing out. There’s this mood that I liked about it.”
“Sometimes I work from fabric, and I just put the image and the work next to each other and then kind of play around with the fabric and then start draping, and then combine the elements. If I see an image, it’ll be a subtle take on it. I won’t directly transfer it. These fabric sculptures, I was looking to combine those guys a little bit, and then it was just me going around Chinatown, looking for some cool things. I’ll look at those too, and kind of combine it all together.”
“One of our looks, we turned into a headscarf, a printed knit one. And I felt like we should incorporate that headscarf into some other looks in a different way. So we found these t-shirts in Chinatown. You know the New York t-shirts? We used that, and then we also found these Bruce Lee shirts, and I was like, ‘”Oh my God, it’s perfect, because it totally makes sense as well, with the collection and my vibe.’ We handmade all of them before the show.”
“You don’t see that as much. They all think that if it’s sexy, it’ll be like the 1 OAK type, you know? I feel like if a woman wants to be sexy, and she wants to dress revealingly, and that’s her take on sexy, it shouldn’t be looked upon negatively.”