Renli Su. A name like a whisper, a caress, just like her ethereal silhouettes, as if straight out of a dream. The Chinese designer has developed her own style, a romantic and skilful blend of tradition and modernity, inspired as much by the oriental workwear of the 19th century as by the Victorian era. The purity of lines and materials is reinforced by the use of organic materials such as linen, cotton and wool.
Renli Su explores the themes of nature and spirit through imagery populated by free-spirited young women with strong personalities who chose to live their lives as they saw fit at a time when all autonomy was forbidden. She evokes them, in turn, and among them, the figure of Jeanne Barret (1740-1807), emerges with tenacity. This French explorer and botanist was the first woman to have circumnavigated the globe with the Bougainville expedition. She embodies the world of Renli Su, and the future of the brand, with passion and poetry.
Leclaireur: You create with the image of a woman in mind.
Renli Su: She is our muse, in a way. She lived a long time ago. Jeanne Barret was the first woman to sail around the world, clandestinely at that, posing as a man. She had to travel and live as a man, among 200 other men. Few elements about her have come down to us, including seven logbooks belonging to sailors who sailed on the same boat as her. We love her because she also contributed to the work of a man, a scientist, whose mission was to create an important nomenclature listing various plants. She did a lot of work, choosing them, picking them, giving them their Latin names. She had knowledge of biology and botany, like many women at the time, thanks to their daily relationship with nature. Jeanne Barret had a real aura and, over time, inspired more and more women, she was bold and courageous. These trips around the world gave her immense joy.
How did you discover this character?
In books that evoked her adventures. There are no photos of her, since photography did not exist at the time. However, there is a drawing made by someone who imagined her from descriptions. My team and I like this drawing very much. There are also the famous logbooks. The story of Jeanne Barret remained a secret for a long time, especially because women were not allowed to travel at that time. The story was therefore published, to be known by all, much later, and when we came across it, it particularly interested us, to the point of wanting to go further into the subject. We also really like her wardrobe, her Asian style, and her era. The style and the clothes were particular. And the functional aspect was very important for her contemporaries, in their choice of clothing.
You come from China and now live in London, where you have set up your studio.
I come from the south of China. I grew up near the sea. I first moved to London to study. After my Masters, I decided to get married. Opening my studio here was a natural step. I started small, in 2013, because I couldn't take on too much production and all the process that would have involved. It wasn't until Chinese investors joined my venture last year that I was able to really improve the quality of my designs. And while I sometimes need to go back to China, all the design is done in London.
What have you kept from your heritage in your work? How do you combine your Chinese origins with your other influences?
I draw my approach to pattern making from my East Asian origins, probably, which is very careful. In Asia, pattern making is done on a two-dimensional level. The femininity of the woman's body is expressed in a different way. We avoid "wrapping" the body with too much fabric. The Victorian era also interests me a lot, with all the embroidery, the techniques used to create it, the pattern making, and even the designs which are very particular. Chinese designers also use particular embroidery techniques. So I tried to take the best of what I liked, to bring together all these different approaches, because each heritage is unique and extraordinary.
How did the "actors" of the fashion world in France react when they discovered your work?
"Wow, the model is so young!" That's what I heard a lot, at first. Would the buyers accept our work or not? They weren't sure, precisely because of the young model representing our collection. We were looking to promote much more than just the craftsmanship involved, we were looking for something fresh, very airy, dreamy, and joyful. Fortunately, they really liked the final result, and the fabrics used.
Your pieces are very feminine, made with a lot of details and pleated effects, ruffles. However, the silhouettes retain a real fluidity. The whole is relaxed. How do you manage to create this balance?
Our hoodie has been very successful. I think some of our customers like to pair it with other pieces in a different style for very street style looks. The hoodie works very well with the pieces they have in their wardrobe. What we want to do is make clothes that will be easy to wear, like hoodies. This kind of style is also found in other brands, but the fabrics we use are so charming, and enriched with such special details, like beads, that we feel a real difference in our creations.
Would you say that the hoodie is, in a way, a door to enter your world?
Yes, the hoodie and the very loose pants are very appealing.
What are the designers, current or older, that you follow, whose work interests you in particular?
I follow Rei Kawakubo's work with great interest. I've seen every show she's done. She is amazing. We have different styles of course, but I see her as a role model.
You're releasing a new collection, and preparing for the next one. Is your muse part of the creative process?
For the Fall-Winter 2017 and Spring-Summer 2018 collections, I was looking to create a very specific atmosphere, which could reflect my personal world, and in which I can incorporate the character we talked about, this muse. And yes, we are already working on the next collection, obviously. We're going to choose the materials, which will take us about 2 months, before we start the production. And of course, we will continue to explore the identity of this woman who inspires us so much.
Discover the Renli Su collection atLeclaireur Hérold.