Renli Su. Just the name itself, whispered softly, is enough to start dreaming impossible dreams. Her ethereal silhouettes are the stuff made of time-traveling tales and other-worldly dimensions in a mix of tradition and modernity. The purity of her lines and fabrics is strengthened by her use of organic materials like linen, cotton and wool.
She’s been exploring the themes of both nature and spirit for some time now, and at the heart of her inspiration, you find an array of independent women who, thanks to their strong character, and much like herself, have been able to live their life to the fullest. Take Jeanne Barret, for example. Born in 1740, a French botanist and explorer, Barret was the very first woman to circumnavigate the globe with the Bougainville expedition. As the muse in Renli Su’s world, with both passion and elegance, one could say she now has completed her journey into her future, and our present.
Leclaireur: You create with a model in mind. Not an imaginary woman per se. Who is she?
Renli Su: She’s a muse from the early times, her name was Jeanne Barret. She was the first woman to sail around the world, and in order to do that, she went undercover, so to speak, as a man. A woman passing for a man, amongst 200 men. Too few stories about her have made it through to us, but we do have seven diaries that belonged to sailors who travelled on the same boat. We love her because, among other things, she helped a man, a scientist, in the creation of an important plant nomenclature, selecting them, cutting them and giving them latin names. She was very knowledgeable about nature and plants, like many women back in the days who had a direct and daily rapport to Nature in their lives. She was someone of influence and, in time, inspired many women. She was very courageous, and brave, and being able to travel around the world brought her great joy.
How did you come across this character?
I read books about her. While there aren’t any actual photos of her, as photography didn’t exist back at the time, there is a drawing, made by someone who imagined how she was like. The team and I loved this drawing very much, and we also read the book of these seven diaries. Her story was kept a secret for so long because women were not allowed to travel in her time. The story was therefore published a long time later. We found it interesting and wanted to pursue the conversation. We loved her natural, Asian wardrobe, and the period. How they dressed of course, and also how functional they dressed.
You’re from China, and you now live in London, where you work, in your studio.
I’m from South China, I grew up near the sea. I moved to London to study, initially. After my Master’s, I decided to settle down, got married, and opened my studio in London, naturally. I started on a very small scale, in 2013, because I couldn’t manage a large production, nor the whole process that would’ve come with it. Only when a Chinese investment team came in, last year, was I able to drastically improve the quality of my garments. So while sometimes I still need to travel to China, all of the design process is made in London.
What have you kept in your work from your Chinese heritage? And how do you mix your Chinese heritage with other influences?
There’s the pattern cutting, from Eastern Asia, probably, which is quite neat. In Asia, the cutting is very two dimensional. The femininity of the female body is expressed in a different way. We don’t wrap the body in a lot of fabric. That would be what I draw from my Asian heritage. But I’m also very interested in the Victorian era, with its embroideries, as well as the techniques used to create them, the pattern cutting, the patterns, even, which are very special. Chinese designers also have embroidery techniques. So I draw the best from what I love, from all these different approaches, and I mix them together because both heritages are unique and extraordinary.
How did French fashion professionals react when they first met your work?
« Wow, the model looks so young »! is what we first heard. They weren’t sure whether the buyers would accept our work, because of how very young the girl is, who embodies our collection. We wanted to promote more than craftsmanship, with a fresh look, very airy, dreamy and happy. Luckily, they really liked the finish and the fabrics.
Your garments are very feminine, crafted with great details and a lot of ruffles. Yet, the overall result has a great flow, it’s almost laid back. How do your achieve that balance?
We’ve had great success with our hoodie. I think some of our customers enjoy mismatching this item, styling it with their street-style looks. It works very well with other pieces they have in their wardrobe. We want to design clothes that are easy for them to wear, like the hoodies. They can probably find this kind of style in other brands, but our fabrics are so lovely, the details so specific, like the pearls, that there is a real difference in what we do.
Is the hoodie a door onto your world, in a way?
The hoodie and the loose trousers are very popular.
Are there other designers around you, from the past or the present who you’ve been following or you’ve particularly been interesting in?
I follow Rei Kawakubo’s work with great interest. I’ve seen all of her shows. She’s incredible. We have very different styles, so she’s more like a model to me.
You have a new collection coming out, and you are preparing the next one. Is your muse part of the process?
For the Fall/Winter 17 and Spring Summer 18 collections, I tried to create a special atmosphere that might reflect my very own world, in which I can integrate the character we’ve discussed, the muse. We’re already working on a new collection, of course. We are going to select new fabrics, which takes us about two months, before starting production. And yes, of course, we will keep on exploring our muse’s identity.
The Renli Su collection is available at Leclaireur Hérold.