The times have never been bleaker. The world has been dull and lifeless ever since it came to a stand-still with the outbreak of the pandemic. This is when I, and most people, turn to the Arts for sanctuary and consolation. Artistic creations express emotions and thoughts that others are too afraid to confront. We are busy being responsible grown-ups right now, trying to tackle our lives that have turned upside down. We are too afraid to confront how overwhelmed we are. Let’s take a break. I present to you designer Kaiwen Shi’s collection, ‘A trip in the real world fantasy’, where all pain and worries melt away. Her fantastical and surreal garments are inspired by her own childhood and comic illustrations. It serves as a breath of fresh air to the troubled adults who need a break from all the responsibilities. Kaiwen Shi’s collection offers a warm sanctuary to all weary souls.

Who is Kaiwen Shi?

Q: After looking through all your amazing collections and collaborations, I got a feeling that you are not ‘just’ a fashion designer. You are so much more than that! What would you describe yourself as?

A: I used to make comics before I went to university, drawing was a huge part of my life at that time. I like the power of fantasy and tales, and I feel like there is a part of me which hasn’t changed since I was a child which made me feel at peace. I would describe myself as someone who tries to bring childishness into life in an artistic way.

Q: With that being said, what role would you say that you occupy within the creative industry?

A: Someone bringing some child’s play into the industry!

Q: I am curious about the path that you have been walking before releasing all these collections. Tell me a bit more about your personal biography.

Growing up is a process of getting hurt and getting used to it.

Kaiwen Shi

A: Before making fashion collections, I was at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the school is the top university when it comes to the science field. I was living with the smartest “geeks” from all over the country. It was not easy for me to finally go to one of the best fashion schools for my masters, which seems quite funny.

Q: A sense of childlike creativity characterizes your creations, just like you mentioned earlier, fashion and artwork alike. Where does this come from? What or who are your inspirations?

A: Growing up is a process of getting hurt and getting used to it. Most of the time, I feel melancholic and sad about this. I miss the time when I was a child and not knowing how everything works, this world was illogical, and no one blamed me for it. I guess this sense of longing is where my style comes from. Artists like Yoshitaka Amani, and Henry Darger inspired me, too.

Q: You state in your portfolio that you aim to ‘create a world that becomes a sanctuary for people who want a respite from the intensity of life in the real world.’. In what ways do you think your works provide a ‘sanctuary’?

A: I guess I am the person who wants to get in this sanctuary first. When I was making this collection, I didn’t think of them as garments. Everything was done the same way I draw my comics. Comics erased people’s pain from life, and I hope they feel a sense of relief when looking at my works.

Q: Are you currently working on any other projects?

A: I am planning on launching my personal brand and designing my first RTW collection at the moment.

On the Topic of Fashion Design

The magazine depicted a completely different world from the one I lived in, which completely mesmerized me.

Kaiwen Shi

Q: Clearly, you love designing clothes. What made you fall in love with it and when?

A: Back in middle school, reading fashion magazines was my only happiness during the hectic school life. I cut out images of garments and made my collage book. The magazine depicted a completely different world from the one I lived in, which completely mesmerized me.

Q: What is your fashion philosophy?

A: I don’t think it exists. It changes all the time.

Q: What would your everyday outfit look like? What do you enjoy wearing on most days?

A: Before Covid, I liked wearing very colourful stuff, something similar to the Harajuku style. Now I gained a bit of weight during the long quarantine, so I am starting to wear a lot of black. I find it so funny.

Q: Do you think there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fashion designers? What makes designers ‘good’ at what they do?

A: As long as a person has his or her passion and is willing to work hard with their own creativity, no one could possibly judge them with such terms.

Q:  I feel like so many designers nowadays try to diverge away from mainstream fashion. What are your opinions on this?

A: It’s a good thing. The conventional industry is boring and people need those designers to bring some fresh perspectives into it.  When I started working at the RTW department of a fashion brand after graduation, all that I was doing was selling reports, following the trend, and changing my designs into more conventional versions that are more saleable.

Q: I bet it is really difficult to stay inspired and remain creative during the global pandemic. I’m sure that aspiring, young designers who are just starting off are very disheartened and discouraged. What advice would you give them?

A: Make a living first, it’s important. But don’t forget to train your creativity.

A Trip in the Real World Fantasy

“It’s just play.”, Kaiwen says. This is the answer she came up with for herself after struggling with the question of what her designs represent. She refuses to weigh her designs with heavy philosophical concerns that most designers deem to be of utmost importance when it comes to fashion design. Kaiwen lets her creative mind be free, just like how we all used to play as children. This is where the unique childlike quality of her designs comes from. It’s the lack of philosophy and logic that defines her talent and creativity. It is ‘creation’ in its purest form.

Q: What really made me curious about you as a fashion designer is your most recent collection, ‘A trip in the real world fantasy’. This collection made me really excited to interview you! First, please share with us briefly what this collection is all about!

A: As a child, I used to be so amazed by the dramatic, powerful expressions of animations, things that will never happen in reality always seem to take place commonly in the animated world. Truly moved by the idea of small things and people having the ability to gain superpowers, I began to long for this power in real life.

In my collection, I was doing the same thing as I was doing when creating comics, but this time the canvas is real life. I drew my childhood stories as comics, and then extracted the characters, then turned them into different looks. I am very curious about this tension between imaginary fantasy and real life, and comics are my fantasy land where I can recreate things and people I know in real life.

It’s just play.

Kaiwen shi

Q: I think your ‘childlike creativity’ which I mentioned earlier is most prominently expressed in this collection. What specific feature of the collection is most important in communicating this childlike characteristic of your work?

A: It’s the first collection I try to show the inside world of myself. I used to think too much and set a designer model in my heart when I created old collections. So, after every collection, I didn’t feel related to those garments. If someone ruined my garments, I wouldn’t have felt too sad at the time, which made me consider whether I should quit fashion. In this collection, it’s my first time to not think of what other designers did and what’s the meaning of the collection, what problem I want to resolve in it, and what I want to communicate through it. It’s just play. Abandoning those design principles and unauthentic manifestos is what gives the collection a childlike character. I feel authentic and simple.

Q: It’s fascinating how your looks are literal real-life replicas of your comic illustrations and characters. Is there a reason why you undertook this process of starting from comic strips and then designing the garments rather than just sketching the designs right away?

A: I was trying to design a character rather than a garment, so the garments, details, and accessories were building these characters. Just sketching makes me feel a bit disconnected from the characters, and this loss of interest will affect my outcome.

Q: I noticed that you used a lot of beads in your sartorial construction. Is there a specific reason for this choice of material? I mean, it’s absolutely brilliant and beautiful.

A: Personally, I love beading a lot. I started beading when I was a child, and when doing fashion design I learned more about all kinds of beading techniques. I got a sponsorship from Swarovski during my MA which gave me more chances to invent my own techniques.

Q: This question is a bit biased, but, my personal favourite was the pleated skirt that flies out to one side, as if it were drawn on paper, even when the model was standing upright. Do you mind explaining how you came up with this idea? I think it’s really creative.

A: Using paper to fit a model is one of the many working processes of my collection. I directly print out the garments from my comic work, put them on fitting models to help me think about textiles and silhouettes. This look narrates a childhood story of mine. When I was in primary school, our teacher took away my favourite toy which traumatized me at a young age. In this story, I dress in my old school uniform, and bring a carrot bomb and bullet belt which looks like a robber’s disguise and go back to school to take back my toys. In the comic, the uniform skirt was drawn like it’s suspended in air because it’s an exaggerated expression of comic making.

Q: This question is a bit biased, but, my personal favourite was the pleated skirt that flies out to one side, as if it were drawn on paper, even when the model was standing upright. Do you mind explaining how you came up with this idea? I think it’s really creative.

A: Using paper to fit a model is one of the many working processes of my collection. I directly print out the garments from my comic work, put them on fitting models to help me think about textiles and silhouettes. This look narrates a childhood story of mine. When I was in primary school, our teacher took away my favourite toy which traumatized me at a young age. In this story, I dress in my old school uniform, and bring a carrot bomb and bullet belt which looks like a robber’s disguise and go back to school to take back my toys. In the comic, the uniform skirt was drawn like it’s suspended in air because it’s an exaggerated expression of comic making.

Q: I am sure that all the looks and garments are special to you, but if you had to choose, which one would be your favourite and why?

A: The pink beaded top! It demonstrates sophisticated techniques but is also very practical in daily life. It’s a combination of a beading technique that I invented myself and crocheting with shining yarn. For daily styling, I think it would look very cute on top of a blouse in white or black.

Wear Your Identity (2018)

Kaiwen is not afraid to say that certain outfits are, well, boring. She loves vibrant colours and fun designs. When she was living in Beijing, Kaiwen felt that the people around her were all wearing similar outfits, and she couldn’t differentiate one person from the other. She saw this as people conforming to social assimilation rather than expressing their personalities. Kaiwen thinks of ways to reiterate the importance of personal expression by transforming boring outfits into more exciting ones. As promising as this sounds, Kaiwen confesses that she feels disconnected from this collection, and shares interesting perspectives on her self-identity as a designer.

Q: Although I’m a great fan of all your collections, I feel like your ‘Wear Your Identity’ collection is a very densely packed one, in terms of the ideology behind it and its designing processes. The name of the collection is a very strong statement. Is this meant to be some sort of declaration or a campaign?

A: It is my BA graduation collection. At that time, I was living in Beijing and people there wear very conservative garments, so I felt quite misplaced within society. Everyone wears similar things; their identities were erased by the garments. That’s what I found interesting; garments can be tools to conceal people’s identity. The collection is like a small experiment, to merge the everyday clothes and some very controversial outfits, to break away from the boredom.

Q: The collection looks like it enumerates various identities within society through the garments that symbolise them. Which piece, or identity, would you say is the centrepiece of this collection?

A: I wouldn’t say that a particular piece is more important than the others. Each represents an identity- Black and pink dress: office ladies. White and black coat with the flower skirt inside: female college students. Blue coat and jeans: geeks.

Q: I was quite intrigued by this look. It looks like a maid uniform or an evening dress at a glance, but the top is a suit! Such an interesting combination of styles and materials here. Tell us a bit more about how this look came about!

A: It is from my mother’s daily look, a normal office lady’s outfit. I merged it with a Lolita dress, which is completely at odds with the office lady’s image. I was trying to create unexpected combinations, so the choice of fabric and pattern cutting are taken from the traditional office outfits and Lolita dresses.

I got into some kind of philosophical question, and I didn’t like it.

Kaiwen Shi

Q: What does this collection tell us about you as a designer or an artist that the ‘A Trip in the Real World Fantasy (2020)’ collection does not?

A: As I said, I am a designer who changes rapidly. I was trying to be like a ‘real’ fashion designer and tried to find some meaningful topic for my BA. I got into some kind of philosophical question, and I didn’t like it. I was actually not very happy when I finished that old collection. It doesn’t feel like me.  And ‘A trip in the real world fantasy’ actually marks that I have been free from my old convention about design, and I am happy to be myself.

Q: I really have to ask you about that part of the process where you pasted a life-size printed photograph onto the mannequin. This pleasantly surprised me haha! It looks quite uncanny and bizarre. I have, personally, never seen anyone do this in their portfolios before! What were you trying to achieve with this method and what inspired you to do it.

A: I took photos on the streets of people and selected the most boring outfit and printed it out haha! My process was to cut out those images which helped me to find my way into constructing new ways to connect the conventional garments and their conflict ones.

Each and every one of Kaiwen Shi’s collections is an important milestone of her journey towards finding a unique identity and brand as a fashion designer. She learned, the hard way, that not everything has to follow a rhyme or reason. There may be no method to her madness. Not everything we do have to be explainable, logical, nor rational. Kaiwen lets us know that most times, it is the spontaneity and irrationality that sees the best outcomes. After all, everything really is all just play.

Images: courtesy of Kaiwen Shi