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China Designers You Need to Know: Sirloin

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China Designers is a biweekly series that showcases the wide spectrum of creativity in Chinese fashion design. From small designers to big brands, these names are changing the connotations of “Made in China,” one collection at a time. Write to us if you have a suggestion or submission.

Founded on the concept of “stupid elegance,” Sirloin draws from the tender underbelly of Chinese social culture to create high-fashion daywear out of underwear.

The Shanghai-based “whoeverwear” brand, launched by a Japanese-Swedish designer duo in 2016, pushes the undergarment to the forefront and blurs the lines between inner and outer, and private and public.

Designers Mao Usami and Alve Lagercrantz first met at Central Saint Martin’s in London, where they were both studying traditional womenswear. After Usami worked at Louis Vuitton and Lagercrantz went to Dries Van Noten, the two noticed the lack of a multi-dimensional space for underwear within the fashion industry.

Looks from Sirloin AW19 at Shanghai Fashion Week

Unimpressed with the one-dimensionality of underwear fashion design, but inspired by its latent potential, the duo envisioned a collection which would celebrate the quintessential character of underwear — clothing that could capture the “easiness and pureness of a pair of white men’s briefs.” By fully integrating underwear into high-fashion daywear, Usami and Lagercrantz constructed Sirloin’s characteristic “lazy elegance.”

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And what better place to inspire underwear design than Shanghai — a place with a unique toilet culture?

As Lagercrantz told Business of Fashion in 2017:

“Being based in China, we always tend to pick up on small funny things that we see in daily life. Shanghai has a really interesting toilet culture, where people hang out and smoke cigarettes.”

By bringing the undergarment to the forefront, Lagercrantz and Usami capture the spirit of Shanghai toilets — if such a thing exists — by celebrating the grittier, more intimate bits of human life that are typically removed from public acknowledgment.

“Shanghai is famous for people wearing their pajamas in public and they hang their underwear in the street outside to dry,” Usami said in a 2018 interview with South China Morning Post. “There is more inside life lived outside here.” It is these beloved bits of Shanghai life, like the casual disregard of public and private dress codes as perceived of in much of the rest of the world, which Usami and Lagercrantz have absorbed into their designs.

Looks from Sirloin’s SS19 collection

The duo is also tied to China in that their manufacturing facility is in Songjiang, a suburb of Shanghai. They relocated to China (without knowing a word of Mandarin) in order to have more control over their own production process. It’s a rare move, but as Chinese companies and designers explore more creative manufacturing processes in China, Usami and Lagercrantz may just be pioneering the next big industry trend. Since arriving in the country, they’ve leaned into that image with pride, self-styling as a “Songjiang powerhouse” during their AW19 season.

Last spring, Sirloin subverted expectations by staging a buzzy interactive fashion show at Shanghai Fashion Week. The show featured a green-screen runway backdrop and vanishing models, with a QR code that allowed the audience to experience virtual environments through their phones.

These integrated digital elements were intended to explain the SS19 collection’s themes of censorship and deviance — best characterized by the underwear which the duo turned into color block censoring bars — in a more direct way than a standard runway show. In the designers’ words, it’s similar to disabling the “safe search” option on a search engine:

“All the time we only see beautified versions of what we humans are actually about. The collection in many ways is talking about all those pure deviant feelings and behaviors that are hidden away.”

Usami and Lagercrantz also note that with the rise of online interaction and the experience industry, fashion doesn’t just end with clothing.

Sirloin runway show AW19 Shanghai

This is where the charm of Sirloin lies — they craft clothing that speaks beyond its wearability.

Follow Sirloin on Instagram.

Header image: Looks from Sirloin SS19. All images courtesy Sirloin

Monisha Pillai
    Monisha is a senior at NYU studying media theory, Chinese culture and Mandarin. You can probably find her ordering boba five times a day or crying over Korean boy bands.

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