In The Studio With Kim Shui: Dressing a Generation of Risk-Takers

Maker of not only covetable garments, but also attitudes to match, Kim Shui is forging a new path within the fashion industry that is built upon her blasé outlook for celebrity and fame, and an inherent devotion to a diversity of all kinds. Shui’s intentions as a designer, undeniably noble, have already proven fruitful for the emerging talent, as she has showed in New York with VFILES, Milan with Vogue Italia, and Beijing with Mercedes-Benz China Fashion Week, not to mention having just wrapped up her very own runway show produced and cast by Roff Studios.

The diverse ethos of the brand rings familiar to Shui’s own background, having grown up in Rome with Chinese roots and attending schools in both the States and the UK studying a range of topics from economics to french to printmaking. The designer’s most recent Fall Winter 2018 collection, inspired by women’s capability of handling extreme circumstances, still remains loyal to the roots of Kim Shui—sustaining Shui’s signature collaging of prints and fabrics, while celebrating an incredibly diverse cast of models that range in ethnicity, age and size.

We took a visit to Shui’s studio to get to know the modest designer dressing the likes of Cardi B, Kylie Jenner and Solange Knowles.

Firstly, your background is pretty interesting considering you studied economics and french at Duke University, correct? Can you talk a little bit about what inspired your transition from those studies into fashion?

Well, I mean, fashion was always something I was super interested in, so it was something that I knew I wanted to try more than anything else. Also, when I was studying econ or french, I would kind of just tie everything back into fashion, so that’s why also right after I graduated, I decided to myself, ‘Okay, I definitely want to give actual design a try.’ And that’s how I went into that, just because I felt like doing theory and concept wasn’t enough, I actually wanted to know how a garment was constructed. I remember I did a paper on film, women and fashion and the intersection between all of them and I was looking at a lot of theories and what not, and then I was like okay, well I need to know how I can actually express it in the right way. I think that if you’re going to be a designer, you need to know about construction as well.

Right, and so you went to design school without even having the technical background or experience?

Well what happened is right after that, I moved to New York and I was interning at that time. I also took a few classes at Parson’s while I was interning and I was learning sewing, pattern making, so that’s how I got the basics. Then I had gone to Central Saint Martens in London right after to study design. That said, already having been to New York and having worked for a couple of brands, I had learned about construction techniques and just kind of like how it all worked. I mean, I remember at my first internship, I didn’t know how to draw or do anything so it was pretty crazy.

Yeah, but that’s how you learn the best—getting thrown into it.

Right, I was just watching what everybody was doing and you know, I assisted for a show for the first time. That’s just how it all started.

I’m also curious about your relationship to fashion as a kid, being that you grew up in Rome. Were there any designers that you looked up to, or did you have a particular style?

You know, I think that living in Rome, and especially going to school there, everybody very much dresses the same. I think it’s quite conservative. The one thing, though, that I’ll throw out there is that you’re constantly surrounded by a lot of art, which I think is an advantage that you get growing up there that you may not growing up somewhere else. For example, going to school I’d pass by the Colosseum and that was just a normal everyday thing. That, I think makes a big difference. It wasn’t so much exposure to fashion per se than it was to the arts and the culture. Obviously, there are the big labels like Fendi and Valentino, and there is definitely a widespread love for fashion, but they love much more of the traditional styles. Nobody has crazy, wild style like in East London—it’s nothing like that.

It’s interesting then to consider how fashion is integrated into the culture, because the way that you describe it in Rome, it comes from the roots of these legendary, heritage fashion labels. I kind of sense especially in Italy, a subconscious obligation to follow fashion, which then informs why it’s more traditional in those parts as opposed to let’s say New York, where subcultures have really adopted fashion as a tool.

Yes, exactly.

Having also expressed your sort of affinity for the intersectionality of fashion, how do you feel about representation in the current fashion landscape, in terms of race and minorities?

Well for a lot of our castings, which I work with my friend Ace to do that from Roff Studios—we worked together to get a very diverse casting, to make sure that we’re including a lot of models of color, because I think it’s funny that it’s still even a problem. I’ve been seeing posts exposing how there is such a lack of diversity in so many shows, with maybe like 2 or 3 non-white models in a show. Diversity is definitely something that we strive for, and also those are the girls that would wear the clothes. We try to include a range of people, because I think that’s important. For this show, we wanted to cast all Asian models, meaning all types—East Asian, West, South, all kinds, just fully representative.

Diversity is definitely something that we strive for, and also those are the girls that would wear the clothes. We try to include a range of people, because I think that’s important.

And can you talk a bit about the collection itself from a design standpoint and your inspiration?

Yeah! Last season was a lot about exploring chance and change, so it was a lot about how the garments would change and each time you’d tie them, they’d be different. This season, it’s kind of growing upon that, but you know there’s an element of extreme—How would the Kim Shui girl take on the extreme? So there are a few elements borrowed by extreme sports, so you know I just wanted to infuse a bit more of energy in that sense by taking traditional pieces and putting them in that kind of context.

What message do you aim to convey in your garments or your label?

I remember what someone once said is that the girls are all so different, but they all kind of unite via the clothes, so like it can be for very different people, but they end up being united by the clothes. I think that the main thing is, too, that it’s for someone who’s kind of eccentric, not afraid to wear color, that fine line between something that’s tasteful and something that borders tacky… It’s walking that fine line.

Totally! Do you imagine a particular customer or a ‘Kim Shui girl’?

Um, I can’t say that there’s a singular person that I think of that embodies what the whole thing is designed for. It usually can be pulled in from quite a few different people and that’s how it’s all created. There is no individual, number one muse. There are girls that I can point out and see wearing it, but I wouldn’t generalize the brand to catering to a particular kind of girl—that’d be too limiting.

It’s for someone who’s kind of eccentric, not afraid to wear color,that fine line between something that’s tasteful and something that borders tacky… It’s walking that fine line.

That said then, who that has worn Kim Shui have you been most proud of our excited about?

There are a couple! I was pretty excited about Solange and recently, I really enjoyed dressing Kali Uchis. She literally just hit me on DM and was like ‘Hey, I love your stuff, I want to perform in this! I’m going to the Grammy’s, could we do a fitting?’ I was like ‘Of course,’ and then she ended up wearing a lot of the pieces for different events, interviews and shoots. For me, she’s definitely a Kim Shui girl.

Crazy how it came up too, it’s not like you had some publicist coordinating it for press, she literally DM’d you personally?

Yeah! Someone had actually asked me who was doing my placement! I don’t have PR doing celebrity relations or anything.

And is there any celebrity or public figure in mind that you’d love to dress?

Honestly, I get a lot more out of seeing a random person on the street wearing my stuff. That to me means a lot more than seeing, I don’t know, Madonna wearing it. It’s more exciting to me walking down the street and seeing someone wearing a piece—that makes me more happy.

Considering your cultural diversity, or mixed cultural identity for lack of a better term, it has undoubtedly been reflected in your success, having showed in China, Italy and New York, but would you say there are any disadvantages to it, or to not really subscribing to a particular origin? Like you were saying, brands like Fendi and Valentino are so easily identifiable as staple Italian brands.

Well, you know, even growing up I’d have everyone asking me, ‘Where are you from?’ and it’s always been kind of hard to say exactly… But then I think that’s also become very much about the brand—that’s what it has come to be about. You know, also the clothes are very mix and mash, it’s very collage-inspired, and that reflects my background. It’s pretty literally translated into the clothes.

Can you define success for yourself?

To grow every year.

Stay tuned to Milk for more studio visits.

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