Who Says Risqué Designs Can’t Sell In China? Meet Rui, The Creative Doing Just That

    Meet Rui, the soft-spoken designer from Hunan Province who is breaking down taboos and tackling the big issues of the day: from body diversity to self-love.
    Meet Rui, the soft-spoken designer from Hunan Province who is breaking down taboos and tackling the big issues of the day: from body diversity to self-love. Illustration: Yvan Deng
      Published   in Profile

    Fashion designer Rui Zhou is the next creative to be highlighted as part of the Jing Daily community of individuals shaping China’s booming fashion industry. This section profiles industry leaders who contribute to the national and global fashion communities, from creatives and influencers to business executives and entrepreneurs.

    To say that Rui is a fashion designer does her a disservice. She’s more a conjurer of fabrics — though even this, while high praise, is not wholly accurate. The diminutive, soft-spoken artist began sharing her creations online in 2018 and a year later, after graduating from Parsons School of Design, she found global attention.

    Winning the LVMH Prize put her on the radar of Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele, who selected her for Gucci Vault — the experimental online space he envisioned. Stars like Blackpink’s Lisa to Dua Lipa have donned her designers as well as a range of diverse, local names: from KOLs like Fil Xiaobai to plus-size model Cherry Huang. Her brand slogan, “love what makes you, you,” is resonating across the globe and beyond, as even the virtual influencer Lil Miquela has been spotted in her work.

    View post on Instagram

    So what’s causing the buzz? Well, not what you’d expect, which is what’s so delicious about Rui. She’s known for her immediately distinctive “barely-there” aesthetic. This includes sultry bodycon knits, ripped denim, peek-a-boo crochets — all of which are seductively revealing. But it’s not just about selling ultra-sexy garments to China’s women (though this is notable in itself). What’s striking is the delicate fragility found in the weave and weft of her textiles. It's this duality — between softness and provocation — that has marked Hunan’s star out as an artist in her own right.

    Here, Jing Daily chats to Rui about Paris Fashion Week, empowering women with body confidence, and the feeling of unexpectedly seeing her designs on the streets of Shanghai.

    Can you tell us about your background and upbringing?#

    I was born in the middle of Southern China, Hunan Province, in an area that is crowded by mountains. It’s very traditional and local. I have an older sister and I feel like it was a very normal family childhood in China. My sister is now a civil servant, my mum is a nurse, and my father is a doctor so I’m almost the opposite of them. I went abroad to do an MA after I finished my studies in China. I'm not sure why I'm a fashion designer now, but maybe I got some inspiration from that environment and the relationship between people, friends, family, and intimate connections.

    How did you find going from there to say, New York?#

    I gained a lot of inspiration from NYC. The lifestyle is so different, so I got a lot of ideas from this. I also read about a lot of concepts in books in libraries all over the city. Compared with other cities in the US, New York has a lot of fashion stores too, and I stayed for one year after graduating and produced two collections there. Parsons is a great platform because you can see their graduate shows on Vogue Runway, and lots of stylists find designers through that — so after graduation I got lots of press requests from this. I’m hoping I can get back there soon, maybe next year.

    Speaking of travel, how was it being back in Paris on schedule, and can you tell us about the show?#

    It was so nice to be there, a real treat to travel and see some museums. When I got the LVMH prize, I got to spend more time in Paris. We were already here in March so this was our second season. We found this beautiful space and it was quite different from a catwalk. I could present a very different atmosphere. Visitors could walk in at any time, it was very intimate. This intimate relationship is our brand DNA and we want people to be close to the design; here, people could feel the designs and touch them. The performance was a collaboration with an artist who is my good friend. She also did my tattoo. We met years ago, she does everything but weaving is one of her favorite things. This show was about tension: being powerful, but also delicate and fragile.

    Pieces from Rui's Spring 2023 collection "Looking-Glass World," presented at Paris Fashion Week. Photo: Rui
    Pieces from Rui's Spring 2023 collection "Looking-Glass World," presented at Paris Fashion Week. Photo: Rui

    At the show, there were lots of Asian women wearing your designs, which some might find surprising. Who is your main customer?#

    Actually, a lot of European boutique stores prefer less revealing items, so it’s really about individual personal tastes and clients. I don’t think it’s about east or west. We sell well in LA and these cities with hot weather, or with customers who like layering — they want to be elegant but sexy. Also, many will choose to wear something to show the details say, under a jacket or suit but I prefer when they show the whole body and are more confident. That’s our concept.

    Do you think Chinese women face more pressure to conform to social expectations, and are you playing a role in making body diversity more acceptable?#

    Personally in Shanghai, I don’t feel any pressure to conform so I think it’s easier now to be less traditional. So, no. I probably have a role to play but a lot of people are trying to do these things, so it’s not only me. In Shanghai, we are more open about body diversity but it’s still more conservative for Asian girls in general. We try to celebrate it in our language so customers can celebrate their bodies more. I am always really happy to see people wearing our pieces on the street randomly here. It's the reason why I want to continue my brand.

    View post on Instagram

    Now that you are back in Shanghai, can you tell us about your setup there?#

    As it’s more cost-effective, I moved my production to China to build the team. I chose Shanghai as it's the most international city there and it's more stable to have a base there which is close to the factories. Including interns, I have around 10 people, including a sewer, a pattern-maker, and an assistant, and I go to Paris Fashion Week every season. We have an official website that can sell to customers directly, and if they want customized pieces we can negotiate on that. It’s not easy opening or running a brand during the pandemic but it’s really a good thing to see all these talented people creating their own aesthetics to show it to the world.

    But your concept is very unique, can you explain it?#

    Body confidence is our aim, for sure, but I’m all about doing what makes you become you: to embrace the things you experience, to embrace what you love. And to celebrate the imperfection of you. We have some KOLs who are helping to spread the word but we don’t want to limit our image. We want to embrace the diversity of everyone.

    So finally, are you too famous for Shanghai now, Rui? Are you prepared for the fame?#

    Haha! I think it's luck! It was a surprise and I didn’t realize I would launch my brand so soon after graduation, then all this press came out so fast that I wasn’t even ready to face it. It's all very unexpected. And I don’t know how to identify if I’m famous. It’s still too early to say that, and I don’t show my face much on social media. I feel like I need to learn a lot and get more experience in this industry. But I’m ready now. I want to grow fast and develop.

    Discover more
    Daily BriefAnalysis, news, and insights delivered to your inbox.