Meet the new wave of Chinese creatives championing sustainable design

    Emerging designers are redefining the ‘made in China’ label and exploring planet-friendly alternatives.
    Deyi is an ethical design studio rooted in ancestral Chinese wisdom preserving indigenous traditional craftsmanship. Photo: Deyi

    Home to e-commerce titans including Shein (which churns out 10,000 items daily) and Temu, and having exported the equivalent of $293.6 billion worth of textiles and clothing last year, it’s safe to say China doesn’t have the greatest reputation when it comes to sustainability in fashion.

    The challenge is huge. China’s textile industry is the world’s largest in terms of overall production, exports and retail, reports G&F Group Inc, with an output of 58 million tons a year in the fiber categories alone in 2023. According to Supply Chain Dive, at least 80 percent of global air freight cargo is believed to come from China's fast-fashion companies on some days, contributing to an estimated 12.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted annually from the mainland.

    View post on Instagram

    Organic and raw materials#

    “Sustainability is a fundamental responsibility for me. I think it should be a focal point for every designer, rather than just a marketing strategy,” 29-year-old Kinyam Lam, a London College of Fashion graduate and founder of his eponymous fashion label and natural dye studio, Genau Studio, tells Jing Daily.

    Located in Hong Kong’s Sai Kung district, Lam works with a variety of plants, vegetables, and medicinal herbs – including madder root, chestnuts, and avocados – to create a unique palette, which is applied to his garments.

    “Consumers today are more aware of these [eco-friendly] concepts, but environmentally friendly products in the market remain limited,” says Lam. “As designers, we have a responsibility when it comes to the role we play in manufacturing products.”

    Lam’s first collection, launched in 2020, was inspired by Dong cloth, a handmade fabric produced by the Dong people, a minority group based in Guizhou. The cloth is made by dyeing woven pieces of fabric using a mixture of indigo, rice wine, cowhide, and egg white, which then undergoes a three month process of immersion, beating, and steaming, before completion.

    View post on Instagram

    Upcycling and recycling#

    As around 92 million tonnes of textile waste is produced every year, working with existing materials was top of Chengdu-based Shie Lyu’s priorities. Founder of her namesake label, which has been in operation since 2020, the Parsons School of Design graduate’s futuristic garments are created using recycled fabrics, such as rubber tubes she sourced during her time at Parsons, and 3D techniques.

    Describing herself as an “engineer, or technophile rather than a fashion designer,” Lyu manipulates substances such as glycerine and seaweed to craft leather-like bio fabrics, as well as transforming dead-stock and flawed fabrics into wearable looks. These are rare skills that have helped put Lyu on the radar of some of fashion’s most esteemed brands.

    Last year, the designer teamed up with Stella McCartney as part of Vogue’s ‘creative swap’ initiative, which saw McCartney’s brand upcycle its archival pieces by blending them with garments from Lyu’s previous collections.

    View post on Instagram

    Age-old practices#

    For Deyi (徳逸), an ethical design studio inspired by Chinese wisdom and traditional craftsmanship, the preservation of age-old practices is etched into the brand’s ethos.

    “Our mission has always been to redefine the perception of ‘Made in China’,” co-founder Pauline Ferrières tells Jing Daily. Ferrières launched Deyi in 2019 alongside Adriana Cagigas and Chinese interior designer Zhang Xing, with the intention of building a network of local Chinese artisans from indigenous communities.

    “We’ve evolved beyond a mere design studio,” Ferrières says. “It has become an activist project dedicated to preserving Chinese indigenous craftsmanship and promoting sustainable living in harmony with the environment.”

    Today, the brand works in partnership with several craftspeople from the Guizhou province, whose skills encompassing pleated fabric, indigo dyeing, wax-resist printing, and embroidery are at risk of disappearing thanks to fast-fashion and mass consumption. For Ferrières, the work of the Deyi atelier represents more than the preservation of ancient crafts. “It's about safeguarding an entire culture, legacy, and identity,” she says.

    View post on Instagram


    Like Lyu, r.l.e, a London-based fashion label founded by Chinese designer and London College of Fashion graduate Qixin (Cici) Zhang in 2021, also takes a zero-waste approach to garment production.

    Zhang focuses on using raw materials and recycled fibers, including silk, linen, alpaca wool, and recycled nylon in her garments, with any surplus pattern paper and offcuts remade into brand labels and shopping bags. As for leftover fabrics, the extra material is cut and transformed into 3D yarns, which are later either woven or crocheted into accessories, shoes, and clothes.

    With more next-gen designers choosing to implement a continuous lifecycle in their manufacturing process, they also face making tough decisions when it comes to operating their brand. After debuting r.l.e at London Fashion Week for SS24, Zhang forewent the FW24 season in February to focus on refining her sustainable work cycle.

    Turning sustainable practices into commercially viable business models is a considerable task. But China’s emerging designers are ready to face the challenge head on, outpacing their luxury and fast fashion competitors in the process.

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