Designer Min Liu on how the high-pressure business cycle affects the art of fashion
While Chinese fashion enthusiasts have been having a love affair with European luxury labels for years, there's a new wave of young Chinese designers who have started vying for attention, and some are meeting with great success. Min Liu is a Chinese-born design talent who studied her craft at the London College of Art, and unlike so many other aspiring young designers, returned home when it came time to make her mark.
Eager to assert her bold yet romantic and feminine aesthetic, Liu launched Ms. Min, her sophisticated women's wear label, in 2010, after a stint designing for Xiamen-based Ports, the famed international brand that was founded in Canada in 1961. It was at Ports that Liu met the man and mentor who was to become her husband, Canadian fashion industry dynamo Ian Hylton. Hylton, who'd been designing men's wear for Ports, and previously worked at Club Monaco, Flare Magazine and Holt Renfrew, to name a few, before moving to China, has long been considered a savvy brand strategist.
Hylton left Ports in 2014 to become president of Ms. Min, and it's proven to been a match made in fashion heaven. Besides being embraced by international luxury retailers, such as China's Lane Crawford and Saks Fifth Avenue in the U.S., Ms. Min is now available at The Room at Hudson's Bay in Canada. And the brand's awareness just keeps growing: Most recently, M.A.C Cosmetics collaborated with Ms. Min for an innovative, Chinese-themed make-up collection.
I spoke with Liu from her studio in Xiamen about the advent of Chinese fashion labels and her artful approach to design.
Most young fashion talents have their sights on designing in London, Paris, Milan or New York. How unique does it feel for you to be designing out of China?
After I finished school, I interned in Amsterdam. I wanted to stay in Europe, but the timing wasn't right because the year that I finished school was the time of the economic crisis, so a lot of people got laid off anyway. I came back to China in 2009. I was thinking, "I'll just go back to China for now," and then I got a job offer from Ports. That's why I came to Xiamen, where we are based now. Then I started my own brand and met my husband. It just happened all organically.
I'm not sure if you feel you're approaching your work as an artist, but you certainly have that consciousness. How does it feel for you to be working in this high-pressure system?
I think art is the most important thing. Otherwise it means nothing. Fashion is a high-pressure system because of this fast pace. I always talk about this with Ian. I think this pace is really killing the art somehow. But everything about life is to find the balance and I'm constantly looking for that. I consider fashion to be a daily art. At the end of the day, we are trying to make something good for people to wear, trying to bring something to people. So it is about finding the balance.
When you talk about fashion as a "daily art," are you talking in terms of what the designer puts out there or what the consumer chooses and how they put it together?
Yes, it's the way they choose clothes – how they feel; how they achieve that beautiful feeling and beautiful look. That's the art from the bottom of their heart.
Chinese Fashion Week has been getting more attention recently. Are Chinese fashion enthusiasts eager to support Chinese labels, or are they looking towards the West all the time?
I feel it's evolving. Years ago, people always talked about foreign brands, and there was confusion when it came to foreign, famous brands. It's almost as though people were thinking that everything foreign was good. But over the years, as the economy grew, a lot of international brands launched in China, and people started to travel a lot more. So they've had a quick fashion education. People used to mostly buy big brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, but slowly, fashion attitudes have started to open up and, in recent years, Chinese people are more and more open to supporting Chinese designers.
Your husband, Ian Hylton, is a seasoned pro, and has been a vital part of our own Canadian fashion evolution. What did you learn about fashion from Ian?
We're life partners and we are working partners. It's magic that we share the same interests. Workwise, Ian really taught me what it takes to build a brand, to build a dream team, and how to approach that. He has a vision and, also, he's had so many wonderful experiences in the fashion field.
How did this latest collaboration with M.A.C Cosmetics happen?
It started three years ago. Back then, our team was way smaller, and we were only selling in China. And because M.A.C always collaborates with different artists and designers, I guess they were brainstorming about who their next designer collaboration would be with. Apparently, two girls from M.A.C's creative team recommended me in the meeting to creative director James Gager. He immediately liked our brand and that was the start. It was a true collaboration in every sense. Collaborations are always a challenge and it was my first time designing cosmetics. I learned a lot just from the initial idea.
How did your parents inspire you? Did they encourage you to follow a path in fashion?
I was born in 1981 in a Chinese city with a long history, but it's not a cosmopolitan city like Beijing or Shanghai. Back then, China just opened up and while there wasn't a lot of fashion around me, my mom loves clothes. So I grew up going to fabric shops and tailor shops with her. When I was maybe eight or nine, I just found myself interested in clothes. I remember my mom going to this clothes trading fair, which came from Shanghai. I remember looking at clothes and thinking, "This is good!" Or "This one's not so good." I remember building up a sense of aesthetics around that age. When I became a teenager, I had my first fashion moment: One day, I was cycling around and found a bookstore that sold a lot of outdated foreign magazines. That was the first time I saw international fashion magazines and the first time I read Vogue and i-D. I remember those first images that hit me. It was some campaign of Vivienne Westwood and Helmut Lang. At that moment, I just held my breath and thought, "Oh my God! This is why I love clothes!" I remember there being some article about Camden Town in London…and about a lot of vintage shops being there. I started thinking I had to go there to study fashion. I'm very lucky because my father has always been so supportive of my dreams. And so, I went to London to study fashion.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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