Ritual and tradition aren’t terms traditionally associated with sensuality, but designer Shawna Wu, inspired by both the romanticism of her Chinese heritage and the forward-looking aesthetics of her own vision, seamlessly manages to weave both in through her designs.
Since graduating from Parsons with a degree in Fashion Design back in 2017, Wu has released a celebrated ready-to-wear collection as her star steadily rises in the industry, with one of her designs most recently being featured on actress Lily-Rose Depp in the hit HBO show The Idol. Very much a student of the future, sustainable practices are embedded in her design ethos; Wu works primarily with discarded textile waste and natural fibres.
On top of that, Wu has worked closely with virtual influencers, and one can easily imagine her vibrant, multilayered pieces – at once complex and uncomplicated in the simplicity of their outlook – making a splash in the metaverse. Ahead, we get an inside look at Wu’s inspirations and get the 411 on what it’s like to dress all those celebrity clients.
Can you speak a little bit to how your identity and upbringing has shaped your design philosophy and your work?
I feel like art-making comes from intuition and intuition is shaped through lived experience – material language, aesthetic sensibility, etc. are the background scenery when I’m driving through my mind.
You’ve clearly drawn on your Chinese heritage when creating some of your pieces. I loved the Bound collection because I’m also deeply familiar with the Butterfly Lovers story from my childhood. What stuck out to you about that story in particular?
The idea of queerness, trans-ness, and that love can be found in each reincarnated lifetime. I love queered love and anything eternal.
Some motifs – such as the use of red and a Chinese butterfly knot – are direct allusions to Chinese culture. What other subtle ways have you worked to incorporate your heritage into your work? What does including these nods to your culture mean to you? Do you consciously seek to advocate for better representation of Asian designers through your work?
I don’t care to represent a category and the only thing I would want is for someone to be themselves. I do what comes naturally and I would hope everyone else does the same. I have respect for my heritage and upbringing and I am just trying to continue elaborating on the culture; it can evolve, but it won’t die.
You’ve worked with a variety of celebrity clients, Charli XCX and now Lily-Rose Depp for ‘The Idol.’ What’s been your most memorable look so far?
I loved both moments with Charli XCX and Lily-Rose Depp because I’m so happy to make Wilt textile dresses. I love how organic, meticulous, layered, and time-consuming the work that goes into [it] is and I find a lot of pleasure in things that take a long time. I loved reading comments about Charli’s look at the 2021 VMAs; some of them were trash-talking and I found them hilarious. I also loved dressing Tinashe in her music video for “X”. I can see the future because I love seeing choreo, fashion and body come together. I’ve been listening to Tinashe since [her] Soundcloud, “Dreams Are Real” days.
Take us through the creative process behind Lily-Rose’s piece. I know a lot of effort went into sourcing sustainable materials as well as the dexterity required to craft the piece itself. Do you have a starting point when it comes to the inspiration for your designs, i.e. finding the materials first? Or what do you want to do with them?
Those dresses are inspired by Chinese shan shui hua landscape paintings, the use of opacity and transparency, natural and organic forms, etc. I layer lace, wool, silk, sort of like ink, and create the composition according to how I am feeling. I love Chinese painters. Material-wise I called them Wilt textiles because they are a frozen moment of a wilting material landscape with so much textile pollution. Right at the moment just before everything dies and goes to waste, I salvaged the lace and made it something new.
Is there another celebrity you hope to work with in the future?
Bad gal RiRi!
This article was originally published in Harper’s Bazaar Singapore.