how Xiang Gao turns collage style into wearable art
Being away from her home country for a while, the designer behind the fashion brand Penultimate, XIANG GAO has a new & strong eye for her own background. Blending her Chinese heritage and American references, Gao brings her point of view to unique apparel pieces.
Xiang said that the feeling she wants to pass through her clothes is freedom, and working with strong materials like leather — a fabric that's so mutable, also gives her the freedom she needs to work her vision through it.
Gao speaks freely about how her experience with big brands improved her vision on design in an exclusive interview you can read below.
Her exclusive lookbook for Metcha, star-rising model Tin Gao, who happens to be the designer’s little sister.
How did your fashion journey begin & when did you cross paths with wearable art?
My family owns an apparel factory. My grandma makes her own clothes all the time. I grew up in an environment with a lot of fabrics, clothes, machines, but I never thought I would become a fashion designer. I studied painting since I was a kid, for like 15 years. When I was a teenager, in China, I was always in school uniform and barely got to discover the fashion world.
When I entered the China Academy of Art and had to decide my major, I picked fashion design without a second thought. Then I came to New York for Parsons MFA.
I discovered wearable art when I was at Calvin, at that time I was doing endless research about American fashion, and I saw artists like Kaisik Wong.
Your story has interesting chapters, like the work you've done with Telfar & Raf Simons' Calvin Klein. In what way has the wisdom you gained from those experiences influenced your designs for Penultimate?
The experience at Calvin Klein 205W39NYC and Telfar are totally different.
Telfar was my first job after graduating from Parsons, the first time I saw reality. It was a very small team, not the typical fashion company that I had imagined. It was very fresh to work with him and see how a small label works within limited resources but still expresses the idea at max.
Calvin is like another school for me, I saw so much great vintage, developments, techniques. The resource is amazing. It has a big team, experienced people, a proper atelier, and a proper working system. But it was also a crazy amount of work and complicated in some way.
Both had their own excitement and difficulties. After all, what I learned the most is that I need to build Penultimate in the way that I feel right, and work with people I‘m into.
If Penultimate had an abstract, we feel it would focus on innovative shapes & artful perspectives. Why did you choose to combine functional silhouettes with this never-before-seen fine art approach to fashion?
I wasn’t thinking fine art approach, I want to make something that people will be interested to try it on. It is more about individuality and craftsmanship. I‘m really into wearable art, the '70s movement, Kaisik Wong because of their spirit, of how people express themselves and make it into clothes. I want to make clothes to be worn. The silhouette is what I see every day in New York.
Being a Chinese immigrant in America, you have somewhat opposite inspirations. In what way does this crossover of cultures help you build Penultimate's story?
As a Chinese immigrant in America, maybe I have a different perspective. At Calvin, I had to look into American culture because of my job, then people found it interesting, but I was doing it by instinct without much understanding or knowledge.
At the same time, I've been away from my own country for a long time, I guess now I also have a fresh eye to look at my own culture too, I discovered even more while being aboard.
Let’s say, I feel like digging in both sides from another perspective, like an outsider.
You work your collections like they are chapters of this overall magical & surreal tale. What emotions do you hope to provoke with them?
To be free.
We would like to shine a light on materials now, since they are big characters in your fashion tales. How does leather enrich the storytelling behind your collections?
I’m a knitwear designer. When I decided to do Penultimate, I also wanted to bring something else as a key element with knits. Leather is like yarn, it can be crafted in so many different ways, but at the same time, leather has a totally opposite texture. I often get inspiration from stories, creatures, nature.
"Leather has such a strong feel, meaning, and craftsmanship behind it that is unique, different from other materials and fabrics. It totally works with the vision and elevates it."
In your production process, how do you take advantage of the endless possibilities of leather craftsmanship?
My working process is always very hands-on. I have a brief idea of what craft I want to focus on at the beginning of each season. Then, I start sketching, after the sketch is done, I will rethink each style and details, how to make it real. During this process, I could really look into craftsmanship and materials.
"Because there are so many possibilities with leather, just 1 pattern could be done by leather paint, curve, cut out, or mix with other materials. There's a lot of freedom, and everything comes together during the making process."
Do you think the feel of leather is also a tool for you to tell stories of your own ancestry?
For me, leather is an ancient and precious material. In Chinese costume drama, the empress often gets a winter cape as a gift, made out of mink fur from some snow mountain, or that the emperor hunted it himself. This is how precious materials show the relationship between people. For me, it is like that for clothes too.
And, if you could choose, what kind of client, brand, or even artist would you like to connect with the stories you create, to a point where they'd want to be a part of it?
Each season, I try to work with people that I think are really cool, to enrich the image and be more dynamic.
For SS20, we did our lookbook in Paris, with Rottingdean Bazaar, from London, as art director and stylist, and Jacques Habbah as photographer, who was the lookbook photographer for Margiela in the '90s.
For AW20, we collaborated with New York-based performance artist and sculptor David Henry Brown Jr. He was the art director and model, together with designer Ryohei Kawanishi as stylist.
I wish to come across and work with more people in the future, it is always a lot of fun.
With her different reference sources, XIANG GAO blends with perfection the best of her two stories and mysterious, artistic clothes — find more by tapping here.
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