Calvin Luo: the New School's Sensible Romantic

Since launching his label in 2014, Chinese designer Calvin Luo has garnered much attention. In part due to his skilled exploration of couture techniques and what's been described as "a sophistication beyond his years", Luo's collections and shows have also been noteworthy in that - while aesthetically modern - they feel classic in their cohesiveness, often driven by narrative. Frequently appropriating period tropes and tastefully bringing them into his visual universe, the young designer's previous collections have been respectively inspired by fifties Americana, mid-seventies bohemian counterculture, an early nineties New York, and more recently, a contemporary Paris, which echoed Woody Allen's ode to The City of Lights.

 

Like many of his fellow designers, he and his team were forced to adjust the planning and scheduling of his F/W 2020 collection due to the onset of COVID-19 in China, namely by cancelling his show during Paris Fashion Week. Luo, however, didn't just adapt logistically, by, for instance, presenting his Womenswear collection virtually in the form of a digital fitting, minimal lookbook, but audaciously revisited his priorities as a designer. While working on the collection in December, the designer - who directly drew inspiration from conversations he carried with "10 women representing modern traditionalism and diversity" - opted to focus on functionality and, doing away with some of the flares from previous collections, on what's essential.

 

As the pandemic and other ongoing societal issues continue to severely affect the fashion industry, impacting everything from production to distribution, Luo kindly took the time to talk to us about his collection, how it reflects current times, his fascination with strong women, and some of the challenges that lie ahead.

 

This collection was inspired by strong women - beyond the general definition and symbolism of that strength, are there any particular women you used as a reference or thought of during your creation process, historically or personally?

 

My collections are typical of the narrative ilk; stories of strong women, using time and space vignettes to emphasize a stylistic approach. I wanted this collection to adhere to brand DNA but be set in the present. As I began work on this collection, I conducted interviews with women of all strokes: journalists, influencers, lawyers, asking each what she wanted from her wardrobe during these difficult times. The collection title – 10 Women – is a nod to a French movie I love by Francois Ozon called 8 Women, a representation of womanhood diversity. The strength refers to a kind of inner spirit – Independence, Creativity, Determination, Patience, Dedication - concealed behind a glamorous demeanour, adorned in femininity. I had always had a fascination for French women and been particularly observant for the past couple of seasons when I started showing on the official Paris calendar. Isabelle Huppert, Beatrice Dalle, Juliette Binoche, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Carine Roitfeld are the creative forces this season.

 

Elevated sewing and hand-knitting technique are at play in many of these pieces, which in turn convey attention to tremendous detail and the desire to use sophisticated artisan methods. As a designer, what draws you to use such craftsmanship?

 

Couture shapes and techniques are always on display in my collections to give them eclecticism. I love combining many different elements, even when some appear in opposition to each other. While the silhouettes of this collection are very modern and clean, I used manual craftmanship to elevate each garment. Dramatic full skirts and braiding details appear but are used more sparingly than before. Feathers still show up in boa accessories and headpieces but, by stripping away the excess, feel right for this moment.

 

Part of what resulted in this series is a dialogue you carried with a group of women? Can you tell us more about what led to that narrative-driven approach, how the process went about, and in what way this played a crucial role in creating this collection?

 

These are unprecedented times, and the impact is global. I felt it was essential to reach out and listen, rather than impose my vision this season. I heard the essence; health and comfort as priorities, fewer opportunities to be social; a downturn in business impacting the economy and lower budgets to shop. With these new realities in mind, I focused on functionality and pragmatism for Fall/Winter 2020. It was very clear to me that it was not the time for an exuberant collection. I decided to design a collection which fits this moment.

 

Some of the pieces include this empty space, these unexpected and striking geometrical cut-out areas (which somehow immediately took me back to my childhood school days when we did similar cut-outs with paper, these Kirigami type exercises). How did you come to include those details?

 

It does look like Kirigami. The cut-out details were initially the result of functional improvements. Many of the garments are multipurpose; most of the outerwear converts into gilets or waistcoats. Knitwear is trompe l'oeil, with twinsets actually made as a single garment. It trickled down in the collection to create the empty spaces looking like Kirigami.

 

Many of these looks are classic, yet modern and affirmative. They're womanly and strong, not unlike some of what defined some of the more fashion-forward forms of 'power dressing'. Is it fair to make that abstract connection?

 

Power dressing was "borrowed" from men to assert strength. I aim to create garments that give women a sense of power in their femininity. With a clear statement that womanhood is the superpower.

 

By way of an unexpected pandemic, we're globally going through challenging and unprecedented historical moment, which I imagine has been affecting you personally, but also creatively. As a designer, has it changed - or will it change - how you view, plan, execute, or present your work?

 

The harsh reality for many independent designers, as well as for big brands, is that survival is in front of mind at the moment. While creative honesty and integrity are as relevant now than ever, it is primordial to listen to your market and be able to make fast and accurate adjustments. Now is a time to conduct business with an open mind and consider innovative strategies in both communication and commercialization. We are already seeing apparent and accelerated changes in how brands are communicating and selling. Covid-19 has already changed fashion, and it is only the beginning.

 

The look book, for instance, was refreshing to the point; stripped down to negative space, slick and basic. How did that creative choice come about?

 

The same way I decided to design a collection which fits the moment, it was necessary to showcase it similarly. Simplicity and truthfulness were obvious choices.

 

You mention using new standards to tell the stories of diverse, free and unrestrained women. Why do you consider new measures are necessary?

 

They are essential and relevant to the emerging reality. While I always celebrated diversity, we are going through something that ties us all together as humans. New standards unite us culturally and environmentally.

 

As a young designer - which arguably gives you a vantage point, a fresher outlook, and the capacity to adapt and change as needed - how do you feel about the future of fashion given some of the inevitable challenges and changes that lie ahead?

 

The impact of the Covid-19 virus is vast and global. It has had a Domino effect that has everyone going out of their comfort zone to thrive. In the past months, my brand has gone through much internal change. We are working with lead E-Commerce Alibaba to create our own e-shop on their platform, opened our official TikTok and Little Red Book accounts and plan to further diversify our social media presence. These actions prioritize and accelerate our B2C strategies. B2B operations and campaigns, such as shows and publicity, might have to take a back seat for the time being in support of a healthy business.

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