“[I’ve come to] appreciate tradition in terms of craft making, but with more radicalised values,” quips Shawna Wu, when asked about her cultural identity and how that ties in to her craft. The rising designer was born in Taiwan, raised in Singapore and is currently based in Brooklyn, New York where she has since created a space she can call her own within the fashion zeitgeist.
Wu’s design philosophy intertwines her heritage and culture with themes of desire and sensuality, a seemingly disparate connection formed through exploration of traditional textile-making techniques and rituals. Her Bound collection experimented with Chinese butterfly knots, while her latest work is hand-knotted and beaded with jade. With Wu, a legacy of long-lost textile vocabularies is continued, trailblazing a rich material culture where her own radical values breathes new life into tradition.
Her thoughtful and innovation designs have caught the eyes of Hollywood, as spotted on the likes of Kylie Jenner, Charli XCX and most recently, Lily-Rose Depp on HBO’s The Idol. While some may see global recognition as a turning point for their label, Wu is committed to preserving her Chinese heritage. Her next steps? Exploration of traditional techniques beyond fashion. “I’d like to make all forms—garments, home objects, one off art pieces,” muses Wu.
Here, the designer shares with Vogue Singapore on the meaning of material culture, creative process behind her recent projects and her next vision for Shawna Wu.
Your work tends to touch on the theme of community. What does community mean to you?
Community is expansive family, community is looking at inner truths and holding space for them, community is care and acceptance. Community is a life giving force.
Your recent pieces incorporate jade. Could you tell us more about the symbolism and meaning behind these designs?
Jade is a protective stone, and jade carving is a genre that has been ongoing in Eastern culture for centuries. The level of skill, craft and artistry has to be appreciated. We see so many things like rhinestone, chain and charm bikinis, and I just wanted to make a “jade” bikini. It just feels right to me.
Your brand ethos is built on working towards a rich material culture. What sparked this desire for such culture, and what is material culture to you?
Material culture is really influential to our subconscious and telling of our values. Massive brands often make decisions for us in what materials we use, and I just want more mindfulness with the objects that compose my everyday, particularly things as intimate as worn objects.
Material culture speaks of stories embedded and told through objects and in your instance, textiles. How have your personal cultural views, experiences and values influenced your work?
I care about decolonised beauty. Non-Eurocentric aesthetic languages exist outside of the ‘exotic’ and ‘other’, and my innate language speaks to that with the materials and techniques I use. I’ve undressed a lot of the things that are conditioned into us because we live in a world that has historically been colonised.
Queer dressing is also an anti-colonial practice as it offers an alternative to non-normative bodies which would be made to submit themselves to colonial standards of beauty. It’s about giving new imaginative repertoire, new forms and stylings, so people can imagine their bodies looking and interacting with the world expansively. My lace lingerie styles that feature matching bra and panty sets with flat and pouch cut options address an unmet need for people who seek more inclusive feminine lingerie options. I am surprised that when I tried to look for it, no one had really done it.
How has tradition and culture played a role in building your design philosophy?
There are so many rich and meaningful ideas, skills, techniques that millions of people have honed over thousands of years and I am just another person spinning on another part of the broader web that will extend way beyond me and my lifetime. All things evolve so I pay my respects to the legacy, artistry and knowledge that has been built but make my touches on what I want to change in terms of including more radical forms of beauty.
Are there any other forgotten traditional Chinese techniques that you are interested in and would like to explore further?
Traditional wood carving and metalworking reimagined through 3D modelling and textiles, which are coming soon in my collaboration with 3D artist Radimir.