It is one of life’s finely tuned ironies that the bedroom should be both a girl’s first sanctuary and her first prison. Madeline Hing, 20, knows this well. Two years ago—on a pandemic-mandated gap year—she found herself fresh out of school with nowhere to go and began to fidget with yarn. With one whim, a switch was flipped. The room took on the gaiety so friendly to that shy and illusive spirit—the imagination—and sent her fingers flying. Within months, she had picked up knitting, crochet, weaving and felting. The brand was by-the-by. “I just wanted to document the stuff I made [on Instagram],” she says, expression unruffled, “then people started asking if I was selling.”
Hing’s accidental label is ssdslsns, stocked at zeitgeisty retailer APOC, indie cousin to Dover Street Market. The gibberish name reflects the happenstance of its birth. “The name is not meant to be pronounced,” instructs Hing. “I just replaced the first letter and vowels of my name with the letter ‘s’.” Her early creations were more experiment than product—like a net she crocheted out of her hair or a ‘sweater’ riddled with cutouts—but even then her sensibility was distinct. Inherent in her work is a delicate grittiness and a mangy charm. Her dramatically threadbare tops feel raw in a pretty way. In her ‘four flowers’ piece, the garment emerges from four crocheted flowers—one at the chest, two at the sides and the last hovering about the hips—loosely linked by frayed straps, the back is nothing more than two wispy threads tied into bows. Her ‘handle with love’ top could be mistaken for a doily and her most conservative offering is the ‘hold me’ top, constructed out of woolly socks scrunched and sewn together—it leaves much of the midriff exposed. Miraculously, they are flattering when worn; a ragged grey number, sported by Mae Tan, sits on her body like a precise web, its thin scraps of fabric somehow protecting her modesty.
The fairy-like grunge of her catalogue has attracted international attention. An arm-sleeve was picked up by Hanni of K-pop girl group NewJeans and her clothes have been featured in i-D Japan. But Hing is humble. “I don’t consider myself a designer. What I do is,” she pauses as she fishes for the right word, “make.” About her process, she is curt, reducing the labour into a bare sequence of sketching, selecting materials and simple “making”. She doesn’t mention the research that goes into each step nor the trial and error so essential to the choice of material, and the difficulty of spinning her own wool and dyeing her own cotton is similarly effaced. One gets the sense that creating comes as naturally to her as living.
The same feeling surfaces in her room and work space, a dorm in Hangzhou where she is a student at the China Academy of Art. “There is no separation between where I sleep, eat and work. I love that there are no boundaries,” she says. Her favourite corner is her desk. The wall behind it is plastered with old letters, illustrations, a wire netting labelled ‘Lovers’ knot’ and a pale green Post-it with feverish scribbles that spell out a list of unusual words: ephemeral, incandescent, labyrinth, paladin and epoch. Art debris clutters the table and a lone mannequin poses beside it, swathed in toile. It is a mise en scène of girlish fancy and what Hing calls her brain dump. “It’s everything that inspires me at the moment,” she says. “I hope to fill up the entire wall one day, so when I look up it’s just this visual collage of possibilities.”
The disparate threads of her inspiration are all but inscrutable to an outsider, though it peeks out in the thematic concerns of her work. Long strolls around gardens gave rise to the floral motif of her ‘guarded heart’ bag. A recent obsession with the Chinese heist movie Crazy Stone resulted in a top that vaguely resembles a balaclava. She is a diligent collector of impressions and it shows in the found objects frequently incorporated into her pieces; a pre-loved pendant dangles down the side of a wool skirt, fallen buttons adorn an underwear set.
In a final surprising admission, she confesses to being too timid for her clothes. “I don’t dare to wear my clothes,” she says, slightly sheepish. Her daily style tends toward boyish and baggy, “streetwear, mostly”, she says. “It’s a First World problem but I am too self-conscious. My clothes are a little out there.” The dissonance does not strike her as strange. Fashion, as she puts it, is more than the clothes we wear. “Fashion is art,” she says solemnly. “It should make you feel something.” Suddenly inspired, she declares: “If you think about it, what we wear is the first creative choice we make in the day. Clothes speak when we don’t.” What, then, does she hope her clothes say? She pauses for a long time before answering: “I hope they convey courage.”