The air was still warm when I flew with my family to Xiamen, on the southeastern coast of China, to visit Ian, Min and their baby son Lucien. On the way there I was thinking about the garments that I own, and that Min and Ian have made. There’s the winter coat that wraps around my body like a bathrobe. A pair of white trousers with an elasticated waist that I wore so many times when expecting my own baby daughter that the hems have grown permanently grubby. And the qipao-like blouse and dress hanging in my wardrobe right now waiting for a party, any party. The life of each of these garments once began here, in a small island factory. Someone drew them, someone cut them, someone sewed them, someone stitched ‘Ms Min’ into their collar or seam. Then how many steps more before that coat, or dress, or blouse, ended up in my own wardrobe slowly accumulating all the marks and stains of everyday use? When does the life of a garment begin, and when does it end?
Min Liu: I’m lucky I guess. I never really had to think about how to sell my clothes. In the beginning I sold online and clients got in touch with me directly, and then eventually someone from Lane Crawford asked for a meeting so I took a rack of clothes with me and flew to Shanghai. And now Ian is responsible for the sales. I know I’m fortunate, because I’m really not good at talking about my work. Even in fashion school I could never do that part well. I have the feeling that if you talk too much about the meaning of something, some of that meaning slips away. Also, I’ve gone through so many interviews with questions about China and Chinese design. It gets tiring. I used to hate being grouped together with other Chinese designers in the ‘China column’ in some Western magazine. But I don’t take it personally anymore. People will always stereotype others. I can’t change that. My feelings can’t be stereotyped though, and as long as I can grow and evolve and avoid feeling trapped by those stereotypes, it’s okay. The way I look at it is, I don’t need to separate from my roots, nor do I need my roots to define me.
Ian Hylton: Min always says that fashion has no flag. As a company, as designers or as a couple we don’t define ourselves by being Chinese. Nationality might be important as you become known – think of the Japanese or the Belgians – but as time goes on you’re just another designer. I joined the company four years ago, and one of the first things I did was to go on a sort of grand tour to introduce the Western market to the brand. I took a collection of my favourite things with me and went to London, New York, Paris and Milan to meet with agents, stylists and other people in my network to get a sense of how the industry would respond. Ms Min was still only sold at Lane Crawford in Shanghai then, but we felt quite sure the company was ready to blow. What I did before Ms Min? Oh, I was at Ports for years. Min and I had been dreaming about working together, but it took some time before we felt ready.
Min: You’re talking about ‘the dream’ of working together. But then our dream became our nightmare. [Laughs]
Ian: True. [Laughs] It was really tough at first. The dynamics we’d established as a couple went out the window.
Min: Going back to the point we made earlier, I mean, what does ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Made in France’ actually signify today? What does it mean when a brand can make their garments in China, then ship them back to Europe, add a detail and sew a ‘Made in Italy’ label into the collar? Where is the integrity in that? Part of our work has inevitably become to show that ‘Made in China’ obviously isn’t synonymous with sweatshop labour anymore.
Ian: We’re well aware that we’re educating the market. Do you know how often I get asked by Europeans or Americans, ‘Are you actually going to deliver this quality? This is what the bulk will look like?’ I get it. Many companies make gorgeous samples, only for the bulk to be much worse. But still. It gets tiring. I remember talking to an agent in New York. He told me, ‘A luxury brand from China? I just don’t see it.’ Later I met him in person; he came to see the clothes. He walked around, looked at everything and didn’t say a word. Total silence: I didn’t know what to think. Then he turned and said, ‘This is absolutely brilliant. I take back everything I said before about Made in China.’ That was four years ago. But we still have to deal with the industry’s prejudice. I remember getting in touch with an Italian agent, and before she agreed to meet she said, ‘That house on your Instagram – is it yours?’ I told her it was. ‘Okay, we can talk.’ [Laughs] What a snob.
Min: ‘Educating the market’ is more of an Ian term. I’d say that time proves everything. For me success lies in longevity and sustainability. Over time, if your work is consistently good, people come around.
Ian: But think about it for a second sweetie. Not just in terms of East versus West but also within China. We’re constantly educating the market: about fabric, about trim. Nàme guì. We hear that often – so expensive! So we have to explain the attention to detail that goes into every design and every garment. We go to the front line – to the sales staff – to educate them about the brand. The front line never gets enough attention. Every single account we have, we organise a breakfast or lunch for the floor staff so we can explain who we are and what we stand for, and why the price is what it is.
Min: That makes me think of the first expensive garment I ever bought: a Miu Miu sweater. I still wear it. I bought it the first time I went to London, at the Miu Miu boutique on Bond Street. I just saw it and immediately wanted it. They only had a size 40 and it was the last piece. I’m a 36 but I had to have it. So I bought it, and then felt totally guilty because of how expensive it was. But imagine – I’ve worn it for sixteen years now. I remember my student days in London so well. I was scared of Selfridges; it seemed like a monster to me. [Laughs]
Ian: My first expensive piece was a Jean Paul Gaultier blazer. I stalked it. I remember seeing it in the window at the start of the season at this store in Toronto and thinking, ‘This is the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen.’ I get emotional just thinking about it. It was a peak lapel double breasted jacket, and it had pleats, tuxedo pleats, on the body. It was for dreaming. Whatever happened to it? I guess I must have handed it down to somebody; it’s what I usually do. I love giving things away. Actually, the life of a garment is so important – what happens to it after it leaves the store? We always talk about that. There’s a story I sometimes tell my team: I get up in the morning but I don’t feel great. You know those days? Well I shower and go get dressed, but nothing feels right. I feel fat today; nothing fits right. Finally I get to a shirt that I like the way I look in. It’s the right amount of cool and I don’t feel fat in it. It’s Sacai. The second I get in the car with my driver I get on my phone and start looking for other Sacai pieces to buy because I want to feel like this again. That’s how it works. It’s that simple. Our customers are constantly telling us stories about what they did while wearing something of ours. Where they went, how they felt. I was at a clinic in Miami recently – don’t ask me why – and this woman told me, ‘Whenever I wear one of your dresses, I feel like a goddess.’ And I know she looks good wearing that dress, because she feels good in it. And she feels good because of the attention Min puts into the lightness of the fabric: the fact that it isn’t hemmed but silk bound and that it has an edge that’s light and moves, that the shoulder slips ever so slightly so it could be on the shoulder, or off the shoulder. The fact that if she’s having a fat day, she can wear it loose, and otherwise she can pull it tight with a belt. Oh, you don’t think women talk about ‘fat days’ anymore? Maybe I’m bringing too much of my old life into this; being on the shop floor and listening to how women talk about themselves. I spent so many years on the floor you know. I love the floor. After all, what moment is more crucial to the life of a garment?
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s editor-in-chief and founder.