Shushu/Tong: The effusively girlish Chinese label that maaaay owe its existence to Japanese manga series Cardcaptor Sakura
Fairy tales, maho shojo (magical girl) manga, cable television model scout/makeover shows, and high fashion; a common feature of all these cultural phenomena is the transformation of young girls into extraordinary women. And it's this quasi-mythical phase between childhood and adulthood which anchors the DNA of Shushu/Tong, one of China's hottest fashion exports of recent years.
Founded by London College of Fashion grads Yutong Jiang and Liushu Lei in 2015, the girly-chic brand has swiftly racked up a list of blue-chip stockists including Dover Street Market, Browns, Lane Crawford and Ssense, as well as an impressive press portfolio bursting with both indie and establishment names. The spring 2019 season saw the brand's runway debut at Shanghai Fashion Week, cementing Jiang and Lei's 'ones-to-watch' credentials.
In town for the launch of their SS19 line at Dover Street Market Singapore, we had the privilege of chatting to the Shushu/Tong duo about everything from the many deceptions of Project Runway to becoming Microsoft Office wizards and the stigma of 'Made in China'.
Do either of you remember the first time you felt very strongly about clothing?
Liushu Lei (LL): I originally intended to become a cartoonist. I sketched a lot at home, and slowly discovered that what I really enjoyed was drawing clothes, not people. I'd spend hours just thinking about outfits, and so decided to change my goals. The anime adaptation of Cardcaptor Sakura was a big deal for me! When she was in battle mode, she wore lots of ruffles and poufy dresses. I think her influence on my work is pretty obvious.
Yutong Jiang (YJ): I was also into Cardcaptor Sakura, as well as manga like Nana. There was always a fancy-dress element in those stories which fascinated me.
So how did you take those hobbies and turn them into a fashion career?
LL: It's a little cliché. I found that I had more interest in clothes than in cartooning when I was in my third year of high school. At the time everyone was watching Project Runway, and that show gave everyone, myself included, the false perception that making clothes is really easy. All the contestants cut their patterns and made complete garments within a day. Everything was so instant, which was so exciting. I thought: "I like to draw clothes, I should go to fashion school and learn how to make them.". I was so wrong — it was all a lie. There's no such thing as a garment that's 'easy to make'.
What was your university experience like?
LL: I did my BA at Donghua University in Shanghai, then attended the MA program at the London College of Fashion, which was an eye-opener. Frankly speaking, China has a very short history of fashion education, so it made a huge difference to study in a city like London, where the industry is very developed. What Donghua University gave me, however, was a lot of free time. I did lots of part-time work as a styling assistant with Tong Tong. We worked for different stylists and magazines, and between us we covered almost all of the major publications in Shanghai, including Vogue — which is based in Beijing but occasionally shoots in Shanghai. It gave us a lot of access to beautiful clothes.
Shushu/Tong is very well known for its feminine designs, which are usually covered in rufffles and bows, or borrow from visuals like schoolgirl uniforms. Womanhood is a such a diverse experience. What does it mean for each of you personally?
YJ: I feel like I have stronger connection to girlhood than womanhood. My expressions of femininity are more girly, like bows and ruffles. Bow and ruffles, to me, signify the magical transition from girlhood to womanhood. It's an intriguing stage of life.
LL: For me, femininity is just a state of being yourself. We try on all of our designs. We both really like shopping, and instinctively know when something works, or if it's authentic. So every Shushu/Tong garment, from fit to finish, is tried and tested by us. Feminine details like ruffles and gingham are everywhere — so many designers use them. They're universal and timeless, but everyone brings their personal touch to the table.
Apart from trying on your designs, is there another benchmark by which you gauge the authenticity of a piece you've made?
LL: We always try to make our stuff more than just girly clothing. It has to be more... We don't want things too ladylike or straightforwardly sweet. It needs a little twist, something like a raw edge, that makes all the difference.
Speaking about things that are not straightforward, there's a lot of talk in fashion right now about gender neutrality, or taking things that are either considered very masculine or very feminine, and de-gendering them. Where do you see Shushu/Tong's work fitting in that conversation, if at all?
LL: Shushu/Tong definitely belongs to the girly world, and we actually don't pay much attention to what everyone in fashion's talking about. We just want to get better at expressing ourselves, and to keep improving on finishing, quality and design. That's what we're focusing on now, because we're still a small brand, which gives us a lot of freedom to just do whatever we want to. Most pressure we feel originates from ourselves, we do have external pressures but nowhere near the scale of the big brands. They have to answer to a lot of investors, while we prioritise exploring our creative interests.
Is there anything about starting and running a business that you couldn't have imagined when you first decided to launch Shushu/Tong?
LL: Oh, plenty! Our educations only taught us how to design. Production-related work, like communicating with factories, was completely foreign to us, as were things like filing taxes. I recall that our first time applying for an export license was so challenging.
YJ: I never expected to become a master at Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint.
What were the formative lessons you guys took from your time as students and interns?
LL: Interning for Simone Rocha was incredibly valuable. Unlike other studios that you always hear unpleasant rumours about, at Simone's everyone was so happy and friendly. It was a nice environment to work in. That workplace culture is something I've tried to replicate at the Shushu/Tong studio. I think it's important to retain good people. I'm not a bitchy boss.
What has been the most surprising moment of your career thus far? What wouldn't your childhood self have believed?
LL: I wasn't the sort of kid who had a plan for everything. It all just happened, step by step.
So you really had no expectations?
LL: I will say that when I first returned to China, I had plans to found a brand of my own. Partnering with Tong Tong was an unexpected, but nice, surprise.
You guys are incredibly close: you came of age together, studied together, lived together and now run a company together. What is your working relationship like?
LL: When we were flatmates in London and attending the same school, we found out that we sometimes had the same thoughts and ideas simultaneously, without ever having discussed them with each other. There were times when we'd bicker over who had an idea first and had the right to use it (laughs). So now we just share everything with each other.
Are there no major differences between you as designers? Are you guys just always super in sync?
LL: No, we have arguments all the time. But because we're friends and have known each other for so long, we've learned to keep our personal and work lives separate. Even if I disagree with Tong Tong, I try not to take anything personally. It was a little difficult in the beginning, but we adapted. The most important thing is to be honest with each other.
What do you think is the best quality that your partner brings out in you?
LL: Like I said, I've never been the most plan-oriented person. Tong Tong, on the other hand, is more strategic and practical. I'm not always vigilant when it comes to cashflow, and that's something I continue to pick up from her.
YJ: We have different strengths but we're both very dedicated to the business, and we share a pretty similar aesthetic.
There is a lot of talk about Chinese designers, Chinese creativity, and the way the West perceives China. Obviously there was the whole Dolce & Gabbana brouhaha late last year as well. When it comes to Chinese consumers and/or Chinese designers, what is one misconception you wish you could change?
LL: In general, most people assume clothing by Chinese designers should be cheaper. It's really weird. Buyers never ask us where we produce, but when I first went to Paris for wholesale appointments, I was very worried, because I didn't know how they would respond to 'Made in China'. As in, some of our fabrics are sourced from Japan, but our stuff is 100% made in China.
As a young designer producing small quantities, your bargaining position with fabric mills and factories isn't great. We don't benefit from economies of scale. I've read some articles expressing surprise that Chinese designer goods are more expensive than most people expect. But you know, I think those perceptions are kind of reductive; your price point is also a statement of intention, about the level you want to play at. I wish people gave Chinese designers more respect. We use nice fabrics and good factories too, so why shouldn't we be priced the same?
What book should everyone read before they die?
LL: I'm currently reading Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, so probably that.
What song should everyone listen to before they die?
LL: Red Bean by Faye Wong.
What film should everyone see before they die?
LL: Any Harry Potter film, though my favourite is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
What artwork should everyone experience before they die?
LL: Georgia O'Keeffe's flowers.
What internet phenomenon deserves a place in the history books?
LL: I can think of several things, but the one that sticks out in my head is Dolce & Gabbana's Great Show.
On that note... How does it feel to be a designer in a time where fashion gets politicised, whether it's intended as a statement or not? Does it affect the way you design?
LL: It doesn't, really, but I do believe that people should be political, no matter what. It's good to have an awareness of what's going in society.
Shushu/Tong's SS19 collection is now available at Dover Street Market Singapore.