Words by Athena Chen
The conscious act of deconstructing as constructing; the unraveling of the system of fashion design and clothing; and the pursuit of technological innovation through the act of creation, sets the stage for Jim Hu’s final collection, winner of this year’s L’Oreal prize from Central Saint Martins BA Fashion Course.
What does it take to create something new? How do you define your own contemporaneity? Do boundaries even exist anymore? What does the future of design hold? These are the ideas we explore with upcoming designer Jim Hu. Daring to express a different point of view, rather than succumb to the tired old trends and systems of fashion, Hu’s response to innovating the process of fashion, has led him to going forth into uncharted waters within the realm of design. His graduate project has since taken on a life of its own, metamorphosing into something that is unfathomable by the audience, instilling a new sense of life into the creations he makes.
On reflecting back, Jim says the act of creating always been a wordless communication of sorts, a means of self-expression for him. Hailing from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, drawing has always been a part of Jim Hu’s life for as long as he can remember, “My earliest memory has also something to do with drawing,” he reminisces, “I think it was my mother, saying something about my drawing when I was maybe about two or three”. But despite showing artistic talent from a young age, growing up within the more traditional confines of Asian society, it wasn’t until college that he decided to pursue a Fine Arts degree. “I had this idea of Fine Art as an ideal land with the freedom to express things the way I wanted. But once I started the course, I realized how stiff the current system of art education in Taiwan was.”
The idea of art within school was reduced to simple methodology, and more often than not denied the possibility to experiment. By the end of his sophomore year Jim Hu decided to quit school, and turned to being a freelance graphic designer. Over the following course of that year, he then experienced the various hardships of a graphic designer. After being frustrated with the clients who weren’t getting what design was about, and those having no qualms over plagiarizing others work, Hu decided he needed a new outlook on life again. “I didn’t really think that much about moving to London and coming to Central Saint Martins. I just felt like I wanted out, and needed a change of environment,” he remembers.
It wasn’t until one fateful moving day, in which he lost his laptop, along with his entire design portfolio, did he finally get a reality check and resolved to pull himself together. The rigorous competition for the Fashion course brought out his competitive side, and he decide to pursue a completely different pathway, where he taught himself pattern cutting during school holidays, eventually getting into the womenswear course. However, the Western fashion system that we have all come to be so embedded within, with its picture-perfect models, pop-culture symbols, trends, styles, and wearability was of little interest to him. “I came into fashion not really being a part of it. A lot of the people on the foundation were like, ‘I love fashion, I am here to break into the industry.’ But not really being part of all that, I was constantly thinking, ‘What can fashion still mean? What function and purpose do garments serve nowadays? What can clothing be?”
With a father who works as a nuclear engineer, Jim Hu grew up surrounded by science-related books and magazines, and that in turn has constructed most of his world-views and ideologies. His interest in scientific phenomena and the workings of the world, has since led him to adopting a fairly thoughtful and precise approach to his designs, an innate urge within him to further dissect and understand the modus operandi. His stunning final collection is actually a further exploration and development of his first-year project. The original project stemmed from the idea of trying to find the origins and cause of what surrounds us, stripping back structures to its very fundamental particles. “I think people rarely question how things have gotten to the point they are, ” Jim Hu explains, “I wanted to show people the existing elements that construct our world. The possibilities that lies beneath and beyond their immediate perception.”
This resulted in a 3-dimensional structure made of thin red thread. Red holds quite a lot of connotations for Hu, evoking a sense of vitality and urgency, red thread also being symbolic as a string of fate and connection in Chinese mythology. The threads can be seen as the fundamental elements of a garment, or tracks in motion in between particles. Seemingly lightweight and translucent, the threads are transformed into a texture that is almost unworldly and undefined. Hu observes that once presented with something that appears insubstantial and ambiguous, the relationship and perceptions of oneself and the surrounding material world then becomes altered, the effect akin to “rippling a tranquil water surface” as Hu poetically puts it, giving us a sense of how fragile and volatile our relationship with the physical world actually is.
This profound interest in the idea of fluidity between people and material, also comes from a personal protest against the idea of timelessness and permanent solutions, as Jim Hu feels this way of thinking stops us from evolving and innovating, cutting off other possibilities and leading to dead ends. Though originating from a philosophical viewpoint, throughout Jim Hu’s pursuit of material transcendence, the process has led him to inventing a unique 3D weaving technique titled “XI (系)”.
The name “XI” has both a visual and semantic meaning to it, as the Chinese character “系”, pronounced “xì”, meaning “systems or series”, references another Chinese character “糸”, meaning “silk”, that embodies the idea of silk and fiber being the basic components of fashion, and clothing as a system or series of fiber. The English translation “XI” also holds graphical connotations, as ‘X’ represents the two-dimensional method of traditional weaving, and ‘I’ is an additional variable, the added third dimension. Together they represent both the technical method, and Jim Hu’s own scope of thinking brought into the act of creating.
To further understand the idea of his 3D weaving technique, Jim Hu compares it to 3D printing. “XI is more suitable when strength is required, and has a different range of applicable materials. In terms of strength, 3D printing is yet unable to create an outcome with native consistency; 3D printing is mostly done in a way through stacking materials on previous layers; therefore, it is hard to form a grain for advanced strengthening,” Hu explains, “XI at the moment is closer to composite material making, as it does not restrict its raw material to fusible ones. Materials which are heat-resistant or inflammable, which would be hard to deal with in 3D printing, are usable and you could work with organic materials as well.”
In Jim Hu’s attempt to redefine and deconstruct our current rules, he concludes, on another poetic touch, “We are ancients from the future, and also the futurists from the past. XI has been born under this kind of emotion. To me, all traditions were once innovations; they have been overtly glorified and became rigid, thus detached to the fluidity of the actual world,” Hu elaborates, “Although XI has resulted in a quite a rational technique and look, the whole mood behind it is actually pretty emotional.” His final collection of 3D woven structures paired with precise laser cut dresses, is a melding of classical elegance and robust new energy that blurs sensory boundaries, “I wanted to express how each of us has still has untapped energies emerging from within us, a visual force of XI extending and enveloping the body.
And the technical side of XI also carries much potential for further development. As a new way of composite material making, XI can be seen as a relatively low-tech and low-cost method, since it is neither confined to certain materials nor to a certain methods of weaving, and both could be adjusted and modified for various purposes. Therefore, Jim Hu says that his final collection may very well be his last fashion-oriented project, as he thinks it may be possible to ask: ‘Could this be the starting point of ultra-light architecture?’ Throughout human history, artists and designers have often sought out emerging technologies and scientific ideas in their pursuits of envisioning the future, and art and design, at its best, offers deep insight into humanity’s existence as a whole, and a chance to result in— putting it into the words of Jim Hu himself— “something that could potentially benefit society as a whole.”