The Miao is an ethnic minority in China that do not have their own language, but their culture and history remains well-preserved through the distinct designs of their clothing. They have over 200 different clothing styles, all created through batiking and embroidering. The Miao people’s use of geometric patterns is one of the most striking features of their clothing. Between the Past and Present is a collection created by designer Zeng Lu, and shot by photographer Esa Kapila. The collection is a reimagining of traditional Miao apparel. The design manages to exude elegance through an air of simplicity, while still maintaining the cultural characteristics and charm of original Miao clothing. From design to photography, traditional to contemporary, Asia to Scandinavia – this collection is a balancing act that manages to delicately tip-toe between all these different elements with perfect equilibrium.
苗族这个没有自己文字的中国少数民族，得名于将自己的文化和历史精美地展示在他们的服饰中。在他们200多种的服饰里，蜡染、刺绣、几何图案都是其中最为显著的部分特点。《Between the Past and Present》是设计师曾璐是对中国苗族的图案制作传统进行了一次新的工业尝试，并由Esa Kapila摄影呈现的服装系列。这个系列简洁精美，散发着独特的文化魅力。不管是在设计，还是摄影上，传统和现代、东亚和斯堪的纳维亚碰撞的趣味，都在这个系列中达到完美的平衡。
Zeng Lu is an avid fashion designer that only recently moved back to China. In her eyes, the fusion of contemporary and the traditional design is a projection of the globalization evident in our modern lifestyle. Her concept asks the question: “how can we preserve our cultural roots in the current fast-paced societal progression?”
Esa Kapila is a Helsinki-born photographer, who previously studied interior design in Finland and Japan. He has traveled around the globe, and lived in Japan as well as Indonesia. Through his travels, he has attained a better understanding of foreign culture and a refreshed perspective on aesthetics. Esa found Zeng Lu’s project to be very interesting, and was impressed by her professionalism as well as the entire concept behind the collection. After formally introduced through a mutual friend, they collaborated together to present her Between the Past and Present collection in a visually stimulating photoset. Through Esa’s clean photographs, the essence of the collection was captured – revealing the subtle exchange between static and dynamic moments while placing emphasis on Lu’s intricate designs. The clothing and the photographs flawlessly complements one another.
Neocha: Can you tell us about how this collection came about?
Lu: I am from the southern part of China, but lived in Finland. I was inspired by the Scandinavian lifestyle a lot. I saw the way people respected traditions there. Moreover, living so far from China allowed me to observe my culture from a different angle. It made me passionate about creating something based on my own experiences. The first fabric I made myself was a piece of wax-resistant dyeing swatch. It’s the starting point of my design career. I decided to combine my traditional techniques with my understanding of Scandinavian culture. The juxtaposition is exciting to me. On one hand, it’s the style famous for industrial simplicity. On the other hand is a culture that admires extreme exquisiteness. I’ve always been interested in traditional culture and how they work in a modern context. This collection was an experimental project that tries to bring the old traditions into the modern world.
Neocha: How did you decide on a suitable visual style for her collection?
Esa: After seeing Lu’s collection and hearing all of her ideas behind it, we were immediately on the same page on the atmosphere of the photos. Lu showed me the models we were going to work with, and then we looked for the right location that would allow us to use natural light and have ideal textures on the floor and walls. The white cubes emitted the feeling of simplicity, but in a modern way. At the same time, those cubes allowed us to play around with model placement – to effortlessly make the compositions more alive and playful. I understood Lu’s vision on the clothing and how she wanted the girls to showcase them. It was really fun to shoot the collection.
Neocha: Can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced while working on this collection?
Lu: The working process is actually a process that involves solving all kinds of problems. I’d say the most challenging part was the early research stage. Although I’m from China, what I understood about Chinese folk wax-resist dyeing wasn’t in-depth. I needed a deeper understanding but I was staying in another country. This made the work more difficult. At the same time, since my intent was to bring the traditional into the modern world, I needed to figure out how to translate this kind of time-consuming manual technique into highly efficient industrial work. That was when I found out about this ethnic group that didn’t have their own language. Their designs alone communicated plenty – it reveals culture, history, religion, and so on. So I decided to focus on digging up their stories and patterns, to try and create my modern take on it – while also still keeping the essence of their culture. To bring the traditional culture into the industrial world, I decided to employ a modern creation process. Though the collection was finished, it was only the beginning for me.
Esa: When working with a new team and designer you haven’t worked with or know before, it usually takes some time to get to know one another’s style and ways of working. With Lu, I was surprised how quickly we found common ground and figured out the direction we wanted to go. In these photographs, the biggest challenge for me was to have both natural light and supporting lights to work together. We had a limited amount of equipment, but this also reinforced the simplicity we were looking for. Another funny difficulty was the language! I was the only non-Chinese speaker in our team, so sometimes I found myself in the middle of a brainstorming session in a language I really don’t know
Neocha: What do you enjoy about the collaboration process?
Lu: I enjoyed all of it. The most exciting part for me was the tryouts. We had a lot of ideas, tried many different styles, and discussed how to improve on our ideas. I enjoyed the feeling of being on the same page, working on the same thing, and we basically had no difficulties understanding with one another. Esa worked in a professional way and treated details very carefully.
Esa: This collaboration had all of the elements I love working with: a talented designer with a great point of view, a concept with many strong cultural ties, an inspiring atmosphere, and a friendly team. I learned a lot from Lu, through her aesthetics and approach on directing models. For example, she noticed small details like arm placement.
Neocha: As you described, this collection “took a new, industrial approach to the traditional patterns created by the Miao people in China.” What do you think of the future of this kind of merging in fashion design?
Lu: We own such ancient and rich culture, but most of them are fading out due to modernization. However, I believe there will come a time when more and more Chinese designers will want to find out who they were and tell the world. I think it is a topic with potential. Currently, I can’t tell how this work will evolve. But I know that this conflict of the new and the old will have people thinking more about the relationship between culture and design. For me, my work is alive. Whether it’s the traditional patterns, or the shapes of collections. They seem to tell a mythical and ancient Oriental story. The way that viewers think about the work is precisely the communication. This interaction breaks through the limitations of time and space.
Esa tells us, in addition to his current ongoing projects, he has plans of moving back to Asia. He wants to continue his visual exploration of people and culture through portraits and fashion. In the future, Lu plans to continue experimenting and attempt to modernize old Chinese traditions through different pieces of work. Even though the conflicting elements of her work results in unpredictability in the early stages of design, she tells us the challenging nature of her work has shifted her attitude towards difficulties. She now views these challenges as an exciting part of creation.