Located in Beijing’s Qianmen, BI FU Kongjian is a small shop that sits quietly along Zhujiajiao hutong. Chen Xing, an architect and fashion designer, is the mind behind this project. With his background in architecture, he transformed what used to be an old brothel into a contemporary clothing boutique that is home to a collection of his personally designed apparel. Upon entering through a small door, visitors will find themselves in a narrow passageway, and advancing further they will find themselves in an open-air courtyard. The courtyard is divided in half by two spaces that are used as a café and bar; hinged French doors are used to separate these indoor areas from the outdoor. The glass doors can be opened up completely to combine the three areas into one large space. Going farther down the courtyard is a door that leads into the BI FU studio; the first floor is utilized as a showroom for their clothing, while the second floor is used a private workspace.
The way BI FU is designed makes it quite different from a traditional siheyuan, and it’s also unlike the traditional architecture of Chinese palaces. Chen Xing chose this particular building to renovate mainly because of the courtyard space and he was intrigued by the ways the original architects built with wood. After all his personal touches were applied, he carefully returned the original wooden structures to their place. He wanted a contemporary design but still sought to preserve the history of the old building. Born in Xi’an, Chen Xing graduated from the Tsinghua University in Beijing and later the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy with a degree in architecture. He understands the importance of culture and heritage, and strongly believes that the old and the new should exist and grow alongside one another. Being an avid supporter of independent designers, and having an interest in the role of culture in brands and design, it seemed only natural for him to shift his focus towards fashion design.
Chen Xing’s obsession with architecture and culture, along with his love of design, culminated into his BI FU clothing brand. He prefers minimal and simpler designs that also contain dramatic details. His goal was to create something exciting and refreshing amidst the cultural renaissance happening in China. The specific type of design, whether it’s architecture or fashion, isn’t important to him except when it comes to the technical requirements. He firmly believes that the artist’s personal interpretation on the finished design as well as their understanding of culture are the cornerstones of every piece of work. We recently had the chance to discuss fashion and architecture with this multitalented designer.
Neocha: In your opinion, what do fashion design and architecture have in common?
Chen Xing: Fashion and architecture are both created to fulfill practical roles, but both also seek to satisfy people’s demand for good aesthetics. Practical daily life use, weather condition, cultural background, materials, and technical aspects all need to be taken into consideration for both of these fields. These two things also have similar roles in culture, history, and society. Both fashion and architecture involve individuals being inside the design – only one is done on a smaller scale while the latter is executed in a larger scale. Clothing involves accommodating a person’s movements and actions, while architecture involves allowing sufficient space for their activities.
陈兴: 服装和建筑都是既要满足人的实用性，又要满足人的审美；既需要考虑生活条件、气候条件，文化背景，也需要考虑材料、技术实现，到最后造型确立。它们跟人文历史社会的关系也都是一样的。此外在在实现上也是，都要在解决功能的过程中解决形式的问题。它们存在非常多共同的地方: 一个是在小的尺度上将人包裹起来，一个是在大的尺度上将人包裹起来。衣服是满足人的一个动作，但是建筑是满足人的一个活动。
Neocha: Are there some ways of thinking that you take from your architectural background and apply to your fashion designs?
Chen Xing: I would say the way I deal with problems is carried over. A big part of architecture involves solving problems. For example, once an architect knows the plot of land they’ll be working on, all the pros and cons must be worked out. The design cannot compromise functionality; certain requirements, such as lighting, ventilation, fire safety, traffic, and so on, all need to be taken into consideration. Fashion design is similar – there are fewer problems, but you still have to figure out the textiles and cuts to bring the design to life.
Culture is another angle that carries over from my architectural background. For example, Western architecture tends to use stone, and Eastern architecture has a preference towards wood instead. We put emphasis on the connection between materials; traditional Eastern clothing doesn’t use buttons but opts for straps and bands instead, which perhaps feel more “gentle”. Western fashion tends to be more colorful using synthetic dyes, while Eastern fashion prefers using plants and minerals to create natural dyes. These are aspects I will take into consideration when I’m designing clothing.
Another thing is the way I think about aesthetics. Architects need their work to be able to stand the test of time. When I make clothing, I also aim to create timeless pieces. This is probably one of the bigger influences that architecture has on my fashion design. I really dislike the current market trend of making products that try to entice consumers into buying things they don’t need. There are vintage designs that still look amazing today. There is value in well-designed products, I want my designs to still look beautiful after a decade.
Architecture influences me greatly, not only in fashion, but in almost everything I do. Whenever I encounter a problem, I first begin to analyze all the advantages and disadvantages, and then I’ll try to figure out how to employ different methods in order to solve it. In architecture, when you’re solving a problem there is never one straight answer; it often involves many variables.
Neocha: Is there a reason why you place such heavy emphasis on Chinese culture when it comes to your fashion designs?
Chen Xing: Successful brands that have a deep respect for their local culture, have the mindset of wanting traditions to live on and be preserved. I’m Chinese – when I established my brand, my respect and desire to interweave local culture into my brand was a given. It’s not a publicity stunt. You have to start with the things that you understand and believe in the most, and have strong feelings towards. These things need to act as the foundation: the soil that provides the nutrients for your brand so to speak – that’s the role of your own culture. A brand, simply put, is just an abstract form of an individual’s personality. If you don’t understand your own culture, then you won’t be confident; and if you’re lacking that confidence, it makes it extremely difficult to shape your brand.
Neocha: What has been the biggest challenge for you in combining Eastern culture with contemporary fashion?
Chen Xing: The production chain. I wanted to do a series on oriental fans at one point, and some of these traditional fans are made with paper, some with canvas. There are fixed fans and folding fans; there are some that are embroidered, and others that use tapestry methods of silk weaving. Some fans are decorated with calligraphy, others with painted designs. Each fan involves a lot of creativity and all have a story behind it. I had to compromise when it came to production. There was only one place in Beijing that could make folding fans, but their work wasn’t consistent unlike the kinds that are produced through machines. I wanted to make embroidered fans, but there are not many tailors that could do it. When I did find someone who could do it, the end result was actually very unpolished. Making any additional requests increased costs too much. When I found myself wanting to create more intricate and high quality products, and wanting to fulfill my original design goals, that’s when I discovered the lack of support at different stages in the production chain. The slow deterioration of traditional crafts, the lust of money, and the lack of well-developed brands – I suspect these are the main reasons behind it all. I hope that I will eventually be able to change things.
Neocha: What are your plans for the future? Any new projects?
Chen Xing: I have a project that combines aviation concepts with Chinese qipaos. Kites, gliders, vintage aircrafts, and modern airplane are all inspirations. I want to unite all of these things with traditional apparel that already possess their own unique defining characteristics. When qipaos were more commonplace, those that would wear it found it difficult to walk because of its constricted form. I want to take the classic elegance of qipaos and clash it against a modern, super fast thing like an airplane. I plan on being more experimental with the form and fabric. As for the long run, I hope that BI FU can develop into a China-based luxury brand.