The newest collection by Harru Xu, Jarylo Reborn, pursues the work that the designer started for his Central Saint Martins graduate collection. But this time, garments tell the story of an often forgotten luxury: that of choosing your own clothing, so to say, accepting your own fantasies. The idea came after seeing the photos of Ukranian and Russian prisoners who never knew have been enclosed their entire lives, born and raised in the dark comfort of prison, taken by Michal Chelbin. Harry Xu projected on the last London Fashion Week catwalks a vision of those kids, now entering a nameless world.
Fashion goes beyond trends and seasons, since fashion is above all a story of garments – and with that comes the idea of fashion as the best tool of resilience. This is at least what Harry Xu is defending – because fashion is and has always been one of the most organic methods of self-expression – the young designer is focusing on an interesting point of everybody’s life, provided that freedom exists: selecting your clothes to release yourself. But Xu's characters are prisoners. As such, he prefers to focus on the gradual transformation from devil-may-care street teenagers to mature men of society – the resilience so to say. By experimenting with what we all consider to be the boundaries of the ‘man’, familiar shapes are modernised and challenged with romantically playful embroidery.
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Even if your brand is quite recent – you launched it just after your graduation from CSM in 2016 – you tend to assert your own signature. How would you define Harry Xu's DNA?
There is always a certain strong masculinity exuding from Harry Xu’s cut. The touch of femininity and romance, as a dedication to the vulnerability hidden in every man’s past and softness owned by individuals to create a natural, diversified and innate elegance. The attention to colours, shapes, details embellishments, materials and fabrications are integrated and a testament to Harry Xu’s emphasis on real craftsmanship.
The press often qualifies your designs as utilitarian – do you agree with this term?
I agree with the idea of utilitarian. I aim to produce contemporary menswear infinitely in its adaptability, compatible with many occasions and roles in life one can find oneself in. I often find menswear the second glance more charming and I prefer my silhouette created in very refined ways.
You've worked personally with Kris Van Assche, both on his own label as well as Dior Homme and I wanted to know which advices have you kept from those days? Did it change your vision of the fashion industry?
I appreciate the spirit of the demanding pursuit of perfection in both design and quality towards design and business. The spirit has always influenced my attitude and self-integrity when accomplishing a target in my daily life.
A few years ago, you said you “hope it all becomes more sustainable, because at the moment designers are under such huge stress and pressure”. How do you feel the fashion industry is, or rather, how does it treat designers?
I feel that it is very fast paced indeed. Beyond that, designers must possess many other skills and knowledge to be able to face challenges in the fashion business. In my opinion, designers have to be determined and strong in their own work, together with multiple skills in business in order to be successful in the industry.
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You grew up in China, then you studied in London – among all the cultural repertoires you've now at your disposal, who will you pick up as leading references? I'm thinking about a fashion designer maybe... 
I personally think that I am lucky enough to have both cultural repertoires. Although they are very different cultural backgrounds but they are the exact values which I am able to take advantages of. It is a fast changing global world and I need to be aware of these cultural and economical exchanges. As a designer, I see myself as a good combination of both cultures influenced and they are truly compatible. I am always inspired by the diversity of many forms of art. I appreciate Kris Van Assche’s standard as a menswear designer. I pay a lot of attention to the detail of the garment and real craftsmanship. In terms of artists, Anselm Kiefer, Egon Schiele, David Hockney, Francis Bacon’s work have always been my favourite as they have such strong identities and I can sense the emotions through their work. However I feel that there is a strong Chinese spirit inside me and I love the gracefulness of Chinese romance because it is a form of euphemistic expression. They are so compatible to me that I can express myself with no restraints of cultural backgrounds.
What else do you look at besides fashion? When and how do the best ideas pop up?
I grew up with an art background and I started drawing since I was very little. Art and photography are always the key inspirations to my work. They help me with strong concept development. I also pay attention to surroundings, nature and people. When looking at details, ideas always pop up.
You've also said that thanks to your experience at Dior, tailoring became a staple of your own brand. How much do you think tailoring is actually indispensable to menswear?
Every man needs a tailored outfit. A man can only realise the power of tailoring when he puts on a well-tailored outfit. Although menswear now has such diversified expressions in many brands, the approach to tailoring design still has more to be explored. It is often considered as restricted but the push to boundaries is the excitement to menswear and refined craftsmanship keeps tailoring fresh.
In the past decade, we've been experiencing such a transition, especially in what's considered as being ‘masculine’. I was wondering how do you understand masculinity, or more simply being a man today?
Masculinity to me is no longer a definition of certain looks of man, it is more related to manliness and the quality of a man. Being ‘masculine’ means strength and courage, faith and determination. It is the power in psychology and spirit.
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The Fall 2017 collection pursues your graduated collection theme: prisoners and freedom. Do you understand fashion as a work that goes beyond seasons or trends? A tool to explore rather than expressing?
Fashion as an art-based project will go beyond seasons and trends. Exploration is a good word to me as I like the idea of surprises. I treat every project as an art project. I love experimenting and exploring possibilities because surprises never exist as expectation. Exploration delivers more than only expressing.
Let's speak about Michal Chelbin, the photographer that has been leading your inspirations for two seasons already, notably her series on Ukrainian and Russian prisoners. How did you hear of her work for the first time? What do you find so fascinating in those photos?
I first saw her work in a bookshop. I was so fascinated by those photos because she not only managed to take good portraits but also she captured the emotions of those prisoners greatly. I read a little about these prisoners’ background: they were born in prison and had never been outside. I could feel their insecurity, fear and vulnerability through their eyes, faces and moves.
How much is the figure of the prisoner relevant to you to express what you wanted to?
I found these prisoners very inspiring as they have that beautiful story behind them. I wanted to create a collection that was emotionally touching with strong and unique identity. From these prisoners, I could see the contrast of protection and romance, a very interesting combination between masculinity and softness. This is something that I would like to interpret through my menswear design. I want it to be strong together with romance.
How did you end up being inspired by non-designed clothing, by those unidentified garments?
I picked the word ‘fantasy’ from the research. Although there are only unidentified garments from the research, in fact the mood from images give much more than the garments. I also looked at the other elements such as the murals and wallpapers from the prison, the uniforms, the mood and the concept of prison. They inspired me with the print designs, colours, fabrication, accessories, etc.
How would you qualify in three words Harry Xu mens attitude for Fall/Winter 2017?
Fantasy, bravery, elegance.
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