“I see too many similar clothes with the same design, I’m getting tired of it”, says Chinese designer Xiang Gao, who aims to create fashion from a rather distinctive approach. And after working at Telfar and Calvin Klein under Raf Simons’ creative direction, she has found the way to do it: Penultimate, her own fashion brand.
In a world of ferocious competitiveness, naming a brand Penultimate is rather unexpected, but Xiang is clear about it: “I think it’s a good reflection of what I do. It’s abstract and it also refers to the unknown and the excitement of the next (or the end).” And only after two collections, her name is already standing out in the crowded scene of emerging fashion designers. Because one thing is clear: nothing will stop her. “There are always people seeking something unique, fresh or that they can connect to”, she says. Hoping to find those people who connect to her clothes, we speak with Xiang Gao about the challenges of being a young designer, how did her love for fashion start, and how is she finding her voice through design.
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To get to know the designer leading Penultimate, how did you get interested in this world? Anyone in particular that made you fall in love with fashion?
My parents own a clothing factory. Back in the day, my grandma won our first sewing machine through winning the lottery. Neither her or my mum were dressmakers, but they always made their own clothes because they were too poor to buy them. This is how their business started. I grew up hearing stories like this and with loads of clothing surrounding me at home, so when I went to university, I didn’t think of anything else.
Although it sounds like a topical question, what does fashion mean to you?
It is my hobby, my study, my job, my daily routine, my meditation… Like a yarn ball all thread tangled together now, I’m always so annoyed by it but when I find the end of the thread, there is big excitement.
You were born in China but you moved to the United States to continue your studies. Do you think there are very different conceptions of fashion in these two countries? How did moving to the US impact your approach to fashion?
I think that in every country they’re different. Moving to the US, I became more open-minded by being able to study and work with people from different places, cultures, and sharing our experiences. It for sure shaped my current perspective of fashion.
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Before launching your brand, you worked for a short time at Telfar and then for two years at Calvin Klein under Raf Simons’ creative direction. Leading your own fashion project, have you found any challenges that you had not previously imagined?
I learned a lot from working with different people, and every experience is unique. I can’t work in the same way as I did at Calvin because it’s a completely different situation, but I think that experience helped me to understand the industry and things better. But I will figure it out in my own way, all challenges are new.
What are the main differences between working for a big brand like Calvin Klein and leading your own business?
When you’re in a team, you can function only as a part of it, you’re challenged by others’ vision. Now, I need to challenge myself a lot.
Having worked for a big fashion brand, do you think there’s still room in the industry for small designers? Personally, how do you see the fashion scene today?
I think there is always space. There are so many big companies out there, but that doesn’t mean they fill people’s desires and curiosity. The scale of the brand matters for business-related issues but not for fashion I think. There are always people seeking something unique, fresh or that they can connect to. It’s all about the connection with your audience I think, and how you develop together.
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You started a brand in order to materialize your ideas and gave it a unique name: Penultimate. How did that name come up to you? Do you think it’s a good reflection of what you do and what you want your clothes to convey?
First of all, not many people pronounce my name well. And I want something a bit more impersonal; naming a label after the designer’s name feels a bit ‘imperial’ to me, like an emperor. Originally, it came from a Chinese term, then I translated it into English; ‘Penultimate’ has the same vibe. I think it’s a good reflection of what I do. It’s abstract and it also refers to the unknown and the excitement of the next (or the end).
Let’s talk about Water Dances, your Spring/Summer 2020 collection. To make these clothes, you were inspired by the cave paintings in Dunhuang (China), full of motifs of water, mist, and fire that you have transferred to your clothes. When it comes to creating, do you often feel inspired by artistic pieces like this one? What other sources of inspiration do you have?
I can be inspired by a lot of things, from vintage stuff to painting, to objects or more visual things. Lately, I feel inspired by poems. You can visualise and imagine things just from reading some words or short sentences, I think it’s fascinating.
I believe these cave paintings also have some sort of personal connection to you. Could you tell us more about it?
It’s basically curiosity. China is huge, I grew up in a southern city, but I’ve never been to the East of the country, for example. It’s a place that has existed for thousands of years and lives surrounded by fairy tales and stories like The Journey to the West, which I grew up with. It’s mysterious to me. Back in the day, designers travelled to different places to discover and get inspired by other cultures. Now, I can do this with the Internet, but it leaves room for imagination too. I do wish I can visit that area though.
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Considering the number of different materials you used for this collection, how was the dressmaking process like?
I first sketch and then figure out how to turn that into something real, so I search for the right fabric, trim or material in general. Then, I put them together. Sometimes, the finished piece doesn’t look like the original sketch but has that same feeling or vibe.
Quilted textures, satin, fur… You’ve made very colourful garments and also incorporated a great variety of materials in every piece. Where does the idea of uniting all these elements come from? Do you disagree with the famous expression ‘less is more’?
I see too many similar clothes with the same design, I’m getting tired of it. I like the past better, when people used to make their own clothes and decorate themselves. They were unique and had character. That’s what I want to grab with my clothes. To me, the ‘less is more’ mantra is good. As a consumer myself, I’d prefer to have a few things but very special rather than a lot of similar things. That’s what ‘less’ means to me.
Clothes that overlap different materials and the variety of colours are some of the aspects that your designs have in common with the works of Kaisik Wong. Has he been one of your references? What other designers have influenced your work?
Yes, he inspired me a lot. I also like Fong Leng, Miuccia Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli, or Raf Simons, among others.
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For the lookbook, you worked with Rottingdean Bazaar, a duo of fashion-rebellious people whose approach to fashion is rather unusual and unseen. How do you feel each other’s work has influenced one another? Could you tell us more about how did this collaboration come up?
I’ve been a fan of Luke and James for a long time, their work is always inspiring and very joyous as well. I want to work with people whose work I have feelings for, so I reached out to them. They liked my work too and that’s how it happened.
To finish the interview, what do you plan for Penultimate in the future? Any goal or project that you can tell?
The fortune cookie knows.
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