Inspired by the Salon des Refusés from the 19th century, where the rejected artworks from the Paris Salon were exhibited, Refuse Club aims to start social and politically charged conversations in fashion, given that in their home country these are still taboo topics. Even though the #metoo movement has been top of mind for most of us for over a year now, which has fortunately led to a very necessary discussion in our society, the situation’s kind of different in China. 
Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, there is a desire to have this conversation, as these kind of issues are sadly prevalent in all parts of the world, but heavy censorship makes it hard to even mention such touchy subjects. Yet, Yuner Shao and ‘Stef’ Puzhen Zhou have very ingenious ways of subverting the government through their powerful and hidden messages in their designs. Discover how these Chinese designers are creating such necessary discussions, one deconstructed Qi Pao dress at a time.
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Hi, could you tell us a little bit about yourselves to our readers?
Stef: We are just two goofy friends from Chongqing (China).
When did your interest in fashion start, for each of you?
Stef: I always knew I wanted to work in art and the fashion industry as a child and read extensive amounts of fashion magazines as an awkwardly dressed teen. Yuner says she had no intention of becoming a fashion designer at a young age, yet her father, a local art gallery owner who majored in print-making, constantly pushed her to study and pursue art. It was him who encouraged her to apply for Parsons – the rest of her college applications were for business schools.
I understand you met each other at Parsons University in New York, although you’re both from the Chongqing region originally. But when and why did you decide to create a brand together?
Yuner: Yes, we became friends in school. We both like to discuss the cultural differences between the States and China and share our perspectives through recent news and social events. I realised that it would be interesting to blend fashion with some of these topics.
Stef: We met in an analogue photography class at Parsons. We have always been friends and talked about a possible collaboration, but it just never happened till Refuse Club. After graduation, we both worked on mass market lines for a while and figured we really preferred to design clothes with more of an attitude.
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You’ve just shown your first collection during New York Fashion Week, and you rented an office workroom to use as the venue. How has this first experience been like? And what made you choose that setting?
Stef: We rented an office in the garment district. We built a set in the empty office with a ladder, newspapers, spray cans and caution tape to create the atmosphere of a sketchy urban space. I worked in a building one block away from the show’s location last winter. One night, a sexual crime happened in the building. I remember in the morning, a journalist knocked on the door, asking me questions about ‘the incident’ – that changed my perception of the place. It was just one of the older garment district buildings that didn’t have a doorman. And then it became a metaphor for dangerous urban spaces to me.
Your collection tackles the #metoo movement and the censorship of its hashtag in China – which led to people starting to use #Ricebunny (a homophone of ‘me too’ in Chinese) on Weibo to talk about it. In your presentation, the models wore running tops and shorts, which are items that were mentioned in Chinese newspapers of what victims were wearing at the time of their attacks. This is used as a way to blame the victims as if they were ‘asking for it’, but you’ve decided to reclaim these pieces to show that their choice in clothing didn’t cause their assault. What other aspects struck you from the way in which the media handles these kinds of issues, and in which other ways did you reflect that on your collection?
Yuner: Women’s security in society became a very hot topic last year in China. Such news like women getting sexually abused till death arose there. But there were always people who would write in the comments things like, ‘It was because they were wearing clothes that are too sexy.’ That made us think about the #metoo movement in China. Our garments will always act as a medium to encourage discussion. But we don’t want to push our customers too much, because there are people that don’t want to be activists.
Since both of us are interested in textiles, we started doing illustrations that turned into a booklet called 21st-century safety guide for women. Each artwork is ironic and refers to some social event. I chose the traditional Chinese Qi Pao dress as the main shape for this debut collection. It is such a classic and elegant dress that can represent Chinese women. Qi Paos are known for their super slim fit, but only a few people know that it was originally straight and loose. In order to approach the Western taste, people changed it to a slim fit that isn’t practical anymore. 
And what have you done with it?
Yuner: We deconstructed Qi Paos this time because we wanted to bring back its practicality, as well as to break through the stereotype of Chinese women in Western society, and then we screen printed our artwork on the traditional brocade fabric. Most traditional floral silk brocade was only used for women in the past in China. This time, we did menswear looks by using these traditional Qi Pao silk dresses to emphasise the genderless aspect.
Stef: For instance, one of the main things we repeat a lot in this collection are the suit jackets, an elite class look. Last year, one of the breaking news in China was of a young flight attendant who was assaulted and murdered after using a ride-sharing app. Among many opinions, someone pointed out that women shouldn’t use cheap shared ride services because apparently, it’s not safe, as if once a woman has earned enough money to take a private ride home, or ‘even better’, taking a real taxi, her safety is forever guaranteed.
“The key to safety isn’t about becoming an elite and separating yourself from possible danger. We all need to build a better system with regulations in order to raise awareness and prevent crime.”
But that’s not true…
Another story that comes to mind is one from three years ago, where a white-collared woman staying in Beijing for a business trip encountered a local pimp in a four-star hotel. The pimp thought the young lady was a new sex worker in town and decided to ‘teach her a lesson’. He grabbed her hair and dragged her across the hallway. Luckily, she called for help and he was arrested soon after. In this incident, the victim was wearing a regular casual outfit (a pink sweater and black suit pants), on a legitimate business trip. However, her financial status (seen in her staying in a four-star hotel) didn’t protect her from potential harm.
This leads us to think that whoever said women should not use cheap shared-ride services is trying to avoid the real problem. The truth is, not everyone gets to be rich and powerful, and the ‘nobody dares to lay a finger on me’ elitist mentality doesn’t work. We kept the tailored suit and trouser yuppie look in the collection specifically to make the point that the key to safety isn’t about becoming an elite and separating yourself from possible danger. We all need to build a better system with regulations in order to raise awareness and prevent crime. It has nothing to do with anyone’s individual growth. We all need the world to be a better place.
Do you have a favourite piece of the collection that maybe encapsulates your vision?
Stef: We love the wool satin jacket. It’s a good example of how discreet we want to be with our concept. The silhouette later inspired the print. We wanted to hide and seek information on clothes, so we designed a light apricot coloured wool satin blazer jacket colour blocked with cobalt blue lining underneath the pocket flaps. We always knew we wanted to put magnetic snaps inside the flaps so the lining could stand on its own.
However, it took us a while to figure out what we wanted to print on the cobalt blue lining. We needed to develop a print that said ‘404 Not Found’ to write on top of the flap lining. And that reference came from our research when we tried to search #metoo on Chinese social media: ‘404’ is what we ended up finding.
In the show, the models are wearing kitschy stereotypically Asian objects as accessories, such as a waving cat figurine, a fan (in paper and machine form) and a paper lantern. Why did you make that choice? And also, what’s up with one of your models who had an accordion hanging from his shoulder?
Stef: We brought the props that were common objects from 1980s and 1990s China. It was after the revolution when the new China firstly unveiled itself in front of the whole world, a free time period with less censorship. If you google it, you will see lots of Chinese cult classic B-movies coming out from those decades. Back then, people cared more about art and science than capitalism. In every neighbourhood on a midsummer night, you would see people just hanging out on the street. Someone would bring a bottle of water to share around, kids would play toys in the backyard, someone would play Russian/Soviet music with an accordion, others would all gather around with a fan in each person’s hand and just talk about anything: poetry, multi-ethnicity, global news, etc.
There were no cell phones or internet involved. Everyone genuinely cared about what was going on in this world and engaged with debatable topics, whereas today, more and more people just ruthlessly report counter-opinions online, hoping to use the modern-day censorship system as a weapon to ‘punish’ those who disagree with them. I guess we have a nostalgia for the old times, that’s why we brought back the ‘kitschy’ props.
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I’ve read that the next move for you both is to end up selling your designs in China. Are you afraid of any kind of backlash you may receive there? Due to the heavy censorship in the country, do you think this venture would end up working out?
Stef: As for the customers’ response, we thought about possible reactions and decided that we will keep the concept discreet. We have no intention to offend anyone by making assumptions. Instead, we merely want to encourage a diverse conversation and engagement. We hid the hints in the lining or behind a print. There are different levels of accessibility, we believe. Most customers might just like our design for their colour or style. They probably won’t bother finding out the meaning. The ones that pay attention to details and spend time reading on what’s our concept underneath must have a gentle heart. People like that judge carefully.
What other issues would you want to deal with in your following collections? Is the ultimate goal of Refuse Club to create a socio-political conversation around your clothes?
Stef: Our initial idea was to talk about unemployed small-town youth in Chinese suburbs. They have their own countercultural fashion scene going on, which is very cool. We are still at the researching stage, so I shouldn’t talk about it too much without enough knowledge. We will let you know as the second collection goes on.
Our current goal is to encourage diverse social/political conversations because in China, not enough people in the art and fashion industries with access to exposure talk about things that are relevant; whereas in the West, any pop star is able to go on and on about their political perspective. However, our ultimate goal is to build a brand that has a healthy business model and helps our contractors/workers in a more substantial way. We are still in the middle of testing the waters, figuring out how to make it happen.
Is there a line which you would never cross, or any subjects that are off-limits to you? Aren’t you afraid of the repercussions of tackling such risky matters?
Yuner: We don’t want to talk about anything that would make us mysteriously disappear… (laughs). But seriously, we focus on topics that are not discussed openly enough rather than on topics that everyone has an opinion on.
Where do you see Refuse Club heading in a year or two?
Stef: We hope to share a consistent point of view while growing a substantial group of club members (clients). We plan to showcase our future collections in more cities worldwide, especially in Asia, where our roots are.
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