Long-time friends Shimo Zhuo and Une Yea established Staffonly in 2015 after graduating from London College of Fashion and Royal College of Art. Imbued with references to consumer culture and steeped in the paradoxical daily life of e-commerce-led world order, the menswear label made a name for its ironic take on materialising the immaterial experiences in the 21st century. Having been selected as one of the six finalists of the Business of Fashion China Prize, the brand is today stocked in places like Machine-A, Dover Street Market Beijing and Lane Crawford.
Staffonly plays on the idea of consumerism, deconstructing and reconstructing the meaning of identities in an ever-fleeting digital age; identities that are largely built around consumer habits and spending power. Dust bags, delivery boxes, and graphic labels; models prancing down the catwalk while tapping away their devices, faces aglow with smartphone screens; ‘Beware of smartphone zombies’. Their Fall/Winter 2019 collection, titled 100% Consumer, was a comment on our daily lives that span around delivery time and checkout buttons. “It is our major aim to reflect the truth of our lives, and we are not judging or promoting any side of it”, designers comment.

Similarly, for Spring/Summer 2020, Zhuo and Yea decided to bring awareness to the plethora of overlooked aspects of masculinity that does not always span around the prevailing image of a man as a breadwinner. To Replace a Minute’s Silence With a Minute’s Applause (the title of the collection) diverged from this singular vision of masculinity which is still persistently linked to “certain characteristics that we typically find in Hollywood movies”. Instead, the brand explores the “charming idiosyncrasy, which can be mild, considerate and mellow at times”.

Having recently collaborated with Onitsuka Tiger for the Japanese brand’s seventy-year anniversary, the designer duo discusses their take on Tiger’s classics, Staffonly’s use of irony, the state of menswear and their aim to deconstruct identities that are largely shaped by our consumption choices.
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Firstly, could you tell us a bit about yourselves?
We established the brand together right after our graduation from RCA and LCF in London in 2015. After more than ten years of being friends, we started a new journey of business partnership.
Your Fall/Winter 2019 collection contributed to the ever-growing discourse on consumer culture and the identities built around spending habits. How do you as a brand ensure that your product is not accelerating the consumer culture that the collection critiques?
Actually, it is our major aim to reflect the truth of our lives, and we are not judging or promoting any side of it. It is such a common thing to build our identities around our consumption behaviour, and what we have brought out is that people need to know more or think more before consumption. We can’t control people, but what we are capable of doing is to send out a message, the idea that nurtured the inspiration behind this collection that goes way beyond just clothes and accessories. It was a pleasure to see that our audience grasped the message and that the products were more of a memorandum for them.
For Spring/Summer 2020, you have explored the stigma that surrounds masculinity, very much in line with the exhibition that took place at the Westminster University, shedding light on ‘invisible men’ and breaking preconceptions on stereotypical menswear. Where do you see menswear going and how do you aim to contribute to shattering the singular vision of men?
Menswear is only a word describing clothes for a male person, and the meaning of masculinity itself is changing slowly. For the contemporary men’s wardrobe, it is not necessary to classify or indicate their pre-conceptional, distinguished function from women’s. The elements like lace and stockings that we presume to belong to women nowadays, used to belong to men ’s wardrobe. In fact, the only difference between women’s and men’s garments are the base shape of their bodies.
What Staffonly is doing now is to understand more about the mind of the people who are brave enough to freely choose a lifestyle that might look different from the usual path, and obviously, the modern househusbands are included. Therefore, we imagine and investigate their lives and design a new possibility for them.
Shanghai is typically known for its male citizens who carry more responsibilities than women in terms of housework, and that enlightened us to imagine a different vision of masculinity. This local vision of men also means masculinity doesn’t have to be linked to certain characteristics that we typically find in Hollywood movies, but can also be related to the charming idiosyncrasy, which can be mild, considerate and mellow at times.
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Your designs are built upon concepts that explore the ideas of appearance and identities in digital culture, often imbued with irony and subverting fashion stereotypes. Yet as avant-garde as the messages are behind the collections, the clothes are wearable. How important is the wearability aspect of clothes for your brand and what are your opinions on ready-to-wear collections we see on the catwalk that are impossible to utilise on a daily basis?
Fashion, especially the more avant-garde side of it, represents different meanings for different people. For Staffonly, both the conceptual and the wearable count. In each collection, we orchestrate a group of clothes and accessories with our typical ironic, witty tune, in order to present the identities that are embedded within the garments. Some might just look at it as an image from a show or editorial, but some customers discover our hidden messages within the garments, maybe from a button or ribbon in the lining. Sending out different layers of messages from each theme is our way to communicate with the audience.
You have recently collaborated with Onitsuka Tiger, basing your designs on the theme of ‘protection’ and reworking Tiger’s classic jackets and trainers with a twist of irony. How did the collaboration come about and what was your approach?
It was a truly exciting collaboration! We have always thought of designing a pair of sneakers, and that collaboration made it come true. Before the design process, we were invited to visit the office of Onitsuka Tiger in Tokyo. During the visit, we found many interesting materials and exquisite craftsmanship, which have inspired our angle in the creative process.
We collaborated with Onitsuka Tiger for their seventy-year anniversary, reworking their classic tracksuits and trainers. The base is their classic tracking style Serrano. On the base, we added many special details and structural designs like a sonic sponge. In our own design process, we always use the structure of objects we observe in daily life, especially packaging materials and insulation materials, such as tape, air column, carton box and so on. These materials bring a sense of security to people. Therefore, the sonic sponge becomes the main element throughout the design to emphasise the theme of ‘protection’. It also works for the necessary lightness and elasticity of track and field shoes.
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From pin-adored bananas to reworked catalogue layouts, your campaigns have a very distinct visual style. In the age of social media and the stream of visual content that we are constantly bombarded with, what would you say are the main consideration when creating the brand image?
 Whether the images translate our attitude and story.
There has been a significant shift towards tailoring in menswear, which has led to the idea that streetwear is dead. How would you define streetwear now, when the formalwear is ubiquitously mixed with sportswear?
Actually, in China, the boundaries between formalwear and streetwear are not as clear as they are in Western society. Anything that is not uniform spontaneously becomes streetwear for us. As for Staffonly, our goal is to observe more and represent more. This means that even if tailoring or sportswear are vital elements in our design vocabulary, we still hold great interest in studying and re-designing uniforms.
Despite discussing the phenomena that pose serious threats to our society (like consumer culture, for example), you have said that Staffonly as a brand is hopeful, “full of joy and curiosity at the same time.” Do you think our obsession with consumption and the phenomenon of smartphone culture is reversible?
Looking at smartphone users and contemporary consumers, it is hard to say that there will be a huge change. Instead of reversing these behaviours, I would rather believe that people will discover ways to balance the virtual reality and ‘real life’ as well as learn more about themselves.
What should we expect from Staffonly next?
A deeper focus on the unique Chinese lifestyle which we aim to meaningfully communicate through our collections.
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