“The feeling I want to express the most is in the mobility and power of the sea. I also want everyone to feel the beauty, smartness and intensity of women.” That’s how Mengjia Lao presents the Spring/Summer 2019 collection from Luem, her young, emerging brand. But she avoids calling herself a fashion designer; instead, she’d rather introduce herself as an entrepreneur, which gives us some hints of her personality. A determined and hard-working woman, Mengjia moved to London at the age of 17, where she discovered the power of art, fashion, and music. And hasn’t stopped ever since. 
The Chinese creative, who embodies a good example of how the young generation of the Asian country is about to change the rules of the ‘old world’ forever, presented her second collection at Shanghai Fashion Week a few weeks ago. Starting with a video related to the sea, and with the painting Fisherman and the Siren by Frederic Leighton as the collection’s main inspiration, Mengjia Lao made a bold statement: she’s strong and moves incessantly. Her next wave?  "If there is a suitable opportunity to take a big step, I will try,  she said – with the support of steady and positive feedback.  But between the buzz of so many projects, we got a chance to sit down with her and talk about her upcoming plans, her brand’s DNA, art, and Japanese female divers.
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Please, could you give us a brief introduction of yourself? Who is Mengjia Lao?
I don’t want to say that I'm just a designer. In most cases, I tend to introduce myself as a female entrepreneur. This is not for any gender-related reason; I just think the title is more inclusive. I identify myself with all things chic, sensitive, critical, emotional, creative and logical. I believe my thoughts and personality include both male and female characteristics. This may be because my experience of living alone in a foreign country since childhood has cultivated my very independent and efficient behaviour patterns.
‘Beauty’ is a very important aspect of my life. Capturing the sense of beauty makes my excitement about art and fashion irreplaceable. I would also like to use self-creation to explain my understanding and remodelling of beauty, as this has enabled me to, resolutely and quickly, create my own brand, Luem.
What did you do before launching Luem? Did you work for another brand?
I left China at the age of 17 to go and live in London, and I noticed complete contrasts in the two countries both in terms of culture and education. In this open and rich city, I gradually came into contact with art, photography and music. This was a completely new aspect of my life. I found that fashion and art were new and challenging for me, which aroused my great interest in exploring them. I applied for a fashion degree at Central Saint Martins, and then completed three years of fashion knitwear courses. In 2016, I continued to study knitwear at the Royal College of Art. During this period, I tried to brand the female image I wanted to create. Compared to building up experience, it is more important for me to understand myself. Travelling, communication, and images of life have allowed me to step into my own mind. I believe that true self-expression is the only sustainable way to create.
Launching your own fashion project is not easy, is it something you always wanted to do? What led you to create Luem?
I’ve always held the idea of self-creation, as well as an interest in exploring Chinese and Western cultures. I hope that the brand will carry more valuable thoughts and ideas, and shape images that resonate with women all over the world. This is what I’m trying to achieve through Luem. I am privileged to be able to devote myself wholeheartedly to a career that I love, express my love for it, and to stick to my true beliefs.
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Spring/Summer 2019 is your second collection, and the first one to be showcased in Paris! You also staged a show at Shanghai Fashion Week in October. Things are moving along quickly. What would you say is the most exciting part? Is it the beginning, when everything is still to be done?
I would say it’s when the clothes complete the final process, when people see the finished products and try them on. These are the moments that give me new feelings and inspiration. I'm always pursuing further fashion appeal, so when people redefine Luem with their own identities, these collisions stimulate me and push me to shape the brand further. These identities will be reorganized and transformed once again into Luem’s elements.
I would like to talk about the features that define Luem as a brand. I can already recognize certain characteristics in both collections. Your clothes are very feminine and contemporary but not ‘cheesy’, and there is an interesting use in the contrasts of fabrics, textures and garment finishings, as well as an exquisiteness in the details. I’m not sure if you agree with me. What else is there to Luem, and how do you define the core DNA of the brand?
I hope that women who are dressed in Luem will be confident and wise and never constrain themselves. Instead, they should always look to explore and strengthen themselves and remain assertive. I want to see open minds, intelligence, and diverse personalities. You'll also find that Luem is always seeking a balance between classic and modern. We are inspired by the classic quality and tailoring of the past to redefine patterns and materials, thus creating exquisite and personalized pieces, and constantly bringing new surprises to customers.
Your Spring/Summer 2019 collection is inspired by the Fisherman and the Siren, by British 19th-century painter Frederic Leighton. What does the sea mean to you? I remember that you projected a film with the sea as the protagonist in your show, right?
I have mixed feelings about the sea, and the video depicts it from different angles so that everyone may see it from different perspectives. It is more of an emotional rendering and association. The feeling I want to express the most is in the mobility and power of the sea. I also want everyone to feel the beauty, smartness and intensity of women. If we talked about her personality, I think she should be a symbol of sensibility and courage. This is what I learned from the Fisherman and the Siren.
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What caught your attention from the Fisherman and the Siren for it to become the main inspiration for your collection? What does Luem share with the paintings of Frederic Leighton?
Personally, I prefer something that’s outstanding yet implicit; subtle beauty with a soft form and slight aggressiveness, overlapping with masculine power. The whole painting depicts an unusual and mysterious feeling. This delicate and strong collision, along with Luem’s image, are perfectly balanced; soft on the outside, strong on the inside, with rationality and sensibility coexisting together.
I’d like to learn a bit more about how you were able to translate this inspiration into the different looks. On one side, we can see something more feminine, delicate and sophisticated, but on the other side, there are also more casual and even sporty appearances.
This is exactly what I mentioned earlier – to try to encourage women to develop ‘diversity’. Another source of inspiration for this season are the Japanese professional female divers, (‘ama’ in Japanese, which can be translated as ‘sea woman’), so you will experience a feeling of relaxation. In the local area, these sea women are respected, and their status is magnified. They dress casually and rely on the sea water for a living. They are a powerful and representative group who love work and life, bravely move forward, and do their best to shoulder social and family responsibilities, which shows the vivid expression of the natural beauty of women. I think that their elegance and femininity come from the heart and are also reflected externally in an implicit way.
There are two points in this collection that I would like to highlight: the beautiful colour palette (powdery colours especially), and the contrasts you can find in some of the pieces developed in different ways (through shapes, fabrics and textures). This can also be found in your first collection. How important are the details for you?
Printing and knitting are mainstays of our brand. This is a result of my in-depth exploration of colour and texture when I was at school. Combining quality raw materials with innovative ideas is the core of the brand, so you'll see how we put together an exquisite combination of craftsmanship to illustrate our pursuit of details. At the same time, we believe that women who are dressed in Luem are those who pay extremely close attention to fine details and are in constant pursuit of high quality.
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Some of your pieces are very delicate and you use craft techniques. Could you explain this to us in more detail, please?
Aside from the Fisherman and the Siren, we also focused on 19th-century womenswear. We referred to classical lines and craftsmanship, so we used a lot of manual work such as anti-wrinkling and ruffling. We adopted constant draping and experimentation on the human body because the series will be reminiscent of the unfettered sea and the release of nature. Therefore, the fabric is hand-treated to maintain its drape and magnify the feeling of agility
Let’s talk a bit about Shanghai. It really surprised me how fashion is present on the street, and I don’t just mean the number of high-end fashion stores, but also that sense of aesthetics, the good taste you can sense in the people, which is not necessarily related to luxury or money. How would you describe Shanghai in terms of fashion
I think Shanghai is currently the best place to represent the new generation of Chinese fashion. It is also the city that receives fashion information the fastest. Many international students and multi-cultural choices are developed here. At the same time, Shanghai itself has a very historical and cultural atmosphere, and is home to many trendy and classical museums, bookstores, coffee shops and specialty stores that give you a lot of possibilities to explore and match your preferences. You'll see a lot of different tastes and flavours collide. Shanghai Fashion Week also magnifies this diverse city.
You took part in the last edition of Shanghai Fashion Week. Putting a show together is complicated and stressful, so I cannot even imagine how the first one must be! How was the experience? I have to say you seemed calm, although I know it must have felt very different to you below the surface…
Although this is the first show I have held, I already have a certain understanding of its form. Friends around me and acquaintances within the industry also have a wealth of experience to share with me. We’re all moving forward together, of course, I’m not alone in all this. I have an excellent team behind me and I work closely with them to ensure everything works as expected. Although I have always felt extreme pressure during this project, I hope that I can give positive and calming emotions to the people around me because I know that only by keeping a low-key state can I handle everything in a clearer and more rational manner.
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And now, what? What will your next steps be? What do you expect from Luem?
I hope that Luem can bring more exciting series and pieces so that they become something that everyone truly expects to see from this brand. I hope to develop products and feelings that everyone will really want to own. The Luem brand will always keep the elements of printing and knitting held high and give a better understanding of it to more people.
Have you always wanted to be a designer? When and how did your interest in fashion begin?
I have been assertive with my own fashion sense ever since childhood. I am recognized by the people around me, so I’ve always been confident in selecting clothes and matching colours. This makes me feel like I was born to work with colours and clothes. I also have a great interest in the analysis of female images. Watching people on the streets and touching on different cultures in life have prompted me to discover the commonality and charm of each individual woman. I want to convey this in all my designs. I think only fashion can fully express this in the most powerful way. I often go to Issey Miyake and Maison Martin Margiela stores in London. Issey’s use of colour and Margiela’s reinterpretation of shape and fabrics are excellent and have generated a great sense of curiosity and exploration of fashion in me. They have also enabled me to realize where my main interest lies.
Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you plan to open some stores, or move from Shanghai? Would you say that you are a dreamy woman, or do you prefer to live with your feet on the ground and take each day as it comes?
I think I’ll be in the middle of the zone, down to earth to do what can be achieved now, and if there is a suitable opportunity to take a big step, I will try – with the support of steady and positive feedback.
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Your first collection was inspired by photographer Takashi Yasumura’s series Domestic Scandals, the last of which is a Leighton painting. Clearly, art is important to you. Art is not only a door to beauty and freedom, but it also makes us think about our society, and helps us to understand the time we live in. What does art mean in your life?
For me, art is a kind of nutrient and energy. It lets us look at life from a variety of perspectives. Associations and dreams are probably what I find most fascinating in my life. Art enriches my associations, so I can use them to link all aspects of work and life, so that things are always fresh and exciting.
I don’t want to ask what artwork will inspire your next collection, but let’s finish with art nonetheless. Could you share with us your favourite artist, photographer and musician?
I personally find Anish Kapoor's work fascinating because he breaks the balance between classic and contemporary. This momentum of vision inspires Luem in many ways, such as communication, not only to the audience but also the surroundings and space of nature.
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