We already know that the future of fashion is in the hands of designers who are unfamiliar to us right now but who are currently working hard to make their names enter and remain in our minds. This time we get to know the world of Xingyi ‘Stella’ Huang, one in which deep conceptual development is translated into pieces so unique that they reveal her identity and are the basis for the construction of her personal style.
This birth of talent is taking place all over the world. In Chicago, we find Stella, who even at her young age has had a long journey exploring design and art in various disciplines and formats and has experimented enough to begin to find what defines her as a creator and as a person. An evolution of style that begins with futuristic airs and is focused on streetwear and ends in her latest collection, one in which natural elements are combined with structural pieces in an alternative sacred reality. In this interview, she tells us in depth how this collection arises and the conceptual work behind it – an interesting meeting of cultural influences, curiosity for elements and concepts from another world, and love and passion for fashion and the freedom that exists in expressing oneself through it.
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Hi Stella! It's a pleasure talking to you. First of all, for the people that may not know you, who are you? What do you want people to have in mind when they see or hear your name?
Hi! Nice meeting you! My name is Xingyi ‘Stella’ Huang. I'm a fashion designer based in Chicago and Beijing. I want my name and my identity as an artist to represent the stories I tell through clothing and the characters that I create through my pieces. In a way, they come together to form this dreamy parallel world that’s a soft, transcendental escape from reality. I want people to feel invited to participate in and explore the altered reality that my work portrays.
You have a background in international art management, which already shows your predilection towards the art world, although from a more administrative and executive perspective. You are now a designer, and you are also working on some music projects; when did the switch of paths happen? What made you decide to explore your more creative side?
Besides being a fashion designer, I’m also a singer, songwriter, DJ and model. I’ve been making music since 2019 and DJing since 2020. But I definitely spend more than seventy per cent of my energy on making clothes. That’s the outlet that lets me express myself to the fullest. Arts management is the business side of art, and while it’s important, it doesn’t fulfil my need to express my creative ideas. I’ve had a passion for fashion since I was a kid, but never had a chance to go into a fashion lab. Once I did it when I went to college, I knew it was my thing, and I have no regrets about pursuing it.
One of the most important but also difficult parts of being a designer is learning to identify your own personal aesthetic and work with it in a way that makes you stand out from the other millions of proposals out there. You’re very young, and I understand that you may still be in this self-discovery process, but do you think you have already found some key points or important elements that reflect your personal style as a creator?
Yes, I’m definitely looking to incorporate distinct symbolism into my body of work. Romance, sensuality, and retrofuturism are the three main design values I stick to. I consider myself a sensual and romantic person, so romantic and sensual elements are key for me to express femininity, love, and womanhood. I often use retrofuturistic aesthetics in my ready-to-wear looks to give commentary on the impact of past and future technology on humanity. This style interests me a lot, and I’ll keep learning and researching new ways to incorporate my personality into my brand naturally and organically.
When seeing your work, there's a fantastic and dreamy vibe to it; the visuals of not only your garments but also the photoshoots and pictorials look somehow otherworldly. Does this world come out straight from your own imagination, or are there some other referents that help you shape this oneiric aesthetic?
Naturally, I think that this fantastic and dreamy vibe just came out of my personality and translates to my designs. I often feel one with the piece I’m working on, and therefore, I’d like to call them ‘emotion suits,’ as my work contains my emotions as well as the feelings I’m illustrating. A lot of the time, I picture my designs in an environment that is alive and vibrant.
My work, especially the couture collections, is not just pieces of wearable cloth; they’re characters in the world I created, each with different stories. When making a new garment or collection, imagination plays a big part in coming up with most concepts. To make these concepts more practical, I research different subjects and topics related to the theme I’ll create.
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Your latest collection follows this path, where you merge the mystique elements mentioned before with other, more formal ones such as ancient architecture. This creates a mix not only in contrasting styles but also in timelines and even universes. How did you come up with this intricate concept?
I’ve always been drawn to things that oppose and contrast with one another. It’s interesting that such things exist in harmony and cannot function without each other. For example, love is paradoxical and dichotomous. This duality is visually expressed in the hugging lovers, where happiness and misery coexist, representing the true face of love, while my other looks illustrate the contrast in more abstract ways.
I believe the past and the future coexist in a dimension completely different from our own. I was inspired by ancient Chinese architecture that gave space to the warmth of the emotions of love, which ultimately contrasted with the cold snow forest, representing the cold, desolate future of love, loss, and grief. These two settings come together to illustrate the synchronicity of time and space. In quantum mechanics, past, present, and future may not be predetermined; rather, they’re subject to the observer’s perception and interpretation. While there’s continually more study on this topic, it’s always interested me and inspires me to create clothes that are related to it.
In the description of the garments, there's a mention of how you were inspired by Chinese palaces and gardens, such as the Forbidden City. How often or how strongly do you get inspired by your culture and your hometown? Do you incorporate it as much as you want to or has living abroad made you maybe not as connected to your roots as you wished?
At first, I felt disconnected from my culture as I was far away, but with the passage of years, I felt more connected to my roots on a spiritual level, and the best way for me to channel that through expression is by designing my collections. For example, the Palace Garden look was inspired by the women in the Forbidden City. Historically, the emperor had hundreds or even thousands of concubines there. Though they were brought to the Forbidden City as young girls, they would remain there until death. Most women were neglected and ignored, only seeing the emperor once in their lives. Others were desired by the emperor but dreaded the prospect of being trapped there. Some would fight for the emperor’s attention and kill each other to get rid of competitors.
All of these reflect a feudalist, patriarchal society. Sadly, it’s still an ongoing struggle for women every day. In my collection, I try to express the internal feelings of these women trapped in the Forbidden City and capture the beauty of their souls without being defined by men or compared with other women. They are gardens and mothers to the flowers that grow in the forbidden city. In this collection, The Forbidden City also represents women trapped in bad relationships and sacrificing the beauty of their souls to the patriarchy of today’s society.
As you just mentioned, the other very important part of this collection is women. The female archetypes help build and give sense and purpose to the emotions you try to convey in your different looks. How is the woman you want to portray in your work?
The women I’m trying to portray represent different types of love; each one of them tells a story that conveys heartbreak, rebirth, destruction, and transformation. The woman in Palace Garden has a fiery heart and is disappointed by the emperor; her soul has transformed into the flowers in the palace garden. Life goes on where she used to tread. She’s a dignified but melancholic and disillusioned woman.
The woman in the Frozen Forest is a dancing woman who was separated from her loved ones. Living in a space of loss, grief, and nostalgia, the separation made her turn crazy, and her heart was so cold that it froze the entire forest for thousands of years. Her love transformed into where the snow lands in the forests.
The hugging lovers are a pair of lovers or can be explained as one person with two opposite sides. They’re fighting themselves and struggling to understand what love is, as it’s a complex marriage of mirthful pink happiness and deep blue misery bonded in an inseparable embrace.
Leaving the more conceptual part aside and speaking more about the garments you create, it's evident how shapes, volumes, and texture are vital to translating the ideas into the real, tangible world. I'm curious about your creative process: do you work more focused on the fabrics you like and then see the volumes they create, or maybe the other way around? What is the next step you take after defining the concept?
In this collection, silk comprised the majority of the fabric. Particularly the Palace Garden look and the Frozen Forest look. Some are raw silk, some are silk organza. As silk gives the vibe of elegance as well as disillusion in my opinion. I also designed my own graphic to print out on fabric to create a fluid, electrifying vibe for the hugging lovers and a related look portraying energy flow and an invisible gravity.
Concerning my process, after I outline and define the concept, I spend time draping the fabric on a mannequin. This is what I’m good at and what I do most often to create the shape and structure of the looks. This technique helps me understand how the fabric sits on the human body and how the thickness of the fabric matches the colour. And shape. It’s also the most efficient method for me, as it’s more direct and natural. It’s like drawing on a stereo canvas; the human body is the canvas, and the fabric and silhouettes are the paintbrushes. This way is pretty fun, and I feel connected to the character I create.
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As much as we can see big shapes and volumes that on some occasions completely cover the body, some contrast is created with the lingerie-inspired pieces. How do you like to work the female body?
This contrast is part of my design concept. In a sense, a completely covered body in this collection is part of the social context the character is in. I think women are complex and mysterious in a lot of ways. There are sides to them that are wild, rebellious, confident, and sexy, and there are other sides to them that are shy, introverted, noble, and glamorous. To speak to this complexity, I want to show the beautiful shape of the woman's body in my lingerie-inspired pieces as well as express the glamorous feminine soul and personalities in my couture collection.
Many opposing sides of femininity and womanhood are both beautiful and sexy in their own ways. I do encourage and appreciate women to confidently express the beauty of their body shapes without caring what society has to say or think because they define who they are like no one else could.
I am struck by several of the looks on your Instagram, some of them much more along the lines of streetwear, with big puffer jackets, technical materials, and a kind of cyberpunk aesthetic. Is this something you continue to work on, or does this represent the early parts of your aesthetic that have evolved into what we can find in your latest creations?
I’m glad you noticed the shift. The way I design reflects strongly on the way I dress and how I feel. In 2018, I was in the early stages of my design process. My focus was directed towards futuristic, gender-fluid elements. The inspiration was about equality for women and men. I wanted to create rebellious, fearless, and cool womenswear. That time comprised more of the tough side of my designs. These styles were well received by my male audience as well.
I still dress like that daily, and I love that style. I’m considering producing more of that clothing in my fall and winter collections. However, as I began to tap more into my own femininity, I started wanting to express more sides of women that are soft, sensual, and romantic. Realising the beauty of women’s bodies, I wanted to create clothes for women to confidently show off the beauty of their features and combine some retro elements. I'm developing retro-futuristic and lingerie-inspired streetwear concepts, and I fully intend to keep doing so.
Aside from garments, we see you're also working on bags and claw-like jewellery. How is this going? Can we expect some of these complements to be launched soon?
Yes. I’m working on some 3D designs. It's probably going to take a couple of months to develop and be printed! Besides the claws and bags, I’m also working on some bras and shoes. I’m using all those ideas to better illustrate my visual language and help create the bigger visual that I’m trying to express.
You have a very promising career ahead; what are your plans for the future? What are you working on currently?
Thank you. I’m currently working on my lingerie-inspired ready-to-wear collection as well as developing a consumer-friendly digital shopping experience. I’m also planning on making more couture looks that continue the storyline of the previous collection. I’m planning on developing more unique materials, expanding my studio, and adding more techniques to my designs.