Painterly, sensual, and inspired by the works of artists such as Claude Cahun and Maisie Cousins, the Spring/Summer 2020 collection by Underage is softer and more feminine than previous ones. However, Ying Shen, its founder and designer, doesn’t abandon her core values: a strong undertone of sexual liberation, a distinctive approach to garment-making, and bold graphics informed by her graphic design background.
Defined as “a surreal imagining of a secret society where sensuality reigns supreme”, the new collection is feminine in style and is imbued with religious imagery and iconography. Exploring the power of the cult, the Chinese London-based designer has worked on rich embroideries, digital graphic prints, and irregular, deconstructed silhouettes. Pushing the boundaries of sexuality and self-expression further, she’s calling up all revolutionaries daring to challenge conventions and the status quo. Are you one of them? Then, join her unique cult, a secret society where fashion, sex and rebelliousness meet.
Looking at Underage is like entering a multifarious universe: colours and textures, craftsmanship and iconic pop culture references, graphics and motifs, printing and dying techniques. Who is Ying Shen and what is Underage?
I’ve always loved graphics and studied graphic design at university. I then worked as a graphic designer for five or six years. I always had a passion for fashion though, so I quit my job and applied to study at Central Saint Martins. I found I love London and I just stayed. Now it’s been eight years! After CSM, I started Underage and we focus on graphics, deconstruction and an unorthodox approach to traditional garment construction.
You say that inspiration comes to you, in part, from childhood nostalgia. Introduce us to your inner world – references, key moments or how becoming a fashion designer happened.
I love the craftsmanship and traditional textile techniques like screen printing, weaving, as well as the skill and processes in tailoring. So these all inspire me on how we make our garments.
Also, is this childhood nostalgia why your brand’s name is Underage?
The brand is called Underage because we celebrate a youthful mindset. We design clothes for people who are young, experimental and rebellious in their mind, regardless of their age.
You founded your brand in 2017, and in this short period of time, you’ve already showcased your collections in Shanghai, London and Paris fashion weeks. What has this meant to you both professionally and personally?
I love London and it’s a huge inspiration for me. So presenting in the city is very important to me and Underage. London is young, edgy and vibrant. Then, there’s Paris, a very sophisticated market where you can get great feedback on the brand. Shanghai is of huge importance to us. The Chinese fashion market is the biggest in the world, so commercially it’s very important to get into the market early. However, it’s more than that for us. Being from China, it’s important to me that we take the inspirations and designs that are being born in London and take them back to my home.
What do you get from each city? Where would you like to see the brand next?
We want to develop the brand in London right now and integrate ourselves into the city more. We also want to develop the brand internationally, so we’re looking to do collaborations with some London or global artists in the near future.
You’ve just presented your Spring/Summer 2020 collection, but let me go back a bit. The Fall/Winter 2019 collection was about a “super horror obsessed” mood: it was inspired by the mid-70s musical comedy The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and featured a lot of red, velvet, faux fur, mixed fabrics and jacquard, among others. What is it about the film that inspires you so much?
I like the eccentricity of the film and also the craziness behind it. Also, it goes with the core Underage concepts of sexual liberation/freedom.
Remarkable moment/scene from The Rocky Horror Picture Show?
When Janet and Brad enter the house and Dr Frank-N-Furter surprises them.
The previous collection, Lucid Dream, was inspired by the club kid era from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. What did you want to recover from those days? As a curiosity, any favourite Club Kid you admire?
I felt like it would be great to bring back the fun and excitement from the club kid era. I see a lot of people at work, travelling, etc. in blazers or with flower prints. I wanted to bring some of the excitement from the club kids era into modern-day clothes.
China, where you are from and where you got your degree in Graphic Design, deals with an unstable situation for young designers and creative youth. Websites and social media like Instagram, Youtube or even Google (partially) are disabled there. But in Western countries, they serve, for many young (creative) people, as their newspapers or sources of inspiration, where they know what happens around the world and discover other people, trends, etc. Tell us about this and how do you think it affects the younger generations growing up in the country.
China has a different set of social media to the West. Douyin is a big one for young people nowadays. It has now come to the West in the form of TicTok (owned by TicTok’s owner ByteDance), which is replacing Instagram in many ways for Gen Z in the West. Then there’s WeChat, which looks on the surface like WhatsApp, but really is more like Facebook in the way it is colossal and you can do anything on it (social, messenger, buy things). And therefore, even if it’s obviously true you can’t get on Western social media sites in China, that’s not to say Chinese people have a lack of social media or inspiration for their creativity, we just have a different social media universe to the West.
Do you feel that this isolation is creating unique and original designers and artists?
The situation for Chinese young designers is very exciting right now. Chinese people are beginning to value home brands over international heritage brands, and at the same time, we are also seeing more Chinese brands or international brands by Chinese designers on the international stage. When it comes to fashion and art, young Chinese people are very up-to-date on what’s going on in the world, so it’s not a case of isolation. As we have different forms of social media, however, I’m sure that does have an effect on how people develop as the types of content will differ – so maybe that will be a bigger influence as the wave of Gen Z designers comes through in five to ten years.
The brand offers designs that “question the status quo and stand out graphics”; it’s aimed at people with a strong, carefree personality. “We love playing with sexuality in our graphics, and our orchid print this season is one of our favourites yet”, says one of your Instagram posts. What would you like to transmit or express with your designs/brand?
We’re in an amazing time right now where people feel more able to express themselves. Their sexuality, gender, or anything else. Our graphics are in part celebrating this freedom that people feel right now, and at the same time, pushing that boundary further. It in part harks back to those standard flower prints I was talking about earlier. We’re trying to take things that are the ‘status quo’ and push boundaries with them – so a flower print that could be an orchid or a vagina, depending on your perspective. I think that’s fun, expressive, and pushes the boundary of freedom of expression.
To finish, what’s coming for Underage?
We’re launching our own e-commerce soon, which is pretty exciting!