Sustainable fashion crafted in part from 3D printed materials. That may seem like a collection of industry buzzwords, but for designer Zhuolin Liu, it represents a vision of the future. Liu’s brand ZHUO creates colour-rich, dreamy styles using an incredible mix of technology and classic fashion craftsmanship, with each look created with sustainability at its core. Schön! speaks to the designer to hear more about the label and this collection, ‘Alter-Altering’.
When and why did you become interested in design?
When I was in middle school, my parents had a small garment factory. I used to go there during summer break. I had the chance to see how a garment is made, and I asked the adults, ‘Who decided to use this specific colour? Who added this bow on that dress?’ At that time, I didn’t have an idea of what designers do. What really expanded my interest in design was the few projects I did in college. I was able to utilise all sorts of textile and material on my clothing and accessories projects. Metal scrap, acrylic board, wool, leather — it was quite exciting. I remember that I gave too many requirements to the hardware stores to customise the material for me and they kicked me out.
In 2019, you decided to drop out of FIT to learn 3D printing and improve your skills independently. Why did you decide to do this, and what did you learn in this time?
Leaving FIT was mainly because of a family reason. It was a hard decision to make. The idea of learning 3D printing actually came from the thought of ‘less consumption, less production and less shipping, and everyone can produce things on their own.’ During the pandemic, I had a lot of discussions with my boyfriend and we decided to act on it. We got a 3D printer and I started to design. The material we use for printing is recyclable and biodegradable; it’s made of plant material such as corn sugar, potato or sugarcane. It helps to reduce the demand for fossil fuels used to make conventional plastics. There are many things that we could have bought from stores or online, like a cable holder, planter, card wallet, book stand, etc. Instead, we made them on our own. Furthermore, I also had an interest in incorporating the 3D printing technique into the jewellery design process. I learned a lot and really enjoyed it.
Introduce us to “Alter-Altering”. What motivated this series?
“Alter-Altering” explores the new concept of fabric and interactions with the human body. In this era of questioning, even the most fundamental building blocks of society are interrogated. What is a woven fabric, and is there another way to envelope our vulnerable bodies? 100,000 years ago, woven textiles joined animal hides to form the second skin of early humankind. But now, the processes of woven fabrics — harvesting, weaving and dying — contribute 20% of all the polluted waters on Earth. As we interrogate our practices, we have to ask if there is another way. I considered this question and I wanted to avoid the process of traditional fabric/garment production as much as I could. So, in this collection, 50%-70% of fabric is replaced by the material that I created from recycled plastic material and fabric scraps.
What inspired your material selection for these pieces?
I took inspiration from a latex-like, recycled, liquid plastic material I played with when I was a kid. I remember the fun of using this material to draw different shapes: stars, flowers, animals and shapes that didn’t make any sense. You can actually draw whatever shape you want. Then you heat it at a certain temperature, and when it cools down it will become a rubber-like finish that will never make any wrinkles. When I was repeating the motion of drawing the shapes in my mind, the idea of ‘draw your garment’ occurred to me. But then I realised that I needed textures, a sense of touch. So, I asked myself: why don’t I throw the fabric scraps in the liquid? That’s how the whole textile design process started.
Can you talk a bit about the process of making these pieces — both the creation of the material and composing each piece?
I experimented with the liquid at different temperatures. I added natural dyes and also blended different types/colours of tulle and wool scraps with this liquid material. It created a series of new vibrant fabric samples in different textures and colors. Then I combined and collocated these small pieces again and got a colourful collection of final sample fabric. It was not a first-time success, of course. I did a lot of experiments and had failures. Some fabric won’t work at a certain temperature, and certain fabric would just shrink and make a mess. At the end, not a single piece had exactly the same colour or texture. The experiment created a new skin that beautifully fuses conventional materials with layers of vibrant colours and textures.
What’s been inspiring you recently?
Fashion consumption and the values of designers to society. What is our position? Does our design promote more impulsive consumption that’s not needed? Or does it encourage the action of preserving/reusing/recycling?
Why is sustainability important to your brand?
ZHUO is a Chinese word with multiple layered meanings: polish, refine and think. The name signifies the opposite of fast fashion. To me, sustainable fashion is more than just addressing fashion textiles or products. It’s about every step involved in the entire industrial chain — it has so many problems and needs more action. There is a stereotype that “ethical” fashion products equal “boring”. As a designer, there is so much room and responsibility for me to bring excitement and energy to my design projects, no matter clothing or fashion accessories. Although it involves many processes, it needs both creativity and industry knowledge to design, operate and implement. It’s quite challenging.
What’s next for ZHUO?
Sustainable design is something ZHUO will always pursue. Our new accessories collection will come soon this winter. In the future, I want to develop more techniques to incorporate different recycled/environmentally-friendly materials in fashion clothing and accessories pieces.