New York-based designer Haixi Ren is inspiring a whole new kind of sustainability. With her label Ren, the designer seeks to influence the fashion world to take sustainability seriously. In the process, looks from REN deconstruct traditional fashion and craftsmanship, opting for 100% waste free looks that are ‘painted on’ to the wearer rather than produced en masse. Schön! spoke to the designer about this collection, its accompanying video and what’s next for REN.
What is your personal history as a designer?
I am a New York-based fashion designer who focuses on sustainability and innovation. I am dedicated to improving the textile waste problem within the fashion industry. I have lived in three countries; I grew up in China, studied in London and New York. During my freelancing/internships at Thom Browne, Vera Wang and Proenza Schouler, I gained unique industry experiences and began to reflect on how to build a sustainable fashion world and work towards accomplishing zero waste designs.
What inspired you to launch REN, your own label?
I view fashion as a form of fine art that allows the designer to not only speak to modern social issues, but to provide meaningful solutions as well. This is the fundamental mission statement when I launched my own label REN. When I was naming my brand, I was hesitating between naming it with my full name “Haixi Ren” or just Ren; the reason why I chose to name my brand with my family name is that, growing up, I had a lot of feelings toward my last name. It is not only a heritage from my father’s side, but also it means “responsibility” in Chinese. I believe everyone came to this world with a mission. My duty is to use fashion as a method to empower my wearers. As such, my ultimate goal is to build “REN” into a world-class brand that will push the industry forward.
How did you first become familiar with the concept of “pure art”? And how did you manifest it in this collection?
This collection took inspiration from philosophies behind “pure art”, which was first proposed by Clement Greenburg. I came across the concept of “pure art” during an art history lecture and was intrigued by the process of how art evolved from craftsmanship to an intellectual concept. Abstract Expressionism has always been my favourite art movement. Similar to a “pure” painting, a “pure” garment should surrender to the resistance of its media. This collection reveals the true essence of a garment; it is the second skin made by fibres and yarns. Similar to how Greenburg understands a flat canvas, I regard the body as a space to reproduce, redesign, express and analyse existing garment form; therefore I created new textiles, which can be “painted” on the body. During this process I ensured its suitability. My goal was to break the traditional idea of using yardages of fabrics to create patterns, which often results in textile waste as a byproduct. The fundamental idea is to use recycled fabric swatches to create a sustainable textile design, and creating garments from these designs, the whole collection is 100% zero waste.
What else inspired this collection?
Besides “pure art”, I also researched other art theories and applied them to garment creation. As being “painterly” emerged in the art world, artists revealed the truth about a painting — that it is a flat canvas covered with paint instead of a window to another world. “When one starts a painting by drawing, it’s already too academic; we start with colors.” When one starts a garment by patterning, it’s already too rigorous. I start with feelings. I want to express the dynamic I experienced in front of a Joan Mitchell painting. It was the first time I realized how an art object can resonate with me. I want my wearers to be embraced by colours and textures.
You’ve said that you invented new textiles that you could ‘paint’ onto the wearer. Can you tell us more about this process — both its creation and how it is applied to the wearer?
Similar to creating abstract paintings, I created my collection without sketching and detailed design plans. Instead of creating garments using scientific measurements and patterns, I created garments through spontaneous draping and textile manipulation. I let the body guide me with constructing silhouettes. I achieved a balance between concealing and revealing by strategically placing swatches in a way which mimics the effect of growing and sprawling, similar to applying paint for an action painting.
The video you’ve included with this is quite striking. What were you looking to capture with this film?
I encountered Stefy Lin on social media, and I was extremely enthusiastic to collaborate with her on a fashion film “One Minute of Life”. we wanted to create a subtle storyline with conceptual modern dance movements. Stefy’s vision was combining dance, floriculture and fashion to express stages of life in one minute, from blooming to withering. This film is trying to explore the relationship between humans and flowers, a relationship that throws light on the synergetic dynamics of embodied aesthetics. Clothing is the second skin of human; it forms a cycle of life from birth to death. This film captures the passion of living and the tranquility of death. Since both of us are very sensitive to colour and texture, we were able to put together looks with appropriate set design. It was a blessing and pleasure to work with someone who shares the same artistic vision.
What inspired you to focus so heavily on sustainability?
I’ve become very sensitive to the textile waste problem within the fashion industry since I am experiencing it every single day. I was heavily inspired by the disposed fabric piles in the schools I went, reminiscing about fabric boxes in the companies I have worked for, thousands of fabric swatches lying in my personal drawers. I see the beauty in those fabric piles, a feeling of sloppiness which is enhanced by multi-textures and colours, but they also make me very sentimental and it’s almost painful to realise all those gorgeous fabrics have to go to waste just because they are too small. That is why my goal was to break the traditional idea of using yardages of fabrics to create patterns, which often results in textile waste as a byproduct. The fundamental idea is to use recycled fabric swatches to create sustainable textile design and creating garments from these designs, which ensured my collection is 100% waste.
What’s next for REN?
REN SS22 will be released in September 2021 during New York Fashion Week. Going forward, REN will focus on both couture and ready to wear. I am planning to launch my accessory line next season as well, which includes handbags, fashion jewellery, hair accessories and shoes. My vision for sustainability will continue to be just as important as my aesthetic artistry, and my brand “REN” will help lead the fashion industry to be more creative and less wasteful. Ultimately, my goals are substantial as I aim to inspire the industry at large to rethink fashion as it currently stands, to focus on creating rather than simply producing.
Discover more from REN on Instagram.