Consider the human body: a source of pleasure and anxiety, of experience and meaning, of beauty and perceived ugliness, and above all perpetually, persistently there. Consider the clothing we wear over it: tops, pants, dresses, and more, designed to obscure the very thing that makes us human. Now what if the garments we wore weren't treated as separate objects, made only to cover us? What if they worked in tandem with our existing limbs, fat, muscle, and skin to create something beautiful?
At Rui, the designer Rui Zhou explores this possibility through knitwear, but not the cold-weather sweaters that description evokes. Instead, Zhou pulls the genre away from conventions of form and crafts garments that challenge us to see our bodies in a new light. Her pieces, which span from delicate, web-like bodysuits to architectural 3-D knits, curve and criss-cross across the body to create silhouettes that recall the elegant spatial ambitions of Zaha Hadid in textile format. Playing with both positive and negative space, the resulting pieces encourage the wearer and the onlooker to reconsider the relationship between the body and its surroundings. "I see the body as a very primitive and original form that contains intimacy, emotions, and complexity of nature," she says. "And the space between the human body and knitwear is always fascinating to me." According to Zhou, her work is where she gets to explore this tension.
Zhou was born in an industrial city in the province of Hunan, China, where she was surrounded by close family and nature. As a child, fashion didn't seem like the most obvious career path, but she loved "delicate things" and the ephemeral beauty of fragile fabrics made using traditional techniques. She "gravitated towards softness," she says. Eventually, she decided to study textile design before switching to fashion design after two years as part of her undergraduate degree at Tsinghua University. After graduating, she headed to New York to attend Parsons for an interdisciplinary MFA in fashion design and society.
It was there, while completing her graduate project, that she discovered an affinity for elastic knitwear and the way it embodied the contradictory qualities of softness and strength she had always been attracted to. As a technique, knitting is unique in that it allows the designer the ability to create both the material and the garment at the same time. For Zhou, this synergy between form, construction, and material allowed her to envision the interaction between the bodily form and textiles in a more spatial manner, akin to installation art or architecture. "I've always been passionate about using materials to express the fluidity of emotions and body. Using knitwear gives me a lot more possibilities to experiment," she says.
For her, the syntaxes of fashion are simply ways to express the ideas she holds. In her process, she collects inspiration from "daily life," she says. "I usually start by finding the texture that is closest to the feeling I want to express and then I try to use similar materials to match it." The result is pieces knit from a stretchy, malleable blend of nylon and spandex, joined together with tiny, iridescent pearls—items that express vulnerability and toughness all at once.
Rui has been worn by celebrities such as Solange, Ouyang Nana, Chloe and Halle Bailey, and Dua Lipa on the cover of Rolling Stone. But for Zhou, there is no Platonic ideal for the body—the point of her work is to explore and celebrate all shapes and sizes. Indeed, her brand tagline as seen on her website is "Love what makes you, you." In February 2020, she worked with stylist Rachael Wang, known for her inclusive casting, to showcase her sherbet-colored knitwear on models of all body sizes and skin tones. Her work often uses cutouts in places that expose our most vulnerable and least conventionally attractive parts. "Knitting unexpected and creative shapes together, we’re forced to consider the body’s complexities," she says. "It seems that exposed knees and lower back shapes help us to celebrate the natural beauty of what I'm most passionate about: all types of bodies in all their glory."
Since she graduated from Parsons in 2018, Rui's rise has been exponential: In 2018, she was a CFDA+ Design Graduate, and she's shown three times at New York Fashion Week (allowing for a pandemic break), all while assisting in design at Alexander Wang, Melitta Baumeister, and DKNY. But Covid-19 hasn't seen her slow down—she's currently on her way to Europe to work on her Spring 2022 collection. When asked what her plans are for the future of her brand, she responds with a very human goal: "to continue exploring the idea of imperfection."