A stone’s throw from the Oculus in Lower Manhattan, Century 21’s corporate shopping tower contains a glorious clash of things: bargain basics sit alongside hand-pieced Dior jackets that have landed on clearance racks, often ripped or stained along the collar. It is a treasure trove for fans of ironic fashion—the ideal spot for Kim Shui to reveal her Spring 2018 collection this weekend, a next-level meditation on high-low culture.
The Parsons and Central Saint Martins-trained designer debuted at VFiles last year with a lineup defined by its tailored shapes and rich fabrics (furs, snakeskin). But over the course of four seasons, Shui has evolved at breakneck speed and become a quiet peddler of cool to It girls of all stripes: Kylie Jenner, Solange, Sita Bellan, Cardi B. Her statement pieces veer just on the edge of bad taste, like sheer lace jumpsuits in jungle green and flame red and velour cheetah sweats. At Century 21, Shui nodded to that reputation. Black trash bags were piled up at the entrance and models walked on sheets of polyethylene, spotted with pools of water. More intriguing than the staging, however, was the narrative subtly woven into each garment.
The season began with the distorted, three-dimensional paintings of Spanish artist Angela de la Cruz and Jackie Nickerson’s Terrain, a portrait series of Southern and East African farmers with their faces obscured. But within those images, the “random” plastic bags and knots caught her eye, their oddly pleasing “chance” combination of textures. Through them, she hoped to examine how we are shaped by our environment, and how we in turn influence our surroundings. “This hits me quite personally because I grew up in Italy, was born in the U.S., but am of Chinese background,” she says.
Her conceptual practice came through in the composition of her clothes. “I wanted the garments to explore change and chance,” she says. “With some of the pieces, you wouldn’t be able to wear or wrap them exactly the same way twice, so they grow with the person that wears them.” Shui’s CSM background shows in her workmanship: a silvery dishabille blouse with tiered flounces hangs off the shoulder, and the back of each sleeve is slit open and closed with loosely tied bows. Another is wound around the waist of a blue plaid-trimmed blazer, then paired with a fluttering clementine orange skirt stamped with blooms. A crystal thong glints through a filmy hot pink mini that clings to the body just so.
By adding fluidity and movement to her previously structured work, Shui has created a physical and philosophical study in contrasts. “Spring was about exploring the threshold between what is silent and what is loud, what is excessive and what is not,” she says. “I used fabrics that felt tender and raw to me such as linens and hemp with more lavish and glossy textiles such as Lurex chiffons, lace, and brightly colored snakeskins.” Chief among them was a beautiful floor-length brocade coat with white snakeskin on the pockets. It catches the light, its iridescent sheen shifting between pale pink and lilac and gold. It looks expensive; at the same time, it resembles the glossy $5 cheongsam on sale in Chinatown. There lies the brilliance.