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Xinyuan Xu’s designs are something that stem out of her own understanding. For her MA graduate show during London Fashion Week, she chose to display a line of veiled women wearing foam cactuses in multiple forms. Perhaps her strange perceptions of the human body made people uncomfortable but this is also what made her stand out in the womenswear designers’ category. Here, she talks about toiling cacti, the press response and the limitations of online research.

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Photography by Olin Brannigan

How long have you been at Central Saint Martins, and what did you study before you came here?

I studied art at a boarding school in Kent before coming to CSM. It has been more than six years since I’ve been here: I came to do a one-year foundation course, which was followed by three years of BA and one year of working experience in the industry. Then, I finally did my Masters.

When did you first hear about Central Saint Martins?

I first heard about Central Saint Martins through my guardian when I was 13. It was really exciting to know that there was a place where I could do something mad.

What made you interested in studying fashion design?

I was always interested in art and design and studied Chinese painting for years. I recognized my desire to study design during my first few months at the foundation course. I grew curious about making garments – it was a process that realised obscure concepts. It was really inspiring because it was always about the trade-off between the freedom one would like to have in order to create something inspiring, and the practicability when actually making the garment.

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Why did you choose to base your collection on cactuses?

Cactuses represent a vivid vitality and a striving to live. It really made me eager to create this collection.

What did Louise, or Fabio, or any of the tutors say when they saw the cactuses and heard about your ideas?

It was such a shame that Louise only saw the beginning of the project while I was still working on the cactus shoes. Fabio and Julie supported me all the way through, when they saw my idea and my passion in it.

What was the press response?

There are good and bad responses; it takes time for people to understand, but I like to make people reflect after seeing this collection. I don’t mind if they hate it.

What was your family’s response?

Surprisingly, my parents loves it. They are always interested in art but never in fashion, I’m glad that they understand and have been so supportive.

What was your goal of doing it — to shock, try something crazy for the last time, or to have fun?

I always like challenging myself and it will not be the last time. I was having great fun; even now, I’m still exited about it.

How important is it to have a commercial value to what you make? 

Whilst working on my final collection, I almost lost myself because I started worrying about things like – what would people like to see, who will buy my clothes, how will I find a job. But I’m really grateful to my tutors who helped me get back on track. I’m convinced that a “commercial value” to what you make will come along subsequently. Nevertheless, I am trying to improve my business awareness as well as working with more commercial pieces.

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Do you want to establish your own independent label or would you like to work for a brand?

I would love to work for other brands to gain more experience in the industry. I want to establish my own label but it involves a lot of other factors apart from design. Right now, I want to concentrate on one thing at a time.

What brands do you want to work for? What benefits do you think you’ll have by showing them a portfolio full of cactuses?

Iris van Herpen or Viktor & Rolf. I’m open for all opportunities at the moment. There are too much to learn from in the industry and I’m ready for the next challenge. Cactus is just one idea in my portfolio.

Do you feel like you’ve learnt a lot from your peers?

Yes, absolutely. Each one of us is so individual and everybody has different strengths. I think it’s important to have a close relationship with your peers. But there were times I would get so influenced by their ideas that it’d be difficult to detach them from my own designs. So, spending too much with your peers can also limit your creativity.

What’s behind the images you made of the hugging guys, and the hugging illustrations? 

I was simply sketching the Saguaro Cactus and drew eyes and lips on them to make them look like humans. The silly way they grow really inspired me. I also asked my friend to play around and make different poses (like a cactus) for me to develop from.

What artists inspired you for this collection?

Mark Klett’s Saguaro photographs gave me a lot of ideas.

How do you come across all this imagery, like the man standing in front of the cactus with his costume? 

That was actually my very first toile, I was just thinking about making a cactus shape using my own technique. I like to develop my own research and build it up from there.

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What did you type into Google search when you wanted to find this stuff?

There is a limitation online, it’s handy when you need a quick browse. I would still prefer the traditional way of researching.

What was your design process like? 

I spent a lot of time observing and creating my own collages, illustrations and images. I enjoy working in this way, it’s more playful and original.

If there was one thing that you could change at CSM, what would it be and why?

I wish we could have windows instead of air conditioning. I always think of those days at Charing Cross Road where we could get some fresh air after a day of sewing.

What is your favourite cactus?

I love them all. I have been spending almost a year developing this collection, so they’re just like my children.

Interview by Jeena Sharma 

Check out all of Xinyuan’s illustrations on Pinterest!

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