The lyrical world of Queenie Cao reminds us that, in periods of political and social uncertainties, fashion can still be about delicate and oneiric craftwork. Dolls, colourful crochet dresses, girly faces with meticulous hairstyles and delicate ornaments is what one finds in the young Chinese designer’s debut jewellery collection. Passionate about dolls but too old to play with them, she finds ways to keep them around.
Freshly graduated from Parsons MFA Fashion Design and Society in 2016, Queenie is facing the early challenges of establishing her own brand. The designer is producing her first jewellery collection with her business partner Runxi Wang, whilst continuing to work on her womenswear line on the side. Feeling the constrains of the business side of the jewellery project, she balances it with total creative freedom on her clothes collection, keeping her fantasy world of dolls, colour, and textured craftwork alive.
You have launched your brand, Queenie Cao New York, quite recently. How has the experience been so far?
Well, it has been really difficult. Things take a very long time to process, like half a year. There are a lot of things to do and to negotiate, and I don’t really know how to set up everything on my own. Basically, I just registered my jewellery line, not my clothes line.
Is jewellery your main priority at the moment?
I’m still doing fashion, I’m working on the next collection, but for my jewellery collections I have a partner, whereas in fashion I am on my own. It’s the same name, but I have a business investment partner for jewellery. So, the fashion design is really about whatever I want to do!
Was it the way you expected, to start a brand of your own?
Before I started my masters of Fashion at Parsons I was already doing jewellery. I was also part of some pop-up stores in Scotland while I was living there. At the time, I used to do some random jewellery, so I started with just one piece for some galleries. Now it’s different because I have registered my brand, and it’s more about thinking of the collections and how to approach the market. It’s taking a long time because I take nearly half a year to produce everything here. It’s also really difficult at the beginning because I have to work with a factory here, which is totally different from the factory that I worked with before. You know, when you meet people for the first time, they cannot make your pieces perfect nor in the way you were expecting, so you have to redo it and fix it, which takes a very long time. It’s not like before, when I was making just one piece by myself, and wouldn’t really need to think about the production side of it. Now it’s different and I really need to think of the easiest way to produce and sell it.
Is there any part of the creative process that gets lost during that whole process of production?
Well, maybe. When I shoot my clothes collection, for instance, I will make some random jewellery with it. And for that piece, I don’t really need to think about marketing. But when you have two big collections each year, you have to think about the marketing part.
You started by studying fashion design in China, Scotland and finally in New York. What made you so interested in pursuing jewellery design?
I really think it was because accessories are really important to me. I want to put jewellery together with the clothes. I studied fashion in my BA for four years, and during those four years I did really random things, not focusing on anything in particular. I did sculpture, ceramics, and jewellery. And then during my transfer in Scotland, which happened in my final year, I worked mainly in fashion. I don’t know, I feel that it is all together. I really like using my hands to work and feeling that small sculpture thing. But in my point of view, I kind of think about jewellery in the fashion way, I believe.
So do you see your jewellery as an extension of your fashion design work?
Fashion design is visibly present in your jewellery work. Do you think your work would have been different if you hadn’t studied fashion?
Yes, it would have been very different. Totally different, I think. I just feel that, since my clothes were not easy to wear before, I try to make them more wearable now. Also, when I think about the market I cannot really control the clothes line, and I don’t have that problem in my jewellery line or with accessories. All my collections will have accessories, like gloves, hats or shoes. For the clothes, if I just give myself the freedom to do whatever I want, okay, then I’ll do whatever I want. But if I have to think about the market, I would feel that it is so difficult! Maybe this is because I have been studying for so many years, and this is my dream job, so every time you think about the market, you have to think that you cannot do this piece because it’s not going to sell, and that is hard.
So do you think that jewellery is easier to adapt to the market than fashion design?
I think it depends on you. There are some people doing artistic jewellery for galleries, right? In my case, maybe yes. For my clothes line I just want to give myself more freedom. But we will see, maybe after two or three collections I will do no more! No more marketing and just doing what I want!
Some pieces of your latest jewellery collection are miniature girls dressed in beautifully detailed dresses, which remind us of the collection you did for your MFA at Parsons. Who are these girls?
They are dolls! I just really like the doll. So I really want to do the dolls and try to work on it and find many ways of doing it with ceramics or silver, like in my BA. So now it’s like small mini dolls that you can take wherever you go. All the dresses the dolls are wearing are like crochet dresses and you can take off. So maybe each clothes collection will have this mini dress on the doll. As for the jewellery, since it’s too small, you cannot make so many crazy styles of dresses to take off.
Is the doll something very important for you that you like to keep as a reference for your different collections?
Yeah. Well, actually I always wanted to make the dolls, and that’s why I studied fashion. I studied fashion because I liked to play with dolls!
What do you wish to transmit with these pieces?
What I want to express? I just want to show my point of view and the dolls. You can dress them, and for different collections you get different dresses that you can take with you. At my age it is not okay to play with Barbies, so you have to have another kind of doll (laughs).
The most delicate and simple pieces of your collection are paired with pendants in the form of mysterious genderless masks or girl faces with short hair in different colours, which makes me think of Chinese culture’s masks. Is your cultural heritage something that comes naturally when you design?
Not really. For the classic ones, the ones you are talking about, I made the moulds two years ago and then developed different hairstyles based on this. It’s not really about my culture because I have my hairstyle for over ten years and it has never changed. So, I’ve been thinking about it for this collection because it’s the first one and I wanted to make some classic pieces. These pieces have a sort of classic style, so I give them more hairstyles and things like that.
You have studied art and fashion in three different continents, and three different countries. How did that experience influence your work?
It definitely influenced me. In China, my school was a fine arts school, so there was lots of room to explore different materials. So during my BA I was not really studying fashion, I was just exploring a lot of materials. For example, lacquer, and some sculptures. You know lacquer, the bracelets? It’s something you work on many layers, and then polish them. There were two or three months like that, and then it was something with installation, like fashion installation. But we also studied pattern cutting and basic things. I think it was the different kind of materials that interested me, which is part of the jewellery work. After that, when I was transferred to Glasgow School of Art to study fashion and only going to class, I had so much time to work on my clothes by my hands. So I was actually making them. The school has a great library, with a lot of craft books. I think I spent a lot of time in the library looking at these kinds of traditional crafts and textiles, and that experience made me craftier in fashion. And then at Parsons it’s more about research yourself to find your own territory. All of this combines together at some point.
Tell me about craft fine art jewellery techniques in China. Are these very different from those you learned in Scotland or in New York?
Yes, very different. When you think of the idea or the concept, it doesn’t really matter. Fashion is closer to the body, and I feel that jewellery is more like an item, and it’s not that close to the body.
I didn’t learn the techniques in the UK and here, but mostly in China. But I think they are all working the same way. If I am just using the fan, silver or gold, I think the technique is the same, but if I work with other materials it depends on those materials. Each material has its own techniques. That’s kind of difficult with fashion. If you want to use a different material you have to know it. And maybe you don’t know everything about these materials if you haven’t work with them before.
What were the most interesting techniques you have learned throughout your education and experience?
Hmmm…maybe it’s making the moulds! It’s very experimental. The moulds depend obviously on the shape you want. Maybe you can use some already existing materials to work or you can start from really basic wax. The trial part is interesting because you’re trying and sometimes it doesn’t work. Also, you are working with your hands so you really feel it.
If you wished to learn more about jewellery, what and where would you like to learn?
Well, now I’m in New York so I can only study here. I wouldn’t really want to learn it from a school again, I would just like to learn from old experienced technicians and focus on the materials to learn it. Then, if I want to learn about another material, then I would have to find a different person to learn from. Maybe I would like to learn about some traditional materials only in certain locations in China. There is a great place to learn ceramics there, for instance. In America they also have some places that are famous for producing ceramics, it’s not really jewellery, but it’s a good example for the materials. And then maybe the lacquer as I told you before, which is famous in Japan. Fine art jewellery is in northern Europe, maybe in Finland or Norway
What would you say to someone who wishes to become a jewellery designer?
I think you have to know if you like stone, chains, or you are interested in technical things or materials, or in the creative part and doing random things. You know, some people just work in one material for their whole lives, and they just do that always. So, I would say to explore and create each collection different, but it really depends on your tastes and discovering what interests you. Maybe know if you are into technical things, materials or just classic. Also, find out what you are best in and search for a direction.
Words Maria Vieira Lopes Images Courtesy Queenie Cao