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Penultimate: Xiang Gao’s Chinese Americana

Words Jack Davis

“The weirdest-looking orange in the basket: it can be someone’s favourite,” said Xiang Gao, who launched her unisex, New York-based label called Penultimate for AW19. Luxe and odd in equal measure, her debut 14-piece collection offers many such an orange.

Xiang grew up in Wenzhou, China in a family of clothing manufacturers. She studied fashion design at the China Academy of Arts before eventually moving to New York to enrol on Parsons’ MFA Fashion Design & Society program, graduating in 2016. Though some of her MFA classmates—Kozaburo Akasaka, Maria Jahnkoy, and Snow Xue Gao—launched their own collections soon after graduating, Xiang didn’t feel ready. Instead, she joined the knitwear team of Calvin Klein 205W39NYC under Raf Simons. 

Her two years at Klein were “very intense” but extraordinary, she says, comparing working under Simons to following a map in which his conceptual “clues” guided a complex aesthetic journey. “He finally curates and edits to put everything together and tell the story.” Working on four collections a year at Klein accelerated her design process. “There were dozens of ideas going on at the same time. The amount of imagery you looked at every day was crazy,” she said.

Designing for Klein demanded she work referentially and collaboratively, a significant adjustment from school. As an MFA student, tutors encouraged her to develop ideas through fine arts experimentation. Xiang conceptualised her thesis collection by exploring the grammar of drawing, how mark-making could imply shadow and depth. At Calvin Klein, designing in service of someone else’s vision, she studied vintage garments with an emphasis on the fashion of the Americana.

With Penultimate, Xiang hybridises these two approaches. She still sees design as a sort of drawing, but here, it manifests more as collage—drawing with imagery rather than a pencil. So prolific was her reference imagery that she had to create a database to organize it all. She focused on the American West as a cultural locus of Chinese-American identity, with the work of designer Kaisik Wong and the Forbidden City nightclub, both of San Francisco, serving as foundational references. An antique Chinese handbag was another. It was from the juxtaposition of these images that this first collection departed. 

Developing her nonchalantly-slouched silhouettes, she fit her toiles on differently sized and gendered bodies. Much of her experience designing unisex comes from her time spent at Calvin Klein, and the designer also wears a lot of menswear herself. “It’s normal for me,” she said. The silhouettes may hang straight but the pattern-cutting has real panache. 

As for materiality, she decided to eschew the traditional knitwear process, wherein the designer machine-knits panels of fabric to scale and then assembles the garment without any cutting. “Machines have limits,” she said. By forgoing fully-fashioned knitwear, she could mix in textiles like leather and jersey without any one material dominating the other; as an assembly method, it’s an effective extension of the collage mindset of her research.

“The weirdest-looking orange in the basket: it can be someone’s favourite.”

The gritty history of the American West and its giddy romanticisation maintain a clever, consistent dialogue throughout the work, most notable in the cowboy-style yoke simulated in gold piping, or the trompe l’œil cowboy boots that decorate the outer edges of a trouser. Animal hides, an aesthetic staple of Americana, are sometimes real (rabbit fur), sometimes implied (leopard print mohair). 

A craftsperson at heart, Gao created many of the details—crocheted red dots or moments of top-stitching—by hand. That said, that didn’t save her from frustration, particularly where the negotiation between handicraft and ease of production was concerned. “At the end of the day, I’m actually doing a business. I can’t make everything so complicated,” she says. But she refuses to fully compromise her craft: “There are some details I just have to do myself!”.

The importance the designer places on the personal touches she brings to her work is mirrored in her interest in the subjectivity of the wearer, the myriad interpretations that her work could provoke. As for where Penultimate will take her, Gao is similarly open to different interpretation on where, exactly, that could be. “There isn’t really a serious plan or goal of where I am going. At the moment, I just want to make and see how this goes.”

Featured and lookbook images

Photography Iicha
Styling Ryohei Kawanishi
MUA Mika Shimoda
Hair Akira Nagano

All other images courtesy of Xiang Gao