Representing the creative future

The world of Shanghai-based brand SHUSHU/TONG Studio

From classmates and roommates to business partners, the designer duo has a rich personal history to look back on

Liushu Lei and Yutong Jiang are the two forces behind SHUSHU/TONG Studio. The label established in 2015 is based in one of China’s fashion hubs, Shanghai. With one handling business and the other taking care of the design, they’ve managed to maintain a balance which led to a multitude of successful collections. The brand is known for designs that simultaneously exude femininity while obtaining a certain nonchalance. As the duo says themselves, they dress modern women.

Liushu, also going by the nickname ShuShu, virtually sat down with fellow designer Lucile Guilmard on a call thousands of miles apart. Together, they discuss the making of the label’s latest collection “Tennis Sweet”, China’s fashion industry, and the role of culture in design.

LG: Congratulations on the collection. Very beautiful.“Tennis Sweet”; why that title?

LL: Thank you. The story is based on a comic book called Aim for the Ace! That is the official English title, but if you were to directly translate the original name from Japanese, it would be “Tennis Sweet”.

LG: Why did you choose to base this collection on this manga series?

LL: We used to read this one when we were very young, and I especially like the animation style of that period. I don’t know if you are familiar with Japanese animation, but you can see a clear difference between the 70s, 80s, and 90s. This one started in 1973 and lasted until the early 80s, and the way in which people were drawn was more realistic. Later, mangas got those big eyes and boobs. Very 2D. I like that 70s-80s style more. I actually came across this manga again by accident on TikTok, and it brought up memories. It’s the year of the Olympics in Tokyo, which also influenced me to do a collection about sports.


LG: How long does it take you to build a collection? From concept to research through to the end?

LL: Normally, four or five months.

LG: So, did you plan on when to release and what that would coincide with?

LL: No. When fashion weekends, I have two or three weeks to decide on what to do next. Usually, I go through all the pictures I’ve saved in the last six months. I would call what I do “random research”. It could be anything – people on the streets, movies I watched. I end up finding a vague lead of what the next season will be.

“I take care of the creative side, and TongTong is more concerned with operations, legal things, and everything that has to do with the company. ” – Liushu Lei

LG: Would you say your work is autobiographical to some degree?

LL: Yes, I think so. Isn’t that the case for everyone? For me, I just do things that I really like. I don’t like to push myself to do something just because it’s trendy. I have to feel a personal connection.

LG: I agree with you completely. How do you design as a duo?

LL: I take care of the creative side, and TongTong is more concerned with operations, legal things, and everything that has to do with the company. We always talk about our plans for the next season together, and she will provide me with what certain clothes mean for real women. Obviously, I am not a girl, so there are so many things I cannot notice. The way I view clothing is different from how a girl sees them. That’s how we collaborate.

LG: So, you would say that in order to understand a genderised design, you need to identify as the same gender?

LL: Yes, because I may be the designer of women’s clothes, but I am sure I do carry the male gaze somehow. I would not say I am old-fashioned, but just being a man brings the male gaze in.


LG: Interesting. How come you design for women, then?

LL: I never really thought about designing for men. I’d say it’s an instinct. Sometimes, I design for the female version of me.

LG: Is there a fantasy that you’re fulfilling through your designs?

LL: For the past five seasons, I’d say, I’ve really been into short hemlines. And also black socks, which I have incorporated since the beginning. I wear them every day.

LG: So, the black socks are something of you that found its way into your work. Is that the only reason for them?

LL: I really like Japanese culture, and the socks are a part of the school uniform there. It’s a white shirt, a black skirt, and socks with loafers.

LG: Did you wear a uniform yourself in school?

LL: Not really. Chinese school uniforms are very different from the Japanese ones. We wear sportswear for school, while it’s more formal for them. Therefore, I would say that it is a fantasy for me, yes.

LG: Coming back to your design process. Could you talk me through it?

LL: We normally start with the fabric, doing some research, and then trying to imagine how the clothes will look like. I do drawing and toiling. It gives me a better idea of the weight of the fabric, and it’s easier to draw it accordingly. If you sketch without a clue, you may end up with a fabric that cannot support a pattern. You waste a lot of time that way.

LG: What about the set design you had for the catwalk?

LL: I worked with my friend. He’s a set design artist, but also has his own menswear brand. I wanted to create a tennis court that looks very dramatic, in that everyone can see that you cannot actually play tennis there. It is just about watching. I like to see it, but I don’t like to play it. So, I made it all pink with theatre-style curtains. A tennis court you’d play at in your dream, but without losing function.

LG: What is femininity to you?

LL: The woman needs to feel good in it. There are no boundaries when it comes to femininity, it’s different for everyone. I can just tell you that when I design, women always come first. The concept is second. Because women can be everything.

LG: Who is the SHUSHU/TONG Studio woman?

LL: This question has been asked a lot, and I always say that this woman is the female version of me. I try not to limit my customer by picturing them. I just want them to be themselves. Maybe buy one piece and mix it with their own clothes.

“Shanghai is the best city in China right now. I have a lot of friends who studied in the UK, but 80% of them are back in China working in Shanghai.” – Liushu Lei

LG: You’ve been mentioning women a lot, but also girls. One is the evolution of the other, so I wanted to ask you what are the boundaries between girls and women that you are pushing?

LL: In my opinion, a woman lives more of a stable existence, while a girl is more dynamic. Girls are still discovering themselves. A woman has calmed down, she knows what she wants. It’s two different periods in life. The thing with girls is also that they are more daring, they like to try different styles which may not even suit them, but they’ll find that out later.

LG: And you don’t define that by age, right?

LL: Exactly. It’s not about age, it’s an attitude.

LG: How does being based in Shanghai influence your practice?

LL: Shanghai is the best city in China right now. I have a lot of friends who studied in the UK, but 80% of them are back in China working in Shanghai. The city is tighter, so people live close to one another, creating strong communities. The fashion industry, especially in terms of fabric, is all around Shanghai.

LG: Is facilitating a collection rather easy there?

LL: Yes, and it’s also where the creative community is at. Make-up artists, stylists, designers, photographers – they all live here. It’s easy to meet a lot of new people, make friends and connections. If you want to produce a campaign, it’s not hard to find someone to help you.

LG: Would you say the atmosphere is very voluntary-based?

LL: Absolutely, yes.

LG: That’s interesting. I am from Paris, but I am currently living in London, and I can definitely tell a difference in attitude. In Paris, you have to prove your value and have a very substantial résumé. In London, people tend to be more willing to be part of an emerging, creative environment. There is this trust. You don’t have to prove yourself in the same way.

LL: Paris has a lot of luxury brands, the market is more sophisticated, I guess.

“In China, you wouldn’t find boutique stores pre-2015. Nowadays, that completely changed and the work of designers is sold everywhere. ” – Liushu Lei

LG: Probably. The result is that it’s harder to build a team than it would be in Shanghai, I suppose?

LL: Shanghai is a new market. The designer business started like five or six years ago in China. Before, there were fashion brands, but not designer brands. Meaning a brand established by a designer and not some house belonging to a conglomerate and hiring designers. Plus, we also had all the luxury houses from Europe like Louis Vuitton or Chanel. It all started in 2015 with Shanghai Fashion Week, when a lot of people here came back from the UK. In China, you wouldn’t find boutique stores pre-2015. Nowadays, that completely changed and the work of designers is sold everywhere. Before 2015, if you wanted to buy something from Simone Rocha or Comme des Garçons, you could only buy that at I.T, a big retail company in Hong Kong. Now, you have so many stores where you can shop for brands like that.

LG: Why do you think this evolved in such a way?

LL: I think a while back, there was not much interest or confidence in Chinese designers or brands. But now, they have become more professional, I’d say.

LG: We seem to be entering this metaverse market. Speaking of, are you stocked in any physical stores?

LL: Yes, of course. I have been working with Dover Street Market since the first season. We are also at SSENSE, Browns, and Nordstrom.

LG: What would be your advice to someone entering the business?

LL: I would say that you should take it as a serious business. Don’t play around.

LG: Did someone explain all this to you?

LL: We figured it out by ourselves along the way.

LG: Any fatal mistakes?

LL: Oh yes. We forgot to register the name of our brand for bags, and there was someone else using it. It takes like six months to get it back.

“The issue of name registration is really serious. Imagine you’re investing a lot of work and starting to become famous, and then, two years later, you realise you can’t use your name.” – Liushu Lei

LG: What happened? Someone found out that you didn’t register it and took it?

LL: Literally what happened, yes. We wanted to register the name for that accessory category, and suddenly we find out it’s not possible. The name apparently belonged to another company, so we had to fight for it. Obviously, someone did this on purpose. But, us being a fashion brand, it is very easy to prove who we are and what we do. I actually have a friend with a similar experience. His brand is already quite known, but his name is rather common, so it’s almost inevitable that someone else has it too. So, it will never be fully his, probably. That issue is really serious. Imagine you’re investing a lot of work and starting to become famous, and then, two years later, you realise you can’t use your name – horrible.

LG: Did you have any mentors or someone helping you along the way?

LL: Yes, I’d say my stylist. She’s a girl from China who worked as the fashion director of Wallpaper China. From 2010 to 2013, I was her styling assistant. She’d always push me, telling me to do campaigns and shows. I worked very closely with her, and she’d share her views with me. She was always very straightforward, we’d even argue at times. What she taught me is that it’s important to build a brand image from the very beginning. Loads of designers miss out on that. Of course, design is always the top priority, but there is so much more to a brand. You have to continuously do shows, shoot campaigns or use a certain technique and language.

LG: What would you say is your language?

LL: I’d say Gingham shoes, bows, and black socks. Some designers want to be everything, you know? If you want to be a brand, you need to make choices, so people recognise you.

LG: I understand. It’s like a significant mark or symbol. How did you and your partner start this brand together?

LL: We’ve known each other since high school, and then we studied at the same university, where we ended up being in the same course. After that, we decided to move to London to do the MA at London College of Fashion. We were roommates and classmates for a very long time. I knew that if I wanted to do this, I’d do it with her.

LG: I know that both of you had started working in the industry before setting up your brand. Simone Rocha and Gareth Pugh, right? How did you decide to make this shift happen?

LL: It was because we did not have a visa to stay in London. I actually wanted to work for a bit in the industry.

“Presenting a graduate collection as a student is very different from creating a collection for your brand. ” – Liushu Lei

LG: Why did you want to work for a company and not do your own thing immediately?

LL: When you start your own brand, you need a lot of resources. And at the time, I did not have that. Having some experience makes things run more smoothly.

LG: What would you have needed, for example?

LL: Production, and also how to make a collection. Presenting a graduate collection as a student is very different from creating a collection for your brand. There, you need a certain amount of coats, skirts, and other pieces. You have to do merchandising, which they do not teach you about in school. I had to figure this out on my own, and I am lucky I noticed that because I can imagine that many young designers would struggle.

LG: Do you think you could explain what merchandising is in a few words?

LL: It’s about creating a wardrobe. Making beautiful, outstanding evening dresses will never be enough to be a brand. You have to give people multiple garments so that it becomes a look.

LG: You have to build a range of products that covers all kinds of occasions. Do you have any special lines, like some brands do denim lines or nightwear? Or would you consider it?

LL: Maybe in the future, yes. We are not there yet, though. I think if we wanted to launch something special, it would not be big enough to be considered a line.

LG: What’s next for you? Have you already started working on a new collection?

LL: Yes, I have. Otherwise, it would be too late.

LG: Can we have a little teaser?

LL: Everything is still very vague. I mean, I can tell you something, but that might change tomorrow, to be honest. I was thinking of rough edges, making the clothes look like they’ve been worn. I found some beautiful calico fabric.

LG: Fabric is your starting point, so that’s where you seem to be in the process right now. If the clothes should look like they’re used, would you consider upcycling?

LL: It’s difficult in terms of production. Upcycling means that every single piece is unique. I admire and respect everyone who does it, and I do know some brands who upcycle. For now, I can’t really do it, but I would like to in the future. I would upcycle my own old stock or some fabric. Actually, we do use some old fabrics as well.

LG: Have you heard about this trend of luxury brands starting their own vintage sales? They open their archives to sell pieces. Would you do that, too? What’s your opinion on that?

LL: I have read about it in the news, yes. I think it’s great. No one should waste beautiful pieces. Throwing them away or burning them just causes more problems. We are doing sample sales every two years.

“Just like science is built on science, fashion is constantly evolving in itself. It’s linked to human beings, and we always rely on what is already there.” – Liushu Lei

LG: That’s amazing. So you just make designs available for sale?

LL: Yes. And it is instant money as well. I don’t have much experience in retail, but my sample sales can count as that.

LG: I wanted to ask you whose work is inspiring to you?

LL: I really love Balenciaga. Especially the old one, but I love Demna’s too. What Cristóbal Balenciaga did was so cool and ahead of their time.

LG: Would you say that he’s someone you come back to each time you’re working on a collection?

LL: Yes, I will always have some image of his work on my moodboard. It’s just beautiful, architectural, and elegant.

LG: Is fashion inspired by fashion?

LL: Of course. Just like science is built on science, fashion is constantly evolving in itself. It’s linked to human beings, and we always rely on what is already there. It’s not like BOOM! and something new is here. It’s also linked to our bodies. Whatever you do, you’ll need two armholes and one neck hole, right? Fashion is an experience of the human body. Plus, it’s also culture, so there will always be references. What I have noticed is that referencing a culture is becoming a sensitive topic. Like a white designer referencing Black culture. To me, it is okay as long as it is done with good intentions and not to mock other races. I think there needs to be some sort of exchange, or else human culture will not evolve. We should celebrate each other. Looking at China, there are 56 nationalities. We are a mixed culture. And eventually, the earth will be a mixed culture. In 500 years, it’s definitely going to be like this and there is no point in resisting it.

LG: Do you think that’s a good thing?

LL: I can’t say it’s good or bad. It’s just culture. For instance, I was inspired by Japanese animation, yet I am Chinese. But the bows and ruffles you see in those animations are actually inspired by Western culture. There comes a point when you can’t tell them apart from anymore.

LG: There are always conversations between cultures, such as between the Chinese and Japanese ones. It’s sharing, not stealing. Cultural appropriation is a big topic within the industry, but you say that it should be viewed more positively?

LL: Exactly. And don’t make it too political. People tend to pick sides and just accept everything that comes with that viewpoint, no matter what. Instead, it would be good to talk about different arguments and find solutions together.