Chinese designer Ban Xiao Xue made the finals of the International Woolmark Prize by daring to dream big, says Francesca Fearon
The International Woolmark Prize announced in London last weekend is about pushing the boundaries of what can be done in both design and technical innovation with wool. It is also about discovering new talent, as its history shows.
In 1954, Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld won the prize for their dress and coat designs respectively.
After a year-long search spanning 16 countries and involving 70 designers, the prize was awarded to Christian Wijnants, a young Belgian who created seamless garments hand-knitted in one piece and then dip-dyed in different hues.
Wijnants was selected by judges, Donatella Versace, Victoria Beckham and Andrew Keith, the CEO of Lane Crawford and Joyce, from a group of six finalists including Dion Lee from Australia, Ban Xiao Xue from China and Sophie Theallet from the US.
In terms of prize money, this is up there with the biggest. The International Woolmark Prize (founded in Australia) is an award to rival the CFDA Fashion Fund in New York and the Vogue Fashion Fund, British fashion's richest award, recently conferred on shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood.
But the Woolmark Prize is global. It crosses borders to support talented young designers from established and emerging countries. The winner receives US$105,000 and the opportunity to be stocked in top department stores Joyce, Bergdorf Goodman, Harvey Nichols and others.
Appropriately, it was a flock of sheep on a homestead in Tasmania that inspired Chinese regional finalist, Ban Xiao Xue. The 28-year-old Guangzhou-based designer from Hebei province has an innovative way of handling wool, creating new organic textures that make the connection between fashion and the natural source of this fibre, the sheep.
His silhouettes are raw, and almost deconstructed. But they have a poetic purity that might easily be associated with designers like Rei Kawakubo and the deconstructivist designers of the early 1990s.
"This was a collection in which I deliberately didn't want to focus on colour and style, but on the material and texture," says Ban. "Without good material, you cannot design, and nowadays there is too much focus on design and style."
Textiles, he says, are very important to the way he designs: he thinks about fabrics first, and then gets inspiration, and everything else follows. Wool, for him, is the most versatile of fibres, as he feels silk, linen and cotton offer limited scope to experiment.
Stuart McCullough, CEO of the Woolmark Company, described his entry as very experimental and very blue-sky thinking. "I thought that the lyricism and romanticism of what he was doing was really beautiful," says Lane Crawford's Keith. "And there was that sort of Zen element to what he was doing. It feels like he is discovering a voice that could be a modern Chinese design voice."
Ban's entry forms part of what is only his second collection for his eponymous label, having spent five years working in Guangzhou for Exception.
As one of China's longest-established, most successful fashion and art labels, Exception's way of working with environmentally friendly fabrics and using traditional dyeing and weaving techniques has clearly rubbed off on him.
"The situation has changed in favour of young designers," says Ban. "The younger generation of consumers, particularly those born in the 1980s and '90s, doesn't automatically follow a big designer name. They want something unique, and so they look to younger Chinese designers with a unique style. They are our biggest supporters."
Some of his best ideas come to him when he is asleep at night - he keeps a pen and notepad under his pillow. Nature, life and people are what inspire him - things that trigger an emotional reaction. The little children he taught briefly in Yunnan province inspired his debut collection for his own label. "I went as a voluntary teacher and wasn't looking for inspiration. But the purity of their hearts and their innocence stayed in my mind when I returned to the city. There are certain things that spark my emotions that I try to express in my collections."
Perhaps it is the recollection of his own childhood in an area of Hebei, where his father worked the fields and his mother worked as a seamstress, that makes him think that way. When he applied for university, he didn't know what course to apply for. He liked being close to nature and drawing, so he put down design. "I thought of how wonderful it would be if I could express nature in design, and I am a dreamer," he says.
Ban remembers that when he went off to the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, the whole village came out banging drums and gongs and offering flowers.
"It was a big occasion, as so few children from the village get into university. If I had not had that opportunity, maybe I would still be there."
Now he feels that when he goes back to the village, he can inspire the young children he meets to dream big - just like he did.