More than a vehicle for self expression, fashion can be seen as a channel for more profound and not always fashionable matters. Through its cultural and social access, it can encourage and inspire deeper reflection on problematic matters—ones that are commonly overlooked but truly deserve our attention. Admittedly, making aesthetic sense of social and ethical issues with a constructive attitude is no easy task. Still, a growing number of designers welcome the challenge with enthusiasm.
One fresh-out-of-school designer who pushed her vision beyond self-projection and who is taking this challenge very seriously is Zuoyu Shi.
Zuoyu Shi attended the BFA Fashion Design program at Parsons School of Design in New York (2012-2016) and specialized in women’s ready-to-wear. Her BA thesis “I Wanted to Make Something Cool” is a six look collection based on vegetables, or rather on six categories of avoidable food waste.
This week we had a chat with Shi to learn about her experience.
Œ Magazine: What inspired “I Wanted To Make Something Cool”?
Zuoyu Shi: Last summer I saw an exhibition at the MOMA called “This is for Everyone”. The exhibition focused on different methods of sustainable design and was very technology centered. For example, there were bioengineered materials like Biolace, an engineered fruit plant with roots manipulated to grow into a lace form, that were meant to replace white foam and help tackle food related issues in the future. I was very inspired and started learning about 3d modeling and coding. At the same time I started looking into customer waste habits, everyday objects and people’s relationship with them. Eventually I saw Agnes Prada’s “Gleaners and I”, an incredible documentary showing how crops are left in the field because they don’t meet cosmetic standards or supermarket selling criteria for being either too big or too heavy. That’s when I started researching food waste specifically and focusing on post-consumer food waste, which is what is left of food after traveling through the supermarket and our household.
Œ Magazine: How does fashion fit into all of this or, to be precise, how does all of this fit into fashion?
Zuoyu Shi: I thought it would be cool to reflect on the subject from a visual standpoint and—given the academic experimental context I found myself in, namely Parsons School—I didn’t want to invest my resources in a process revolving around consumers and their needs exclusively.
Œ Magazine: Your collection counts six looks, each based on a different vegetable and its percentage of waste. How did you actually translate the statistics into design?
Zuoyu Shi: The stats I was looking at come in categories and tell you how much waste there is for a certain product, how much is and how much isn’t avoidable and the equivalent of that in terms of money. What I did, was integrate the numbers related to the six vegetables I chose (tomatoes, cauliflower, lettuce, onion, sweetcorn, carrots) in my data visualization code to generate an image output that is then made into prints.
Œ Magazine: So the pieces you designed are not actually made of vegetables?
Zuoyu Shi: That’s correct.
Œ Magazine: Can you tell us a little bit about the materials and production then? Are they sustainable as well?
Zuoyu Shi: Yes, I chose natural fibers, mostly cotton and linen. The pattern cutting outfits can be translated into zero waste as well if you carefully place everything in puzzle shapes, when the fabric is cut.
Œ Magazine: It seems you have control over most parts of the creative process. Which parts you actually involved in? Did you have any help?
Zuoyu Shi: Everything! Starting from the design and coding to the sewing. I took courses to learn the software, procured the right the textiles and figured out where to print everything. And finally I put it together. Of course, throughout the whole period, I was talking to a lot of people and asking for their honest opinion …
Œ Magazine: That’s impressive! And how did the look book come together?
Zuoyu Shi: The photographer, Xiaoyang Jin, is a good friend of mine who studies fine arts. I update him every month or so about what I’m working on—these are my steps right now—this is what I have. So he will give me feedback, even criticize me some times, and eventually thinks of a photo-shoot concept. It’s a good collaboration.
Œ Magazine: Are there pieces of the collection you would wear and have hanging in your own wardrobe?
Zuoyu Shi: I sometimes wear the undergarments, really simple long shirts. If I were to do a diffusion line of the entire collection I would probably readapt the other pieces in a more utilitarian way as well.
Œ Magazine: Now that you have done the whole thing once, have you actually considered producing a more practical / maybe affordable version of your line? The thesis was in ready-to-wear after all…
Zuoyu Shi: Yes, definitely. Once you have all the research out, simplifying the clothing and adjusting the price is realistic and I would love to do it!
Œ Magazine: We’re looking forward to it!