Q&A | Refuse Club
Parsons grads, Yuner Shao and “Stef” Puzhen Zhou, are the founders of Refuse Club- a ready-to-wear contemporary brand split between New York City and Chongqing, China. However, Refuse Club isn’t your typical label, and Yuner and Stef are not your typical designers. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the co-founders were baffled by China’s stance on the issue, banning discussions on social media and news networking sites. In reaction to their disbelief, Refuse Club was born.
Named after the mid-19th-century Parisian exhibition, “Salon des Refusés” showcased paintings which were rejected for scandalous nature. And today, they challenge social and cultural norms as Salon des Refuses once did. Determined to address #MeToo in China, creating a platform for commentary was of high importance. Building a community of followers, Shao and Zhou display solidarity with #MeToo victims in China, when they’re more often silenced or ignored.
Fashion and social justice coincide for Refuse Club, a young brand with activist dreams for both China and the United States. I spoke with the forward-thinking creatives to discuss their brand inception, Chinese politics, and garment influences and construction.
How did you two meet?
Yuner: We both meet at Parsons from class.
Stef: Analog photography class I remember.
Why did you both decide to study at Parsons?
Yuner: I've always been interested in art and design that's influenced by my father. When I was little, I remember my dad loved to style himself very much. That was my first impression of fashion.
Stef: I always wanted to study fashion. When I was 18 preparing for college, I planned to move to a city where fashion is happening, and the local newspaper is somewhat intellectual. So, New York, it is.
What was it like growing up in Chongqing, China?
Yuner: Chongqing has a very special geographical condition. It's like San Francisco, and people call it "Mountain City." Growing up there was nice, but people are narrow-minded in some ways. People stick with the local culture there very much. That's why I decided to study abroad and explore more possibilities. But because of the experience in Chongqing, Stef and I blend some of our local culture into our brand.
Stef: It's a very surreal landscape. The subway is like a family-friendly rollercoaster. Welcome to Chongqing!
How would you describe the nature of current politics in China?
Stef: I feel the lack of a healthy public sphere. The other day I saw a repost on social media, a well-educated Chinese KOL was suggesting that we should "talk less about politics because it only brings negativity," and "talk more about art/philosophy/poetry in order to revive a classic public life." This post makes me mad. I believe quite the opposite-- in this current situation, we urgently need to disclose more political dialogue, like the neglect of basic female living conditions and the limit of economic liberalism.
And I'm not sure if this only applies to the Chinese, but I notice that when most people face a crisis in life, they either read into psychology or seek help from fortune telling. However, both disciplines tend to guide you to find the source of the problem within yourself or your immediate living environment. There has been very little debate on society's influences on people; how a post-modern world alienates its citizen.
We are not born to be quiet. Let our voices be heard.
Yuner: Please don't imagine China as if we are still amid a cultural revolution. Things have been better since. Stef recently found out that a music magazine she read as a teenager, which introduces underground indie movements and encourages independent thinking, was actually run by the government. How interesting is that? We all want to build a better world, and that's what politics should be about.
Your brand was launched as a commentary on the #MeToo movement. How did the idea for this project come about?
Stef: We started generating this idea when we saw #MeToo was banned in the search section of major Chinese social media. It was surprising and upsetting for us. This country is partially built upon socialist feminism. It is ridiculous not to let us talk about #MeToo online.
Imitating the "double-thinking" strategy in 1984, we managed to implant word games into our design in subtle ways. For example, we hide a print that says "404" underneath a blazer's pocket flap to satirize the censorship. We also screen-printed both sides of the cuff strap of a Mao Suit. On the outside, it says, "Damned if you do," on the inside it says "Damned if you don't." If we are not allowed to mention #MeToo in an already built public space, we will create our own space to further the movement.
Yuner: I just read a piece of news while answering these questions. It's about a mom trying to sell her daughter's clothes on one of the biggest Chinese online platforms. She posted her daughter's photo with these clothes on to show the product details. People sent sexual harassment and threatening verbal messages to her daughter because of these photos. What is the fault of being a pretty woman? It's news like this which make us feel obliged to open up the conversation.
Do you hope to call forth new political action in China regarding sexual violence, gender discrimination, and inequality?
Stef: The action is ongoing; we are gladly joining the wave. A lot of women, especially those who have not encountered a sexual assault, but have in some form experienced discrimination, feel a sort of discomfort that they fail to express time after time. What we do as designers, is use visual language to summarize this anger, this pain, that is so real yet intangible. Us Chinese say 'a good artist must know himself in order to know the world.' We feel the common emotions of the hurt and the neglected, and we communicate our feelings for others to resonate with.
For your debut collection, you researched specific cases of sexual violence against women in China. What did you discover?
Stef: In another interview, I mentioned the story of a murdered flight attendant. Some voices on the internet accused her of being stingy for taking a shady cheap car ride, as if only she were from a higher social class she would be promised with safety.
Today, I would like to share another case. In this crime, the victim is considered an elite, but the man who assaulted her is even more privileged. In this article, which was taken offline soon after I read it, the interviewee was disappointed that the photojournalist took a back view photo of her, framing her figure inside a window. "I thought it was because the photographer was male, so he portrayed me to be small and vulnerable. A female photographer might depict me as powerful." She says, "However, after the photographer left, I began to ponder, why couldn't I admit that I'm a victim and he indeed hurt me? Why couldn't I admit that his power is overshadowing me?" This is a common reality among strong, educated women under attack.
Tell me about your decision to source fabrics from your home city.
Yuner: Sourcing fabric in Chongqing saves logistic cost. And it's also easier for us to track the fabric content and factory condition. The textile industry in Chongqing is reestablishing in recent years, and we want to support it.
Which Eastern narratives are referenced in your garment constructions?
Yuner: I choose the traditional Chinese Qi Pao dress as the main silhouette for the debut collection. It is such a classic and elegant dress that represents Chinese woman. The Qi Pao dress is known for its super slim fit, but few people know that it was originally straight and loose in historical contexts. We deconstructed the Qi Pao this time because we want to bring back its practicality as well as break through the stereotype of Chinese women in western propaganda. We also screen printed our illustration artwork on traditional brocade fabric. Most of the traditional floral silk brocade were only used for old school womenswear in China, but this time we did fashion menswear looks using traditional Qi Pao silk to emphasize the genderless category.
Stef: Additionally, we reinforce traditional Chinese closures throughout the collection. Knots and long string straps function repeatedly. We also handmade Manchurian buttons with paper-like Tyvek for our down puffer style.
What's your vision for the future Refuse Club?
Yuner: In the future, we will keep blending our ideas towards society, focusing on both western and eastern culture. Each season we will continue to represent one social topic and deconstruct one clothing archetype. We also hope to have more interaction with our audience. For example, ss20, we will create a couple of Snapchat filters with our prints which people can use for free. Eventually, we would like to organize salons and encourage people to discuss with us offline to make it become a real "club."