Chinese-born Lan Yu is one of Asia’s most influential designers, earning widespread recognition from celebrities and the media in her home country. This season, she prepares to make an entrance onto the American stage, debuting her collection at New York Fashion Week for the very first time.
“The Chinese market is growing very fast in terms of purchasing power, sales, and number of consumers, but it’s lacking leadership," Yu told NBC News. "The U.S. market is still the ‘trend setter’ to which people are looking to for the next big idea. That’s actually part of the reason why we are here — I think the best way for the Chinese fashion industry to catch up with its huge consumer demand is to launch international brands.”
Yu, who is from South China, grew up as a ballerina dancer, spending ten years on stage. But when a serious knee injury halted her pursuits in dance at the age of 15, she found a new calling in fashion design, she said. She attended a high school specializing in the arts, and continued her studies in fashion design in college. At 19 years old, she began the Lan Yu studio, which grew into the LANYU brand.
Eleven years later, the brand has steadily grown to reach a global audience. She has been named China’s top designer by the Chinese Designer Association, most influential designer at the Asian Fashion Awards, and made it on Forbes' “2014 Forbes China 30 Under 30” list.
Despite having hung up her ballet shoes, her days as a ballerina continue to inform her work today.
“I think I learned how to be patient with embroidery and developed a strong work ethic from having been a ballerina at such a young age,” Yu said.
Yu specializes in traditional Su embroidery, a fading art form that is passed on from mother to daughter. The technique originated in South China, in a city called Suzhou, Yu said. Taking years to master, the intricate nature of Su embroidery involves varying thread thickness, materials such as silk, and percise stitching.
“It is actually being practiced less and less," Yu said. "People don’t have the patience or the practical reason [to use it], as it sometimes takes months to complete a single piece.”
Yu’s mother belongs to the fourth generation of women in the family to practice the Su embroidery technique. “My mum, my grandma, and her mum are all ‘xiu niang’, Chinese for ‘embroidery girls’," Yu said. "It is one of the oldest occupations in which women make a living by making embroidery pieces. But due to financial reasons, they are a dying breed, because it is hard to make a living from it today. I hire ‘xiu nang’ to work on our couture pieces to help support their work. This is our way of preserving this art form so that people can continue to enjoy it.”
Her use of the Su embroidery technique is her most distinctive design feature, producing creations with elaborate detail. The brand is best known for its made-to-order gowns as well as its selection of wedding dresses, evening gowns, and accessories, according to Yu. Numerous Chinese celebrities have worn her dresses, and recently, she dressed first her first American star, Kim Kardashian West, who wore a Lan Yu gown to the Grisogono party in Cannes, France.
The designer, who describes her signature aesthetic as “ethereal, aspirational, and couture”, told NBC News that she designs “for a woman who pursues beauty in the name of self-worth”. This season, her collection is set on the theme of “Magnolia”, which often symbolizes “yin” in Chinese culture, representing femininity, purity, and youth, Yu said.
As she prepares to debut on the American stage, Yu is clear about what she hopes to accomplish at New York Fashion Week.
“I want the American audience to see me as one of this generation’s Chinese designers who will combine Western techniques with Chinese cultural influences," she said. "I want them to see my deepest respect for craftsmanship. I also want people to be intrigued about Chinese culture in general. As a Chinese designer, I want to help change the perception of ‘Made in China’. I want the audience to see the amazing artisans of traditional Chinese art that has thousands of years of history, and to see a Chinese designer with international ambitions."