On Living and Dying in Clothing: A Studio Visit With Wenjüe Lu

Today’s post is a little different than usual! It’s a long essay/review of a visit to Wenjüe Lu’s studio and their past few years of work I got to play with at their generous invitation (I was not paid for this review). Scroll to the end for many photos! Check WL out, sign up for one of their Sashiko workshops (more on that below), and if you enjoyed this piece please share it and let me know on Instagram or via email at hr@humanrepeller.com. Without further ado…

Thy body permanent, 

The body lurking there within thy body, 

The only purport of the form thou art, the real I myself, 

An image, an eidolon.

– From Eidolons by Walt Whitman, 1876

In ancient Greek mythology, an eidolon is “a spirit-image of a living or dead person; a shade or phantom look-alike of the human form.” A wisp, an astral projection, suggestive of a destiny of tininess, of impotence, the dictionary definition is “an unsubstantial image.” To accept the inevitability of death, the ultimate impotence, the loss of any crumbs of agency we have as human beings, is nausea-inducing: like trying to conceive of the individual cells each of our bodies teem with and are eventually somehow the gestalt of, trying to make sense of the infinite tininess of a life in relation to all of existence is impossible 90% of the time and excruciating for the remaining 10. To think about infinite tininess is also to think about infinite immensity, as counting to -1000 requires a conception of +1000. The existence of one single human implies the community of every human being on earth, the individual soul and the oversoul of all beings united are indistinguishable from the vantage point of the furthest reaches of thought, as a star and a speck of glitter might be indistinguishable from inside a train, late at night after a party in any given August. A hyperobject is still an object, after all.

The eponymous atelier of Wenjüe Lu or “Lulu” and partner Michael Fang might physically exist in a nondescript industrial building in Bushwick, as many do, but phenomenologically it is situated in the gasp of space between the two ends of that horseshoe of immensity. The designers and creators Lulu and Michael understand that honing in on the tiniest details and allowing their expansive conceptions of what clothing could and should be are two sides of a unified experience of the brand. 

The first thing I’m shown when I enter the studio is smaller than my pinky fingernail: a single stitch on jacket that looks, from afar, to be made of embossed paper but is actually a hand-stitched feat of Sashiko, a Japanese embroidery technique that translates to “little stabs” and dating back to the Edo period (from the 17th to 19th centuries). Originally a mending technique for people who could afford few clothes, Sashiko has become a less utilitarian endeavor, used just as often to add lush, occasionally illustrative texture to fabrics as it is to close tears or reinforce worn patches. Lulu and Michael use this painstaking technique often, often on muslin, a fabric usually used for prototyping in the fashion world and quickly thrown away.

The application of intricate patterns (Lulu later shows me a bucket hat from their 2021 collection featuring a “wind-blown grass” pattern, so called for the obvious reason that that’s what the stitching depicts) to fabrics known for their inexpensiveness is one example of the ethos of Wenjüe Lu as a brand: creating constant, quiet tension through the use of perceived conflicts like this one, that, upon closer inspection, aren’t conflicts at all. Muslin is the perfect sturdy yet malleable base for Sashiko, and its cheapness is revealed to not be insurmountable: the Sashiko hats are priced at almost $1000 each, and that doesn’t deter buyers who are able to pay in accordance with the shocking amount of time and labor poured into each shapely cap.

Another conflict is between the garments themselves and their wearers, pointedly built in by Lulu and Michael. Shirts have ties at the nape of the neck that Michael says a buyer would have to “teach themself” to fasten solo, the “Ruffled Vase Midi Skirt” I try on (betraying all of my excitement in fawning gasps, as it had been the item I most hoped I could wear while browsing the WL Instagram before this visit) has an inflexible hemline that does not allow for too big a stride, let alone the joyful can-can I am nearly compelled into by my love of how the garment bulkily cocoons my lower half in a near-ovular wad of scrunched fabric. I am tamed “structurally, but not visually,” as Michael says.

Wearing clothes that “make you work for them” is an exercise in humility and intentionality, designed to hinder the wearer’s potential for violent action (and aggressive can-canning): nonviolence is a core tenet of their brand both theoretically and practically. Many pieces not made in muslin or cotton handspun in Guizhou, China (I see in a hanging jacket the hand-tied knots where threads broke as they spun into being) are cut in Ahisma silk, which is produced without harming or killing the silkworms, a unique and expensive endeavor.

WL’s entire 2022 collection (they only produce one collection per year to avoid acquiescing to trends, arbitrary timelines, and other fashion world forces) is created in undyed, light-colored fabric, another pointed choice: Michael explains that the dark colors favored by New Yorkers circumvent the feelings of vulnerability that lighter clothes can elicit, then shows me two pairs of “Grafted Fafa Double Pleat Trousers.” “Fafa” means “Flower flower” in Cantonese and is a recurring motif in WL’s collections, appearing sometimes as petaled edges on sleeves from which hands or feet erupt like stamens, sometimes as plump, poly-filled, cartoonish embellishments like on these trousers, even as a subtle symbol inside the chest of a translucent blouse, only fully visible when against skin or held up to a light. I first saw WL’s work in a photo of a Fafa “helmet” on Instagram which I happily don and can’t stop taking selfies from within.

One pair of the Fafa trousers is pristine, the other has almost a foot of water-stained fabric above the hem–the wearer, a model, had stepped in a deep puddle during a photo shoot. Lulu and Michael grinned and agreed as I exclaimed, surprised, that the pants looked cooler with the obvious wear, a shocking assessment for someone as famously neurotic about wearing light-colored or visibly damaged clothes as I am. A jacket with the aforementioned petal cuffs, “pond pockets” that dip below the hemlines that you’d expect to rein them in, and a pleat on the back like a sharp ripple dissolving into the placid surface of said pond after a stone is dropped in is softened with wear, the exposed bottoms of the pockets gently fraying but their structural integrity unthreatened.

I can’t afford any of these beautiful clothes, a fact that I chafe against and try (not completely successfully, thus far) to reconcile with my prioritization of accessibility in fashion. WL is an exclusive brand, but by necessity, not by design: the sheer number of hours and material costs–between the hand stitching and the nonviolent silk–create prices that would be astronomical even if they didn’t pay themselves a penny. Lulu and Michael know that their work is prohibitively costly to most people, but strive to make it fully worth its price: with each piece comes a multi-layered tag, a work of art in and of itself, with the buyer’s name and the details of the item written in Lulu’s careful script on a scrap of muslin, a fabric flower in a translucent envelope, a “dictionary” of all materials used in the piece with swatches and descriptions, and most importantly an explanation of WL’s “Lifelong Mending Initiative.” This is a promise that, no matter what the piece is or how much it was purchased for, any damaged WL piece can be shipped back to the studio at any time, as many times as needed, and it will be patched, stitched, or otherwise mended for no fee.

Lulu and Michael say they want each garment to be an “eternal companion” for the buyer, which catapults me into thoughts about my own mortality and how, a few nights ago on an especially Dark Night of the Soul, I’d tried to consider what my obsession with clothing meant about my fear of the decay and oblivion that death represents to me. If a garment is my “eternal companion,” I imagine wearing it until the day I die, maybe even after that, my skin rotting as the hardy cotton continues indifferently to envelop it. I can’t tell whether this thought is comforting or not, but then I think of the care and vision woven into each WL piece and am calmed by the thought of eternal companionship by not just an inert garment, but the intentional hours of a good-hearted person’s life woven into its fabric. I have many tattoos done by people I have respected, loved, or otherwise valued, and the idea of hours of their lives made physical companions until I no longer exist is a salve on existential wounds. WL makes clothes that are worn by an individual, but invoke a community.

Anxieties about death, grime, and decay are all inescapable in an outfit by WL, but by being unavoidable they act as a pharmakon (both a poison and its remedy). Eventually, getting into the habits that WL encourages such as buying fewer, more costly clothes and wearing them with abandon, mending them instead of discarding them, and accepting wear as a feature of a garment creates a style paradigm that is intrinsically less conducive to these neuroses. By controlling the physical reality of a wearers’ body, clothes can influence the way they live in general, and WL’s clothes gently point their wearers in the direction that Lulu and Michael want them to travel: towards, and thereby away from, the fear of mortality.

The “real I myself,” as Whitman calls it in the poem WL chose to preface their 2022 lookbook on their website, might be as insubstantial and ephemeral as an eidolon, but that’s not a tragedy. It’s simply what is, like the life and death of a flower (tending to one is a metaphor the WL team uses frequently for how they want their clothes to be maintained). I leave the studio with a Fafa on a cloth strap that Michael explains can be worn as a belt, around a leg–the possibilities are countless. Lulu weaves it into my hair, and I feel the most at peace I have in months.

My favorite moments in the visit:

  • The Devolved Circle Jacket that smoothes into a near-perfect circle from the back and has arms that protrude from the front but somehow, through design mastery,  is constructed as a regular jacket on the inside and is easy and pleasant to wear without losing its shape 
  • The “Hidden Fafa,” only perceivable against skin or held up to light 
  • Dangling the Droopy Fafa Trousers with flowers that can either be buttoned into an upright position or left to hang + an innovative side tie at the waist that allowed me to try them on though they were many sizes too big 
  • Fafa cuffs and petaled cuffs and wavy cuffs! I was beside myself!
  • Moon pockets and pond pockets and Michael and Lulu’s favorites, internal pockets
  • Learning that Michael loves Fiona Apple as much as I do
  • Getting to take selfies in the Fafa Helmet with Lulu, Michael, and one of the many humanoid “mannequins” they sculpted and that inspire their work–”Sometimes, we design clothes for these mannequins instead of humans,” Michael told me

I hope I was able to convey a fraction of the inspiration and comfort that flows from Wenjüe Lu’s clothes in this post, and that you hurry to their website or Instagram for more images and info. Thank you again, Lulu and Michael, for a magical afternoon and for believing in generosity, hope, and clothing’s ability to affect our lives.

❤ HR

Published by ESK

communist fashion-loving sicko

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