Womenswear Designer Snow Xue Gao Twists, Ties, and Splices the Traditional Chinese Dress With Western Tailoring
The Beijing native’s high-contrast collection joins two worlds with a dynamic sense of motion.
By Shyam Patel
Photos by Max Gaskins
January 16, 2018
Gao in front of muslin samples in her Garment District studio.
In 2010, Snow Xue Gao applied to the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology with little knowledge of the realities of fashion design. Over time, she developed the necessary technical skills and proclivity for experimentation. Working on a masters degree at Parsons School of Design in New York, Gao’s creative process came to center on questions of personal identity, and those ideas informed her namesake label, which she founded in 2016. Propelled by a fascination with movement and dramatic proportions, and combining disparate cultures, textiles, and techniques, the 25–year-old’s collections are characterized by the tension between tailoring and draping as expressed in Asian textiles and Western suiting materials.
Last fall, Gao’s finesse with contrasting elements won her the 2017 Swarovski and Vogue Talents New Generation Award. This spring, the Beijing native launches her atelier suiting service, inviting clients to collaborate with her on custom looks. From her Midtown Manhattan studio, Gao speaks to the allure of cultural crossover and her visceral attraction to seeing it in action.
From Left: Inspirations tacked to a board. Detail of the blazer and dress by Gao that won the 2017 Swarovski and Vogue Talents New Generation Award.
The combination of Eastern and Western elements in your pieces is rather stark.
It’s interesting to see Chinese culture in New York and American culture in Beijing. I know how a qipao [a silk or cotton dress with cap sleeves and a stand-up collar] is worn traditionally in China, but when I’m in New York and I see an American lady wearing a qipao, she doesn’t know the rules of wearing it, so she adds her own twist to it. I think that’s beautiful.
Why not choose lesser-known aspects of both cultures?
While in school, I was thinking of the first thing that comes to mind when people think about a different culture. What is Asian to an American woman? What is American to an Asian woman? I landed on colorful qipao dresses and American tailoring and custom suiting. Of course, there’s much more to both cultures, but these are the icons that come to mind. It’s interesting to combine these two worlds with movement.
Textiles in Gao's atelier.
How do you achieve that movement?
I go to vintage shops and donation centers to collect 1980s suiting and traditional kimonos and qipao dresses. Then I style them on a model. I’ll twist or tie a printed Asian fabric together with a men’s blazer, for example. It’s a fast process. I make quick adjustments, and we take a lot of pictures. In a half-day fitting, we’ll photograph up to two hundred looks. No thinking, just feeling. It’s about catching a moment. It also helps me select color placement and proportions.
So the silhouettes in your collection are based on the resulting shapes?
Yes. Eventually we sketch what an actual garment would look like and think about technical aspects like fabrics, construction, and finishing. I love the styling process. It’s like seeing my identity take shape in front of me.
Images from Gao's "Then I Cut It" series. (Photos: Courtesy Snow Xue Gao.)
One of your projects outside the collection, a still-life photo series, “Then I Cut It,” consists of everyday objects stuffed with fabric that have been sliced in half. Is this also about materializing identity?
“Then I Cut It” is about how I spend my day. I spend a short amount of time in my apartment. I wake up, wash my face, drink a lemon water, and have breakfast. The rest of my time, I deal with fabric. So for this project, I stuff the items I work with at home—vegetables, bread, toiletry bottles, medicine capsules—with fabric, and then I cut them. It’s about creating a different version of my life.
What’s the motivation behind projects like these?
[They] give me energy. At this point I can sketch clothes without doing research. All I need is a paper and pen. I’m afraid that if I work in a really straightforward way, my work will become boring. And, no doubt, people will feel it in the clothes.