Design Society, the V&A and China National Silk Museum were pleased to unveil the V&A exhibition Fashioned from Nature – with a special new section, Fashioned from Nature in China: Then and Now – at Sea World Culture and Arts Center, Shenzhen, on 19 December 2020. Presenting nearly 400 garments and accessories from the third century BC to the present day, including precious objects from the V&A shown in China for the first time, it offers an unprecedented journey through Eastern and Western fashion history. The exhibition traces the complex relationship between fashion and the natural world and highlights the critical role of design in creating a more sustainable fashion industry. It aims to inspire fashion makers and share approaches to sustainable lifestyles with a wider public
Fashioned from Nature is the first exhibition hosted by Design Society dedicated to textiles and fashion, and expands on the original V&A exhibition narrative with a complementary new section on Chinese fashion and textiles. Exhibits are drawn from the V&A and China National Silk Museum’s extensive collections alongside international loans. The V&A holds the UK’s national collection of textiles and fashion and has one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of dress in
the world. When Fashioned from Nature premiered in London, it received over 170,000 visitors. Similarly, China National Silk Museum is internationally renowned for its research around historic textiles. In recent years, it has become a new landmark for the fashion crowd with its unique galleries for Chinese and Western fashion and textile arts. Design Society invited Edith Cheung Sai May, consultant at China National Silk Museum, to guest-curate the new section Fashioned from Nature in China: Then and Now, spotlighting the extensive history and contemporary innovation of Chinese fashion and textiles.
Fashioned from Nature features precious garments and accessories from across five continents, including a replica of the Yongzheng Emperor’s (1678-1735) dragon robe woven with real gold threads, a pair of gloves from the early 1600s that are intricately embroidered with wheat sheaves, birds and flowers, and a 1780s man’s waistcoat embroidered with a pattern of playful macaque monkeys. Nature’s wide-ranging influence is also seen in materials, highlighted by a pair of boots made by the Hezhe people from fish skin in 2018, a 19th-century dress decorated with over 5,000 beetle wings, and an evening gown with a ‘leopard skin’ draped over the front, crafted entirely from beads. Multiple global fashion brands including Dior, Gucci, Burberry and Stella McCartney are featured in the show. Exquisite garments and accessories by Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Roberto Cavalli, Dries van Noten, Vivienne Tam, and William Tang also feature, showing how fashionable dress continually draws on the beauty and power of nature for inspiration.
The natural world has always provided rich inspiration for fashion, and this has been manifested and interpreted in different ways across time, geography and cultures. The new section Fashioned from Nature in China: Then and Now retraces nature in historic Chinese textiles and costumes. Through materials, dyes and patterns, it looks at the ancient natural world through to the 21st century to reflect on the relationship between fashion and nature today. An early historical reference is an embroidered replica coverlet from the Warring States period in the third century BC with dragons and phoenixes, whilst a pair of FMSH canvas shoes from 2020, dyed with leaves and mud, is the latest example.
The fashion industry contributes a huge amount to the global economy, yet it was recently considered the second most polluting industry in the world (*UN Conference on Trade and Development in 2019). Many in the global fashion industry are reconsidering their approach, with the Chinese textile and garment industry playing a vital role internationally. Sustainable fashion is a movement and process towards designing, sourcing, and manufacturing clothes that reduce impact on the environment and society at large.
Fashioned from Nature traces the history of mass manufacturing, examining the raw materials of fashion including silk, flax, wool and cotton, and the introduction of man-made and synthetic fibres in the 20th century, considering their value to fashion and the impact of their use on the environment.
The exhibition also explores solutions that have the potential to create a cleaner, less wasteful industry, including how today’s designers are using new materials and technologies, from low water denim, recycled cashmere and synthetics, to novel materials made from agricultural waste. These include a 2017 dress grown from plant roots by the artist Diana Scherer, who uses seed, soil and water to train root systems into textile-like material, and a tunic and a pair of trousers made from synthetic spider silk from Bolt Threads x Stella McCartney. Another highlight is a Calvin Klein x Eco Age gown worn by British actress Emma Watson to the 2016 Met Gala, made from recycled plastic bottles with recycled metal zips. The gown’s design reflects the increasing awareness and importance of sustainability in the fashion industry.
HM British Ambassador to China, Caroline Wilson CMG announced: ”Fashioned from Nature is a new milestone in UK-China cultural exchanges. The pioneering collaboration between China Merchants Shekou and the V&A has enjoyed well-acclaimed reputation through the innovative platform Design Society and a series of incredible exhibitions such as Values of Design: China in the Making. As its recent achievement, this new exhibition hopes to inspire Chinese fashion makers and share ideas around sustainable lifestyle with a wider public. It’s incredibly meaningful especially in post-pandemic era when we should seriously reflect on our relationship with nature. I want to invite you all to Shenzhen in its very best season of the year to enjoy this wonderful show about fashion and nature.”
V&A Assistant Curator Connie Karol Burks commented: “I am delighted to be working with colleagues at Design Society to bring Fashioned from Nature to Shenzhen. We share a common belief in the power of art, design and culture to generate conversations and stimulate change, and have a shared goal to create a sustainable fashion industry which respects and protects the environment.”
Guest curator of the new section, Fashioned from Nature in China: Then and Now, Edith Cheung Sai May commented: “The rapid economic boom in China has reenergized the fashion industry. One eye is looking at the latest trends from overseas; the other eye is examining local trends inspired by China’s rich history. ‘Men farm, women weave’ is an idiom used in dynastic Chinese to symbolize a harmonious society. Reviving forgotten textile fibres and weaving crafts is part of the new sustainable lifestyle. The opportunity to participate in this project is overwhelmingly exciting; it is a feast for all textile and fashion lovers.”
Design Society Deputy Director Zhao Rong commented: “Design Society has endeavored to drive cross-cultural dialogues and critical thinking around design. The V&A and China National Silk Museum hold the most important collections of fashion worldwide. To present this exhibition in the pandemic, we hope to see these treasured objects in a new light, bringing intriguing wider dialogues around Eastern and Western fashion history, culture and lifestyle to the fore. Through textile and fashion design It encourages us to explore a more harmonious way to live with nature.”
V&A Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer Tim Reeve commented: “The V&A’s partnership with Design Society was born from a shared ambition to provide a critical and cutting-edge understanding of design to the growing Chinese creative community, and to provide a platform for wider international debate on design and its role in meeting the challenges and opportunities of contemporary society. The acclaimed V&A exhibition, Fashioned from Nature, talks powerfully to that shared ambition to promote research and discussion within China and across the region.”
China National Silk Museum Director Zhao Feng commented:” China National Silk Museum has endeavored to contribute to the global fashion scene, and to create a fashionable lifestyle. Through the collaboration with Design Society and the V&A, we actively play the role as a cultural hub to promote an environmentally-friendly fashioned life.”