How Rising Designer Rui Zhou Built Her “Elevated Shapewear” Brand | BoF Professional, News and Insights
Rui Zhou’s body-hugging pastel-colored bodysuits are unlike anything else in fashion. This is partly because of their iconic cutouts and beaded straps, and partly because Zhou – just months before the launch of his namesake brand RUI in 2019 – programmed a knitting machine to perform a technique. obscure which has since become unique to his creations.
The move determined her distinct aesthetic, characterized by sexy knits that stretch and pull over the body, and earned her a number of successes – most recently being the first Chinese woman to be shortlisted for the prestigious LVMH Prize.
“When I got the call, I was jumping in the air,” said Zhou, who is currently based in Shanghai. “I never thought I could be on the shortlist because it’s really hard for Asians to be recognized in international awards. “
But while Zhou’s entry into the fashion industry has been meteoric, success has not always been a certainty. Born in the province of Hunan, in the south of China, in a small close-knit family, Zhou was initially interested in art. “All I knew was that I wanted to create to show my personal identity,” she said. So, when the time came to decide on higher education, fashion design at Tsinghua University seemed like the best opportunity to mix his “business interests and the arts.”
She then graduated from Parsons with a Masters in Fashion Design in 2018 with a show featuring different versions of her now must-see bodysuits. They were already attracting interest from prestigious incubator programs like the CFDA Elaine Gold Launch Pad, which in 2019 named her one of 16 fellows.
“His job is super interesting because it bridges a gap between clothing and accessories,” said Greg Armas, Assembly founder and CFDA advisory board member and mentor Elaine Gold Launch Pad. “When I see things that I think create a need to buy on the consumer side, I get excited. And this is something that I immediately noticed with [Zhou’s] drawings. I looked at it and thought, “nobody has one already. “
Zhou’s mentorship with CFDA Launch Pad coincided with the debut of his brand, which was showcased during New York Fashion Week in spring 2019 with the help of acclaimed stylist Rachael Wang, whose creative studio led and produced the show, and said they have seen a “wonderful” response from the industry.
“From my perspective, Rui was one of the most exciting emerging designers to showcase at NYFW,” she added.
Indeed, in February 2020, a year after the brand’s launch, Zhou had secured seven resellers, including Ssense, Common Place, Maimoun and Nolmt, a number that nearly tripled to reach 20 in 2021. Meanwhile, the Zhou’s existing wholesalers have doubled their Spring / Summer 2021 orders.
“You would think there would be issues with so much strain on the body or uncomfortable wearing with the cutouts, but that’s not the case at all,” said Maimoun founder Mina Alyeshmerni. “In fact, I rarely get feedback on his products.”
It is a sentiment which is echoed by other trading partners. “Ssense customers react immediately when Rui products are uploaded, there is always so much demand and anticipation for its collections,” said Brigitte Chartrand, vice president of women’s clothing purchasing for Ssense, adding that the Rui inventory sells out regularly.
But with rapidly growing demand, there are challenges. For Zhou, increasing production has been difficult to master, especially because the knitting technique she uses to weave a range of yarns, including nylon, is so unique and intricate.
“When I was in school I did everything myself, so having to communicate all the technical details was the hardest thing for me,” Zhou said. She only works with a handful of factories, those she can trust will ensure the safety of the technique. “I’m just worried that someone is starting to create copies,” she added.
Its products look like raised form clothes and they are doing it so well now that people are shopping online.
Zhou’s intricate designs have performed particularly well during the pandemic, as homebound shoppers have turned to e-commerce to shop for comfortable, Instagram-friendly clothing. “[Her products] are like raised form clothes and they do it so well, mostly … now people shop online because they can see them styled on a body where they look great rather than hanging on to a [clothes] railway, ”Maimoun’s Alyeshmerni said. Business growth over the past year prompted Zhou to hire additional staff to help keep up with the demand. Currently, the team is made up of four to six people, including a studio director and several interns.
Zhou said demand is increasingly shared between China and Western markets like the United States and Europe, along with its internal operations. (She located production in Shanghai before the pandemic, for example, but works with a New York-based PR team.) Pandemic travel restrictions have made it easier to restore a Chinese market, although Zhou wishes to remain focused on both clienteles.
“I don’t want to create two totally different styles of marketing, one for the continent and another for Europe or America,” she said.
Even so, getting sample packs on editorial shoots featuring popular Chinese celebrities like rapper Lexie Liu has proven to be an effective way for Zhou to drive sales. This is in part because the commercial power wielded by celebrity ambassadors continues to dominate the fashion landscape in China.
Relocating her brand’s operations to Shanghai from New York City has been a boon for business. Production costs are lower, she said, and demand has remained high over the past 12 months due to early reopening and effective management of the pandemic. The low number of Covid-19 cases also allowed her to showcase her Spring / Summer 2021 and Fall / Winter 2021 collections at Shanghai Fashion Week, which helped her to enter into partnerships with eight new Chinese retailers.
Zhou’s ability to balance business know-how with creative production is crucial to his early success. Even his designs, made with elastic threads, are available in flexible sizes to suit a range of body types and sizes. “I started to do [the garments] in smaller sizes because Chinese girls tend to be smaller, ”she said. “But that might not work for an American market, so it’s important to [adapt] the drawings [accordingly]. “
They are for everyone, they are designed to suit all genres.
Despite their delicate construction and editorial finesse, Zhou’s designs are designed to withstand wear and tear thanks to the elastic threads and rugged machine-weaving techniques she has adopted. Zhou’s clothes appear small and shrunk at first, but then expand and stretch according to each client’s body and needs – “kind of like a second skin,” Zhou said. Each collection includes a range of categories at different prices. Someone might buy a sleeve first, while those who are feeling daring might go for a full bodysuit. The pieces, Zhou said, simply help customers “showcase their existing beauty.”
“They are for everyone, they are designed to suit all genres,” said Julie Gilhart, Director of Development at Tomorrow Ltd. and president of Tomorrow Projects, which is also looking for new talent for the LVMH prize. “It’s just up to the person to find out that they can wear it because anyone can.”
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