He's a thinking person's designer, one as artful and considered in his articulation of the work as its design. If you don't yet know him, better late than never. Robert Wun graduated from the London College of Fashion in 2012 before launching his eponymous label in 2014. Distinct, precise, dichotomous and eye-popping, his work distinguishes itself by undulating between, and at times piecing together, science fiction and the world of nature.
Wun's designs have been seen on Lady Gaga, Cardi B, Céline Dion, Solange and, most recently, Billy Porter at the season three premiere of Pose. I discovered him via Instagram, where he is among a new set of designers who adeptly use the platform to showcase their collections to an audience that might otherwise be boxed out.
"I'm one of those designers that didn't get much support financial-wise or institution-wise, even systematic-wise within the London fashion industry at least," he says. "There's a certain system here that I was never a part of. So the only way people know about my work has largely been on the Internet and on social media platforms. And for me, the way that I release my collection is through social media, even with the latest collection."
Below, an in depth conversation with the designer about his love for women, especially his grandmother, futurism, haberdashery shopping, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, and of course, Drag Race.
Let's start with the death of Alber Elbaz. I mention him because he was a designer, like you, who loved women. I was reading writer Rachel Tashjian's newsletter after his death which read: "Many male designers today don't love women. I don't think they ponder a woman's life or needs; I don't think they're interested in our indignities large or small, or what really makes us happy." I would say you are among the set that does. What is it you love most about women?
For me, myself, I would call myself an admirer of strong women. Because I think as a minority — I happen to be a homosexual and Asian man who lives in the Western world — I understand how it feels to be struggling or living under a system that is always trying to oppress you. Growing up in a female-strong family, I see how women fought against the system in my family and got to where they wanted to be — and had respect from the male members of my family as well. It's ingrained in my family. These women raised me. They taught me the values of life. They supported me even when I wanted to pursue something in creativity. So that's where my admiration for strong women comes from. And, of course, there's always going to be love for the woman. But I also feel like we can't marginalize a love for women into one section, one way of viewing it. Everyone can have a very different translation. Someone will make wearable clothing for women to make them feel empowered, comfortable and beautiful on a daily basis. But there's also. on the other side, designers like me who just create fantasy based on women's empowerment. No matter from what perspective you are looking at it, the bigger picture is to celebrate women and feminism and what femininity— [cat meows] Sorry, that's my cat. And she's a woman too! A grown ass woman.
Do you agree with the notion that many male designers today don't love women?
I have to disagree. Being short-sighted right now, maybe not thinking much in depth like her, with people that I know who happen to be designers as well, I don't think the majority of male designers out there hate women or dislike women or disrespect women, even. Especially for the new generation. Maybe she's talking about some designers who have been around for longer, a bit more established, and maybe more recently are being celebrated at a certain level of esteem or given a certain creative director job, and maybe she knows some inside story. Because I always feel like what is presented out there is very different from what that person is sometimes. But so far I don't see it. I'm more focused on the optimistic side of it.
So speaking of women, I want to start by asking you about your grandmother, who passed away last year. It seems, in looking at your latest collection, that she was a very important and enduring figure in your life. Tell me more about her, if you don't mind.
Because my parents worked a lot since I was born — my mother is a work-focused woman — my grandmother was the one who raised me. I slept with my grandmother in the same room, a bunk bed in Hong Kong where I'm from — me on the upper level and her on the lower — until I left for London at 17. And every year when I went back for New Years or a holiday, I still slept with my grandmother on the bunk beds until she passed away last year. I've never needed a separate room. Most teenagers might. But I love her. I love her. She understands me. She took care of me. She changes me on so many levels, from emotional, as a person, and also her life story. She's from the village of Hainan island, the southernmost part of China. She didn't know how to write. In fact, the only thing she knows how to write is her own name. When my grandfather left her and my newly born father, my grandmother decided to move to Hong Kong to provide a better life for my father. And when she got to immigration and had to fill in her name, she only knows how to write her name, but not very well. Her last name is supposed to mean "Jade," but because Jade in Chinese character, if you don't write it really well it looks like the number five. So then her passport name went from Jade to the number five. That's also one of the reasons why my collections always have to do with Jade and number five as well. But that's very deep, let's not get into that. But yeah, she went through so much, against all the odds, with no education and language barrier does three jobs. This is how she changed my world from her story alone, even before I was born. She taught me the importance of family and heritage and made me who I am today. She made our whole family who we are today.
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I think it's a lovely thing that you speak about her in present tense.
She will always be present tense. It's very emotional to me. [His eyes begin to well and he begins laughing, boisterously] I'm sorry, Evan.
Don't apologize. Emotion is a beautiful thing. I want to talk about great fashion designers. We could talk about Yves Saint Laurent or Gianni Versace, sure. But I'm interested in a lesser household name designer whose work made you or makes you see something more than clothing.
I tend to like designers that are in my generation a lot more because I feel that what they can achieve nowadays is so much more powerful. It's a very different time. It's a very different format. And the way that you're able to innovate and do something new, I find so much more exciting. And still with all of my love and respect for the designers who laid the path for us. I love Craig Green. I think he's a designer that's very successful in sticking with his aesthetic and craft and what he wants to say. He's built a whole world for the Craig Green aesthetic. And I love Peter Do as well. Like what we were talking about earlier, he has huge admiration and love for women and is for their everyday needs, like being comfortable, being chic. Extremely smart and well-made garments. He is one of the designers I really, truly admire.
I interviewed Law Roach recently and he spoke about fashion as being deeply emotional. Your work, from my perspective, feels emotional. How much, if at all, are you thinking about emotion when you create?
I'm getting better at finding that balance now. Sometimes great fashion moments, or a great collection, is very emotional. And the way I design, indeed, and the way I put things together can be quite emotional because I think sometimes the designer process is a battle of finding the balance because you can have the best idea but there will always be the technical side that pulls you back to reality. That's the constant battle: translating what you want to do to what can be done. Whenever I present my collection, the way I think about my collection, how do I wrap it up to know what garments to get rid of and which ones to keep so that the whole collection is synchronized and cohesive, that's always an emotional decision and I trust that side of me a lot because everything that I do is emotional, it's something quite organic, it's something that I'm so trying to control but cannot control and I'm very inspired by that contradiction. Sometimes my collection shows a lot of that fight in between and I feel like that is my emotion and what I offer. But there will always remain the radical side of thinking. "How is it flattering?" "How can we transform this great idea into a simpler top or a simpler dress so that people can share this experience?"
You met an investor after college who believed in your vision and helped you to launch your company, which seems like the ideal scenario for a young designer. How did you go about convincing them to help bankroll your brand?
I didn't convince them. It was through a friend that was a photographer, and then his agent, who owned the company and her ex-husband is a creative business investor. She was like, "Oh my God, I need you to meet him," And I was like, "Okay," thinking I haven't even had my first collection together yet. And then they came to my apartment — I didn't even have a studio back then — and I showed them what I was working on, telling them that this could be a dress collection. And he was convinced. I don't know why he was convinced but he was convinced. [Laughs] I mean it wasn't a horrible collection! And then a month or two months later he came to me with the amount of money he wanted to put down. I remember before going to their house for that meeting I had to call a friend who's a little more educated and not as ignorant as me when it comes to the business side and have them tell me everything about the business. "What are company shares?" "What should I ask for?" "What are the percentages?" That was how oblivious I was. It wasn't like, "Okay, I'm going to go in, know exactly what I'm going to say and get this fucking money locked down." It was nothing like that! I think they just saw potential that it could be something and they wanted to be in from the beginning so that they could get a better deal. And it didn't work out because I needed someone to be a little more hands on and so my sister bought back the shares from him so that I could be in full control while I looked for a business partner that could actually grow the business together with me. As an emerging label in London, you need someone to work with you on an almost daily, every-step basis. You need the hustle.
Your designs are often described as "futuristic." It's a word that I think often gets used and for me holds very little meaning. Are your clothes futuristic and if so, what does that mean to you?
I love you, Evan. That's why I love reading your Instagram account. Like that statement about the term "futuristic" is exactly how every time when I have to answer a question from an interview and they ask me about, "How do you describe yourself?" and whenever I need to use the word "futurism" or "futuristic" I'm very careful. I need to know that I meant it in the way that I meant it. I think what you meant is that futurism and futuristic in fashion is so overused in a way that people often don't even know the meaning. It basically just became a certain color or a certain use of material. What is futurism? Futurism, to me, is an aesthetic that is based on the future. That means that futurism is unlimited. It's based on imagination. You're also challenging current society standards by pushing a narrative forward. Futurism can be anything.
[Laughs] When I talk about my work and use the word futurism I try to explain it as being about optimism. Futurism means moving forward. It means the only way is to move forward, and moving forward is optimism. You have to keep going. And my design approach is always not referencing things that are heavily based on a certain era from the old days. I won't be like "let's create a 90s collection" or "let's celebrate something about the 80s disco." That would never be my approach. I'd rather look at something that is very scientific, unrelated to fashion. Something that is not highly based on what many designers would do. Referencing from a certain era allows people to see the collection and feel the instant connection of "Oh my God, I miss those days." For me, that's something that's been done before and you're just repackaging it. I love using nature and organic forms as a reference. But going back to futurism, there is something very emotional about futurism. You're questioning human existence in such a cosmic form. You're questioning human flaws, and that for me sometimes shows in my work. WHat is our relationship with nature? Our gaze toward nature and how nature looks back at us? Do you need them or do they need us? That is a constant thing for me when I design and think as a person. Futurism is a broader subject than a metal girl in a robot world. It's never that.
Speaking of IG, you kindly referenced mine, so let's talk about yours. How has Instagram helped shape or affected your business? And what value does it have on your work?
Instagram does hold a very significant part in how people would know about my work. I wouldn't say I have a strategy behind it — I've never thought of it that way — but I'm very careful visually of how I'm going to present things and the things I'm going to write to go with it. I see it as an online portfolio. Back in the old days it would be a press release that you'd write about your collection, now it's just on a different medium and there's a lot more channels now so you don't need a certain authority to be able to get your message across. You don't need endorsement. You yourself can reach millions of people.
I see you follow a lot of the Ru girls.
Which Ru girl would you most want to see in a Robert Wun look?
It was so overwhelming the past two weeks because I'm dressing Symone, I'm dressing Bimini Bon Boulash. I already dressed Tayce. I would love to work with Shea Couleé. I fucking love this girl. I love that she's a winner and a fighter, but not a bitch. I love that energy. She's not toxic, which I think is very important for me as a person. But she fights! If you step on her, she bites back. She has fangs. But she's never going to be problematic. And she's always shown me a lot of genuine love as well. She's always going to be my number one.
I'm manifesting a guest judge moment on UK season three.
What do you like to do when you're not designing clothing?
I think in the past year a lot of people's habits have changed because it's quite restrictive. Normally, before lockdown, I loved a stroll in the park or just going out to have a pint with friends. I'll go to the cinema, I've always loved that. Or just haberdashery shopping is a weird habit of mine. Whenever I'm stuck at work I will go to the trimming shop, which is quite far off from my studio, and just buy things. And I'm not looking at them properly, I'm just thinking and feeling things. I suppose everything I do is always about what's going on in my head. And even when I'm not doing something pertaining to my work, I'm thinking about my work. And how to one day apply whatever it is I'm seeing or feeling to my work.
What's the last film or television that you watched and felt robbed of your time?
Any teen genre, I cannot. I'm sorry. I think teen genre is just very toxic and unrealistic. Anything that's about magic and good looking boys and girls, like... no.
What song do you listen to most to seek inspiration?
I normally go to very gentle pop music, like Celeste, or movie genre music. Like when I talk about one of my favorite movies, Arrival, Jóhann Jóhannsson's work on that is something I listen to a lot. It's electronic, a bit cosmic, but soft and a bit natural. [He begins singing] That's what helps me when I'm sketching.
Speaking of sketching, tell me about your upcoming Spring 2022 collection. Designers typically like to speak in riddles when talking about their future collections and I'm curious if you'll keep on that trend or perhaps offer up some tidbits?
[Laughs] If I was a big, established brand I get why people might be wondering, "Oh, what is the next 'it' bag?" But who cares about designers like me, and what I'm going to do next?
[Laughs] There's a few things that are already set in stone. I'm going to be collaborating with people that are very experienced and well-known in the field. And I am expanding the language to a wider audience, so the Robert Wun woman is not just a woman, I will just say it like that. Because I'm still trying to make it work. I really want to make it happen, but obviously you know there's a lot of logistics, administration, communication issues, etc. but I will try 100% of my efforts to make sure that it happens. I really want to expand the language so that people can join the journey a lot more, no matter what perspective they're from, from gender to sexuality to size and from race, of course, which is something I'm always focused about, and cultural differences. That's also one thing — to circle back to futurism — futurism is trying not to put anyone in a box of cultural references, so it's a language that is universal. That's what I want to create.
"Wear Me Out" is a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.