Rui Zhou’s pastel-coloured, curve-hugging bodysuits look like nothing else in fashion. That’s in part because of their signature cut-outs and pearl-adorned straps, and in part because Zhou — just months before the launch of her namesake brand RUI in 2019 — programmed a knitting machine to perform an obscure technique that has since become unique to her creations.
That decision has determined her distinct aesthetic, characterised by sexy knitwear that stretches and pulls across the body, and brought 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 just jumping in the air,” said Zhou, who is currently based in Shanghai. “I never thought that I could get into the shortlist because it’s really hard for Asian people to get recognised in international prizes.”
But while Zhou’s entry into the fashion industry has been meteoric, success wasn’t always a sure thing. Born in the Hunan province of southern China to a small, tight-knit family, Zhou initially took an interest in art. “All I knew is 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 blend her “commercial interests and the arts.”
She went on to graduate from Parsons with an MFA in fashion design in 2018 with a show featuring various versions of her now staple bodysuits. They were already drawing interest from prestigious incubator schemes like the CFDA Elaine Gold Launch Pad, which in 2019 named her one of 16 fellows.
“Her work is super interesting because it bridges a gap between clothing and accessories,” said Greg Armas, founder of Assembly and advisory board member and mentor on CFDA Elaine Gold Launch Pad. “When I see things that I think create a need-to-buy on the consumer end I get excited. And that was something I immediately noticed with [Zhou’s] designs. I looked at it and thought, ‘no one has one of those already.’”
Zhou’s mentorship with CFDA Launch Pad coincided with the debut of her brand, which showed during New York Fashion Week in the spring of 2019 with the help of celebrated stylist Rachael Wang, whose studio creative directed and produced the show, and said she saw a “wonderful” industry response.
“From my vantage point, Rui was one of the most exciting emerging designers showing at NYFW,” she added.
Indeed, by February 2020, a year after the brand’s launch, Zhou had secured seven stockists, among them Ssense, Common Place, Maimoun and Nolmt, a number that has almost tripled to 20 in 2021. Meanwhile, Zhou’s existing wholesalers doubled their orders for Spring/Summer 2021.
“You’d think that there would be issues with that much tension being pulled over the body or being uncomfortable to wear with the cutouts but that’s not the case at all,” said Maimoun founder Mina Alyeshmerni. “In fact, I rarely receive returns on her products.”
It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by other retail partners. “Ssense customers react right away when Rui products are uploaded, there’s always so much demand and anticipation for her collections,” said Brigitte Chartrand, vice president of womenswear buying for Ssense, adding that the Rui inventory routinely sells out.
But with fast-growing demand comes challenges. For Zhou, scaling up production has been difficult to master, particularly because the knitting technique she uses to weave together a range of yarns — including nylon — is so unique and complex.
“When I was in school I did it all myself so having to communicate all the technical details has been the most difficult thing for me,” Zhou said. She only works with a handful of factories, ones she can trust will keep the technique safe. “I’m just worried someone will start creating copies,” she added.
Her products are like elevated shapewear and they do so well now people are shopping online.
Zhou’s intricate designs performed particularly well during the pandemic as homebound shoppers turned to e-commerce for comfortable, Instagram-friendly clothes to buy. “[Her products] are like elevated shapewear and they do so well especially ... now people are shopping online because they can see them styled on a body where they look best rather than hanging on a [clothes] rail,” said Maimoun’s Alyeshmerni. The business growth over the course of the last year prompted Zhou to bring on additional staff to help cope with demand. Currently the team is made up of between four and six people, including a studio manager and multiple interns.
Zhou said demand is increasingly split between China and Western markets like the US and Europe, and so are her internal operations. (She localised production in Shanghai before the pandemic, for example, but works with a PR team based in New York.) Pandemic travel restrictions have made catering to a Chinese market easier, although Zhou is keen to keep her focus on both customer bases.
“I don’t want to create two totally different marketing styles, one for the Mainland and another for Europe or America,” she said.
Even so, getting sample packs onto editorial shoots starring popular Chinese celebrities like rapper Lexie Liu has proved a successful avenue for Zhou to drive sales. That’s in part because the commercial power leveraged by celebrity ambassadors continues to dominate China’s fashion landscape.
Moving her brand’s operations to Shanghai from New York has been a boon for business. Production costs are lower, she said, and demand has remained high throughout the past 12 months because of early reopening and effective pandemic management. Low Covid-19 case numbers also meant she was able to show her Spring/Summer 2021 and Autumn/Winter 2021 collections at Shanghai Fashion Week, which in turn helped her secure partnerships with eight new Chinese stockists.
Zhou’s ability to balance commercial know-how with creative output is crucial to her early success. Even her designs, made with elasticated yarns, come in flexible sizing to cater to a range of body types and sizes. “I started making [the garments] in smaller sizes because Chinese girls tend to be more petite,” she said. “But that might not work for an American market, so it’s important to [adapt] the designs [accordingly].”
They are for everyone, they’re designed to fit every gender type.
Despite their delicate construction and editorial finesse, Zhou’s designs are built to withstand wear due to the elasticated yarns and robust machine-weaving techniques she has adopted. Zhou’s garments appear small and shrunken to start off with, but then grow and stretch according to individual customer bodies and needs — “a bit like a second skin,” Zhou said. Each collection includes a range of categories at varying price points. Someone might start out buying a sleeve, while those feeling bold might go for a full bodysuit. The pieces, Zhou said, just help customers to “highlight their existing beauty.”
“They are for everyone, they’re designed to fit every gender type,” said Julie Gilhart, chief development officer at Tomorrow Ltd. and president of Tomorrow Projects, who also scouts new talent for the LVMH Prize. “It’s just up to the person to perceive themselves being able to wear it because anyone can.”