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Chinese designer Rui Xu on mixing fashion with art and having Zaha Hadid as a fan

It was a chance introduction to Zaha Hadid that led to a friendship between the acclaimed architect and the Chinese contemporary artist, Rui Xu. Xu’s work is avant-garde, bridging fashion, painting, music and performance and Hadid, who possessed a keen eye for shape and style, and had collaborated with major brand names like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, wanted to learn more about Xu’s work.

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“She told me how much she enjoyed fashion and asked me to visit her home taking some of my designs,” recalls Xu. “She borrowed four pieces, even though they weren’t quite her size, to wear to some parties. She liked my silhouettes and identity and so commissioned six designs, but only the first two were delivered,” recalls Xu with regret, because tragedy struck.

In March, Hadid died suddenly on a business trip to Miami. However, Hadid’s team honoured a promise made by the architect to host an exhibition of Xu’s exclusive designs at her Clerkenwell gallery alongside some of the architect’s own furniture designs. Staged earlier this summer, this was Xu’s London debut, introducing her unique style to discerning Western collectors.

“Zaha liked changing shapes, like her furniture with its natural curves and sharp points, and this inspired me. We met several times and discussed the designs for her.” Hadid had a taste for spectacular coats and cloaks featuring volume, colour and interesting techniques. She was a collector of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons and Thomas Tait. She was clearly drawn to Xu’s voluminous shapes based on hanfu clothing and her innovative textiles such as a silver-plating technique that creates a hand-painted metallic sheen without affecting the malleability of the fabric.

The technique is the result of her collaboration with Kinor Jiang, a textile specialist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and they have been fine-tuning it over the past eight years. The oxidation of the metal alloy on the fabric can create magical, painterly hues.

The two finished designs for the architect, on display, included the Black Tears Dress, a loose silhouette that seemed to change form, Xu says, as Hadid moved in it. It featured a shibori type of hand-dyeing technique and had silver liquid drawn down the back. The other design was a remarkable cloak, created in a textile recycled from industrial waste and featuring sharp outlines and points. The cloak had three sleeves and could be worn in many ways, recalling the groundbreaking work of Japanese designers in the early 1980s.

Before her death Hadid described Xu’s transformable shapes and artful silhouettes as giving her “a feeling of freedom and being myself”.

“Zaha liked the non-structural shapes and the exquisite details of my designs,” Xu says, “and to my surprise, she opened a window for my ideas.”

These designs are part of a bespoke range of unique fashion art pieces that Xu has created for collectors in China and Europe under the Xiangwangyi label. This and a ready-to-wear line called simply Ruixu, which is currently at planning stage, are being launched in London.

Her inspiration is built on her cultural heritage, and the Xiangwangyi label is drawn from the Taoism that underpins her work. “Xiang means image and Wang means invisible – Xiang Wang means to see the invisible,” she explains. The concept refers to the way people add to the creation of an outfit by the way they wear it. The Ruixu collection, meanwhile, will filter that poetic avant-garde aesthetic into more accessible clothing.

Xu, 40, trained in fine art and is an accomplished artist and calligrapher as well as associate professor of fashion at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, where she is currently developing a new course on fashion behaviour and smart wearables. She collaborates with artists from other fields such as dance, music and film, and created costumes for the China Pavilion at Shanghai Expo in 2010.

She chose London as her fashion brand launch pad after a year spent in research at the Royal College of Art, where she staged a solo exhibition last year followed by an experimental fashion and dance performance at the Saatchi Gallery. “I like the openness of London and that you can smell different kinds of cultures from everywhere in this city.” It is a way of life that originally drew Zaha Hadid to London and is having the same effect on Rui Xu.