Meet Alvina, the designer behind SHUMINGYU. Alvina worked in the ateliers of Oscar de la Renta and the Asian Art department at Christie’s, and studied fashion design, art history, and business at Parsons School of Design, Yale University, and Peking University.
What is that spark that drives you to design and create?
I always had a passion for Chinese culture. As a Chinese American, I was fortunate to grow up in a household that gave me exposure to the beauty of Chinese culture such as poetry and the arts. I remember reciting lines of poetry with my parents while roaming the beaches of San Diego as a kid. This connection to my heritage has deeply touched and shaped me as a person and the ways I perceive and interact with the world.
I was formally introduced to the canon of Chinese artistic lineages as a Chinese art history student in college. I thought it was odd that despite the breadth and nuances of Chinese aesthetics that were crystalized over thousands of years, it was rarely reflected in a modern fashion product. To me, culture should not be relegated to a museum. It has meaning only when it is a part of one’s daily life.
I find it fascinating to explore the different elements that form the fabric of Chinese aesthetics such as literature, philosophy, art history, crafts and design. I want this type of beauty to be seen, not only in rarified spaces such as classrooms and museums, but by more people through a medium that can be a part of our everyday lives. This fuels me as a fashion designer.
When was the seed for this brand planted in your mind?
It was planted in college, and there were two defining moments.
I was a college sophomore watching a documentary on Chinese textiles and embroidery in my dorm. I remember thinking “wow, wouldn’t it be great if you could take something like that and make it part of your everyday life?” That was the first time that I started wondering “Why isn’t something like this more accessible to the modern consumer?” It seemed that this type of craftsmanship and aesthetic was only available on artifacts but not on anything that could fit into the life of a modern person.
The second moment was in a Chinese art history class when my professor flashed a picture of A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains, one of the most iconic blue-green landscape paintings, across the projector screen. I still remember the sense of awe that overcame me in that moment, mesmerized by the vibrant blues and greens of the painting and a conception of beauty that can only be experienced but not described. It was an awe-inspiring moment because of the visceral impact the painting had on me. I remember sitting there for a few moments just taking in the combination of colors that were used in the painting. It fueled my desire to uncover more aspects of the Chinese artistic canon.
These two moments are both very vivid memories, though they were fleeting at the time because I had never considered going into fashion at that point. At the time, I wanted to be an artist or a filmmaker. It would take more than a decade for these very early seeds to bloom into the brand as it is now.
A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains, Wang Ximeng (1096-1119), Northern Song Dynasty
What is the essence of your brand?
I mainly draw inspiration from my own art history background, as well as other fields of the humanities including philosophy and literature. Throughout my decade long search and questioning of what makes Chinese aesthetics unique, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the poetic underpinnings of it that makes the genre stand out. The Chinese have an overflowing love of nature and an understanding of the impermanence of existence. This awareness gives birth to a heightened sensitivity to the beauty that surrounds us. In the words of the Chinese philosopher and linguist Lin Yutang, the poetic essence that underlies Chinese sentiment teaches us “to awake and rejoice with spring, to doze off and hear time visibly flying away in the droning of the cicada in summer, to feel sad with the falling autumn leaves, and ‘to look for lines of poetry in snow’ in winter.” These poetic underpinnings give rise to an exquisite and refined sense of beauty. This brand is my way of sharing my perspective on this kind of beauty and poetic living.
What do you want to contribute to the space and what did you feel was missing?
While I was a fashion design student at Parsons, I learned that Chinese aesthetics in modern fashion is not new. In fact, it has been a source of consistent inspiration for Western luxury brands since the 19th century. Brands like YSL and Dior have all had widely successful collections that drew inspiration from the East. I wondered why there was a glaring gap between the influence of Chinese design on modern fashion and the absence of recognition for Chinese aesthetics. I also wondered why the only themes the public associated with Chinese design were Chinese New Year and dragons when there were so many other themes and aspects that undergird the essence of Chinese visual design.
This brand is my way of sharing the depth and nuances of Chinese aesthetics in the way that I was exposed to it. To me, it is not just something I am inspired by, it is something I live and breathe.
What is your design process like?
I first decide on a particular theme, which is either a genre of Chinese art or type of craft. Then I dive into research on the theme for a month or two. I read academic papers and art history books to understand the significance of this kind of genre, the elements that influenced its formation, what type of art it had an impact on later, its philosophical underpinnings, where the colors come from, and literary references. I look at the most representative pieces of art from the genre and identify the most distinctive characteristics that will define the overall feel of the collection. During this process, I am looking at art objects that have graced the courts of emperors, the gaze of connoisseurs, and the hands of skilled artisans. From the free-spirited brushwork of ink paintings, the rhythmic flow of poetry, and the delicate luster of ceramics, all of this informs my final design decisions.
As I do the research, I see designs in my head. I visualize the images and colors and capture what I see into sketches, which I then translate into digital prints. Once I finish my prints, I think about what silhouettes they would work best on. From then on, it’s about deciding what fabrics work best for each design and seeing how different designs fit together into an overall collection.
How do you want the wearer of your clothes to feel?
Beauty as a human experience is something I want to curate for my audience. I want my clients to feel beautiful, comfortable in their own skin, and proud of who they are.
I also want my pieces to serve as a medium through which people can find beauty in everyday life and connect with long-standing artistic lineages. Perhaps one of my prints will spark someone’s interest in understanding a particular period in history or start conversations around how beauty is perceived today. If my pieces can inspire people to value culture, I consider that success.
What’s your personal style like?
I’m somewhere between a maximalist and a minimalist when it comes to my personal style. I like intricate prints combined with streamlined silhouettes. To me, clothing is a medium. There must be a balance between the craft and the narrative.
I’m also interested in wearable but elegant looks. Everyday is a special occasion. You want to feel good everyday. The modern woman has a career, an independent mindset, places to be and things to do. Thus, it’s important for her wardrobe to be practical enough for her day to day tasks but not at the expense of design. This is why I offer sets and pay attention to bringing intricate details and luxurious fabrics into everyday silhouettes. It's within these elements that I balance what should be practical and what should retain the delicate attributes that are associated with luxury.