My Fun Afternoon Playing 'Victim' in East London
Last Friday I spent the most wonderful afternoon at the east London studio of Victim with the woman behind the label, Mei Hui Liu. From the moment she opened the door to greet me – living up to her designation in a fitted black and white floral print dress, a killer pair of rubber knee-high platform boots and heavy wing-flicked eyeliner – we became engaged in an enthralling conversation that lasted nearly two hours. By that time I felt like I had known Mei Hui forever, and then for the next hour or so she was sat at her machine sewing some Victorian lace onto a top while I tried on some dresses with several pairs of incredible boots and shoes she showed me – more on that later. I had some interview questions that I’d prepared beforehand, but by then just about every query had been answered. And if anything was left unaddressed it was because this previous curiosity had pretty much been deemed banal after the fascinating stories Mei Hui had just treated me to.
Victim is a 10 year-old label of one-off reconstructed dresses and skirts made from vintage and limited edition fabrics that are sometimes handprinted and typically heavily embellished with Victorian lace that is hand-dyed by Mei Hui. Raw stitching and haphazard hems are elements of her signature style. Her collections can range from fitted and structured pieces with more tightly appliquéd trims to looser styles with embellishments that hang from all over in layers upon layers.
I had wondered what Mei Hui thought of Christian Lacroix since I see similarities in the unapologetic mixing of textures and fabrics and building up surfaces with trims upon trims. So I asked her, but Mei Hui just shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. “I’ve been told that before” she said, and then I got why she didn’t identify with his aesthetic. As the creator only you know exactly where your clothes are coming from and you’re not likely to identify the same origin in someone else’s work; it’s too personal, too singular. I didn’t ask who she does like because Mei Hui is established, strong minded and focussed, and is exactly where she wants to be – she doesn’t define success as being a household name or being commercially viable as a brand, or establishing a position based on celebrity endorsement (oh, how I love her) because, as we discussed, what appears to be success is usually an illusion. So it seemed insulting to ask, as if to do so would imply she was influenced by another designer or had aspirations to be like someone else.
In fact, she stopped showing Victim’s seasonal collections last year at London fashion week after putting out her A/W 2009 line. “I did the shows for 10 years, then I didn’t need to do them anymore. I already had my customers,” Mei Hui told me. “The money goes right back into the shows. The more you produce, the more you need to invest, and it never ends.” Now that she no longer shows she doesn’t need to create seasonal collections; her pieces can be worn any time of year and she simply supplies according to demand – which is plentiful. In addition to seeing a steady stream of private clients her clothes are stocked in boutiques in Japan, Hong Kong, Spain, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, Dubai, and of course, London. (A little factoid: Topshop twice asked Mei Hui to produce a range of exclusive one-offs which she did - first in 2002 under the label My Secret and in 2005 as Victim Fashion Street for Topshop. There are many other accolades too numerous to mention here including profiles in Vogue and WWD.)
At the same time she left the catwalk behind Mei Hui had also finished with PRs and opted to handle the business contact herself. This is the way she would have preferred to deal with the publicity for her shows had she been able. The idea of working non-stop on a collection for six months only to have 200-300 people at the show, people who are vetted by the PR, didn’t sit well with her. It was obvious the prevalence of this false hierarchical - or what we can simply call ‘snotty’- practice got Mei Hui really fired up. “And to have a fashion student with a clipboard giving attitude at the door, telling people who can and can’t come in?” Finally, someone in the industry sees a problem with this!
It’s Mei Hui’s democratic approach to fashion that makes her even more admirable. I mentioned that it seems the people who create with their hands, whether they be knitters, felt makers, jewellers or one-off dress makers like her, have the ability and the desire to maintain that closeness to their work and to their audience; there must be something in the tangible quality of what they do that keeps them connected. And that it perplexes me that a fashion student who works so hard for years sketching designs, selecting fabrics and creating the pieces on their own machine – anything their imagination conjures - would want today’s definition of success. “Someone does the sketches, another sources the fabrics, another makes the clothes...and it all must be commercial,” says Mei Hui. And so it’s a question of what these allegedly successful designers are getting out of it. They may be living the life, but typically they’re not the ones receiving the money from their sales. They may be famous, but they’re distanced from the work that bears their name. That's success?
“In the 50s it used to be that you would go to the shops – the streets were full of them - and have all of your clothes made for you. That’s the way it was done," says Mei Hui, who is continuing this tradition in her Brick Lane studio where she regularly sees clients for fittings. She doesn’t view this as something to one day get away from, to evolve beyond; it’s not a necessary evil she must perform to maintain her business. She once tried a production line but it wasn’t her, so she returned to creating one-offs exclusively. For Mei Hui this manner of doing business is a choice and she wouldn’t have it any other way – she’s doing what she loves. She has assistants to help her but at the time I visited her they had all gone home and wouldn’t be back until March. And so an order for 200 tops going to Japan, all similar in style but each requiring a generous application of those Victorian trims that sit in huge piles in her studio, are all going to be completed by her alone within the month (and yet she still gave me her time).
This kind of personal attention is rare in high fashion but that doesn’t mean this designer is without her counterparts. When Taiwan-born Mei Hui settled into east London – Fashion Street in fact, where she got the name Victim as in Fashion Victim – after graduating fashion school in Paris and doing a stint in Italy, she found herself in an electrifying time and place which revolved around the city’s most exuberant young creatives. Fashion students, artists, DJs and the requisite eccentrics and club kids congregated at each others’ studios and the club of the moment, which was 333 on Old Street, at least until 2002 (hotness is so fleeting) and then Cash Point. Mei Hui worked and partied alongside Gareth Pugh who as we know has become a fashion sensation (and despite this still a very nice guy, that’s how they grow ‘em here in the north east) but reaching those aspirations doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve eclipsed the friends still doing their own thing in their tiny studios. There's a lot of big things happening behind those big steel doors.
And that brings us back to those shoes. Models of hand craftsmanship at its finest, each pair that sat on an unassuming shelf in the corner was made by Mei Hui’s friend, London shoe designer and maker Natacha Marro. Natacha is but one of the like-minded, skilled and passionate masters of their trade that Mei Hui collaborates with on projects from time to time. She is regularly called on to make shoes for fashion week shows and has a clientele that includes Daphne Guinness, David Bowie and other bonafide fashion icons – yet you (yes you!) can request a bespoke pair on her website.
Natacha Marro shoes in the Victim studio and from the last Victim fashion week show. That's me with the double-strap red Mary Jane. There's only one leg because my other shoeless one said 'I can't compete with that' and ran out of the room. And excuse the hot pink socks, I didn't know my piggies would be on display that day, I came in wearing over-the-knee boots. Flat ones.
Mei Hui told me to forget about how uncomfortable these shoes look and to try them on so I could see for myself just how good they feel. They are super high – a red leather Mary Jane had to be 7 inches - but there is a substantial platform and a lot of thick padding under the insole which actually did make them feel easy to wear, once you’ve trained yourself to walk in them - if you’re not used to a heel quite so steep, which I admit I am certainly not. (But I wish I were.) There’s a distinct, measurable difference in the feel, fit and look of a handmade shoe and I’m afraid should I indulge just once in a custom pair I may never be able to go back.
I tried on a lace handprinted dress with the shoes and the fabric was so soft and worked in it felt like an old favourite I’d dug out of my closet. (Not that I’d hide it away if I owned it – this would certainly be a key piece in the weekly rotation.)
As for the gorgeous neckpieces that I’d seen in the photos of the runway looks, I’d just missed them, as well as a good part of the dresses that had occupied the racks. Every piece that had been in the studio was now in Barcelona. Just as with her clothes these pieces convey Mei Hui’s novel way of making romantic sweetness a bit dirty. She takes aesthetically refined elements like the laces and pearls and buttons and through her somewhat irregular arrangements and techniques removes the preciousness, which adds a playful quality that anyone with a sense of adventure can appreciate.
I got so much out of the time I spent with Mei Hui. It was fun, hugely inspirational and I got an education in the way things work both in how a designer like her does her job, as well as certain unpalatable truths about the industry, about which I already had a hunch. And now, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s our independent fashion talent that is generating what we perceive as the creative energy of the high fashion industry, that it’s their ideas that drive the innovation and translate what’s happening on the street into meaningful and invigorating fashion. Meeting Mei Hui made me love fashion even more than I did before I knocked on her studio door. And if your impression of fashion is that it’s an exclusive club for the cool kids? Well, that’s one version. I prefer Mei Hui’s. Fashion victim she is not.
And neither are we.
You can read my column Accessorize This: No Fashion Victim Here at Dream Sequins which features more delish Victim accessories and those amazing Natacha Marro shoes.This will be the wedding dress for a very lucky friend of Mei Hui. She told me there's going to be 'lace all over' and I really hope she'll send me a photo once it's all done. Detail of the dress in the header photo
And more of my favourite looks from past Victim fashion week shows: