Each season we are sold a new fashion look. What was coveted one season is relegated to the back of one’s wardrobe the next. But Melbourne-based designer Lui Hon sees fashion as evolution, not revolution. Hon’s approach to fashion has seen his work featured in galleries, both in Melbourne at the Lesley Kehoe Galleries and in The Fuller Building, New York.
Like his beautifully crafted clothes, fashion designer Lui Hon chooses his words carefully. There are no large arm gestures, as are often seen in this industry, only thoughtful responses to each question. Hon, of Chinese-Malaysian descent, arrived in Melbourne in 1999, intent on pursuing a career in fashion. His father, a salesmen, and his mother, a patternmaker in a clothing factory, were against this career choice. His father thought fashion was a career for females to pursue, while his mother, through her own experience, put fashion in the ‘too hard basket’.
FOLLOWING ONE’S INSTINCTS
Hon’s portfolio was accepted by RMIT University’s School of Fashion, which must have disappointed his parents. “You have to follow your instincts. It’s something you feel deeply inside,” says Hon, whose need to explore body and form was initially realised by exhibiting at RMIT’s First Site Gallery upon graduation in 2001. The cavernous gallery featured Hon’s graduate collection as part of a performance piece with dancer Meredith Lewis, who wore his designs and was captured on film. Hon’s honours year project at RMIT in 2003 was equally insightful. With the music of Icelandic band Sigur Ros, Hon lay naked on the floor using the movements of his body to inform possible garments.
However, artistic collaborations are usually at odds with the commercial world. Stints in retail occupied Hon for the next few years, working in high-fashion boutiques, while slowly attracting a small private cliental for his bespoke designs. In 2008, reality called, with Hon being included in the Project Runway series on Foxtel’s Reality Channel. “It was like fashion boot camp,” says Hon, recalling the isolation of being placed in a room and given numerous tasks to complete by midnight to be presented to a jury the next day. “It was all about the look, rather than the quality of each garment. A crudely glued hem or a sheared off edge didn’t mean elimination,” says Hon.
PERSONALITIES RATHER THAN FASHION
While Hon didn’t win the competition, the reality television show provided insight into the commercial side of the fashion industry, featuring quick turn-around disposable fashion. “It taught me that a garment has to be flattering the moment it’s presented.” Unfortunately, the experience also made him question his own personality, “I don’t have a large TV personality. I’m relatively shy in front of a camera.” Hon should have taken solace that some of the world’s greatest fashion designers have reflective personalities. Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo are likewise unlikely to use large body gestures or ‘kiss the air’ at fashion events.
ESTABLISHING A BUSINESS
Hon started his own label a year later in 2009, still reflective, but with greater confidence in where he was heading. He started producing two collections each year. In 2010 Luka Maich came on board as business and branding development manager. “I have a banking background, but I’ve always been drawn to fashion.” My mother’s label (New Zealand), The Case is Altered, was part of my life from the 1970s through to the 1990s,” says Maich. “At that point, Lui was getting help from everyone, but no one, if you looked at the business plan at that time. Clothes need to be beautiful, but the reality is they also need to find a buyer,” he adds.
Hon has found a number of key buyers, including Arida in Sydney, S2 in Perth and Andrea Gold in Melbourne. However, his most refined, gallery-like environment is the Lesley Kehoe Gallery at 101 Collins Street, Melbourne. Hon’s relationship with this gallery started with an exhibition of jewellery by Japanese designer Nakano Kaoru. Her exquisite crushed paper and precious metal pieces required a ‘canvas’ on which to be showcased.
INTRODUCING HON TO THE LESLEY KEHOE GALLERIES
Lesley Kehoe, owner of the Lesley Kehoe Galleries in Collins Street, Melbourne, discovered her ‘canvas’, while attending a private dinner for Supporters of Asian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2012. Hon was presenting a slide show of his fashion. “As soon as I saw the images I thought of the synergy between Lui’s designs and Kaoru’s jewellery. Both have this wonderful simplicity of form, as well as the way materials are expressed,” says Kehoe, who could see Hon’s designs working in her gallery combined with the jewellery. “Each enriches the other and as I often remark, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’.”
EXPERIENCE BEYOND RETAIL
As with the installation piece at RMIT’s First Site Gallery years before, the model at the Lesley Kehoe Gallery brought together contemporary jewellery and fashion for a private audience who would appreciate both creatives. In this context, the lines between art and fashion were blurred. However, within this setting, the two created a dialogue. Kaoru’s sculptural brooches, rings and bracelets, ‘talked’ to Hon’s designs, including his wool and alpaca coat, with its industrial eyelet, from his For Now I am Winter collection of 2014. “I don’t want the paper I use to appear pristine. It’s important to reveal the shadow as much as the light,” says Kaoru. The same philosophy could be applied to Hon’s jacket, with its intricate folds. Some of Kaoru’s jewellery featured dyed red edges on the crumpled forms, beautifully ‘dissolving’ into a fitted leather red suit designed by Hon. Other designs, such as a simple black wrap around cape, provided an appropriate backdrop for Kaoru’s large sculptural brooches. While the combination of fashion and jewellery was a first for Kehoe, so was the experience for those who attended, all by private appointment. The dressing room, for example, consisted of screens created by artist Maio Motoko, one of Japan’s finest artists. “It was an appropriate setting. I see Lui as an artist rather than a fashion designer,” says Kehoe.
FASHION & ART
Hon and the clients who attended, appreciated the ambience of the gallery. “It’s a unique experience showcasing fashion like art, rather than in the usual retail context,” says Kehoe. Hon also enjoyed the experience. “In a gallery, there’s no pressure to buy and you get to meet the people who created the work,” says Hon, who like Kehoe, believes it’s not about being a slave to fashion. “I see Lui’s design more like sculpture,” says Kehoe, who is interviewed in Hon’s striking raw silk vest with a well-defined silhouette. And while Kehoe was showing Hon’s clothing for the first time in her gallery, many museums and galleries world-wide have built a reputation of showing fashion as art for decades; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, to name a few.
A COMPLEXITY TO HON’S DESIGNS
Hon’s designs, although sold through select retailers in Australia, are ideally presented in a gallery such as Kehoe’s. Like Kaoru’s jewellery, there’s a complexity to his designs. “I try and leave a pattern unfinished so it can be manipulated on the mannequin towards the end of the process,” says Hon. “It’s that manipulating that delivers the unexpected.”
After the success of Hon’s collaboration with Kaoru, it was a natural progression for both designers to be invited by Kehoe to share their vision in The Fuller Building, a premier exhibition space on Madison Avenue, New York. “Eventually I hope to have my own galleries in New York and Tokyo,” says Kehoe, who presented both creatives in March this year, as part of Asia Week New York, something Kehoe has been doing with other artists since 1998. “Lesley has been showing artists in New York for many years, but it was a first time for me,” says Hon, who found the audience extremely knowledgeable about art as well as fashion. “These women know how to express themselves in what they choose to wear. They are confident in making a statement, whether it’s clothing, jewellery or both.”
“These women know how to express themselves in what they choose to wear. They are confident in making a statement, whether it’s clothing, jewellery or both.”
STORIES BEHIND THE DESIGNS
As important for the New York cliental were the stories behind each of Hon’s designs, as well as the background of Hon himself. “The New York cliental is extremely sophisticated. They may call New York home, but many have come from the United Kingdom and Asia. And of course, there were a number of New Yorkers,” says Hon. One woman, aged in her seventies, bought both Hon and Kaoru’s work, with a large double circled brooch attached to a garment with a scarf/collar. Given the success of the New York and Melbourne shows, Kehoe is planning another show in Sydney later this year. And while people can expect new designs from both creatives, Hon intends to build on designs from past collections.
Titled from the ‘archives’, these designs continue to say something about where Hon is headed. The most recent collection for Spring Summer 2015 was designed with the idea of building a wardrobe. “Fashion can be collected like art,” says Hon. The latest collection also shows a shift in silhouette to a more tailored look, with well-defined waists and fitted sleeves. “I’m also including a number of fabrics that you would find in sporty, casual wear,”says Hon, picking up a roll of perforated mesh sponge-like fabric under a workbench. “Fashion is like art. It continues to evolve rather than end abruptly after just one season. It’s also about the experience, communicating ideas and having things forever rather than just for the moment.”
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Image 01. Brooch #Long White, Washi, Silver, 24 x 7 x 4 cm, Nakano Kaoru. Garment: Lui Hon. Tassel Cape Shirt. Wool and leather, hand frayed, 2014. Photo by William Hung.