Robert Wun On Heritage And Rejecting Stereotypes In Fashion
Updated: Mar 26, 2021
Robert Wun reflects on the inspirations behind his collections, and how he’s exploring his heritage beyond what’s expected of the people around him
There’s a sense of independence about Robert Wun. His words are matter-of-fact, precise, unafraid. These adjectives reflect the character of his eponymous brand––sculptural silhouettes masterfully rendered with a sense of elegance, Wun presents a new kind of womenswear that doesn’t need masculine elements to present authority, nor fragility to emphasise the femininity of his clothes.
Wun’s rejection of stereotyping has also led to a unique perspective of his East Asian heritage through his collections––one which many may not be so quick to accept. As a Hong Kong designer based in London, Wun is no stranger to the discriminatory stereotypes imposed on him and his brand. Though it is an issue larger than simply one collection or designer, Wun's silent protest through his collections has made him one to watch especially in recent years.
We spoke to Wun on his personal experiences in London, how he's integrating his heritage into his designs in a new manner, and how he hopes to give back to his community in Hong Kong in the future.
How has your upbringing influenced the way you approach fashion?
My approach to fashion is always based on a celebration of feminism, futurism and escapism with a political approach.
Growing up both in Hong Kong and London has taught me the importance of embracing my heritage and to always stay humble and learn different perspective and cultures around the world. Dismantling systematic racism in the fashion industry, rejecting stereotypes, and challenging the standard of beauty based on colourism... these are definitely one of my aims as a brand and as a designer.
My family also taught me feminism. My grandmother brought my father to Hong Kong by herself during the post-civil war period, not knowing how to speak a word of the native language, and managed to raise my father as a single mother by mending clothes, making plastic flowers and sewing shoes. I'm also in awe of my mother's work ethic, who has been working and studying since she was 12 – she was pursuing a Master's Degree by the time I was 15.
Are there any moments where you have felt stereotypes being imposed on you due to your heritage throughout your career?
Since I started my brand six years ago, there have definitely been a few conversations and meetings that were particularly memorable which have left me puzzled by a few rather insensitive comments and remarks.
Although London is extremely diverse, and also known for celebrating different cultural and identities, there is a trend that only supports designers of colour that are willing to talk about their heritage. One time, an editor even told me to start creating collections based on my culture just to ride on that wave and attract more attention, as they found it difficult to sell a designer of colour if they are not talking about their struggle or their ethnic background.
There have been meetings with industry leaders or key editors during London Fashion Week. Although I appreciate it when they show interest in my heritage, it has often taken precedence over the way I work or my collections. The majority of our conversations becomes filled with questions such as “what part of China are you from” or “how can you be in the UK, do you need a visa? Is your partner British?”––rather than the designs I am here to present.
There is a huge proportion of white British/European designers being celebrated for their craft and distinctive creativeness, yet only a few designers of colour are being celebrated in comparison––and when they are, they are mostly labelled with their work purely about their heritage and struggles in a western society. I’ve found that some even change their attitude towards me drastically, after learning that I am a British Citizen passport holder due to my heritage. They’d suddenly start taking an interest in my work and aesthetic, despite the doubts they initially showed. It was almost as if they were sceptical of my ability and quality as a designer, simply due to my racial identity.
As an East Asian––in particular, a person of Chinese descent––you’re automatically put in a certain box. In the UK, they commonly link wealth to internationals in the fashion and creative industries, especially East Asian or non-white international creatives – those of Chinese descent in particular. This puts people in a certain box before people even know you.
Can you elaborate more on how you have been tackling systematic racism in your own way through your brand?
One of the greatest things the fashion industry can offer is to challenge beauty, identity and sexual standards in society. Even in the East Asian markets, racism and colourism is common. I have been told black models won’t sell the collection in these regions. Equally, when it comes to the Western markets, I have been told to do collections “inspired by my heritage” but with a Western approach––so that audiences there can identify with a more oriental-inspired collection. I’ve also been working with people from different backgrounds and cultures, as part of the creative process behind-the-scenes as well as the models for my collections. I feel that both are equally important.
I appreciate people paying homage to certain heritages to create a collection, but I wish to offer something more personal and futuristic. In this way, we can escape the vortex of further stereotyping––we simply cannot fully understand a culture that is not ours. Instead, we should humbly learn from, and more importantly work, collaborate, and hire people from different cultural backgrounds.
I’m very lucky to have had both the pleasure of working with and being friends with so many, in turn being able to continue to learn and grow with them; not just my craft but also as a person.
Are there any motifs that are significant to your designs?
It would be an orchid, which I first introduced in the SS19 collection. The collection pays homage to the legendary character Mulan, who has paved the way for feminists of the modern age. I was inspired by the poetic meanings of the Chinese characters––Hua Mulan's name in Mandarin (花木蘭) means flower, wood and orchid. I chose the orchid––its shape is powerful, feminine and elegant, and I continue to include this motif throughout all my collections thereafter.
Through my collections, I’ve always tried to tell an empowering story. At the same time, I want to reject stereotypes typical of an East Asian culture inspired collection (e.g. dragons, chop sticks, silk Qi Pao costumes, or Chinese character tattoos), and take a more indirect development in shapes, colours and forms. I hope that this method will allow a more personal direction and for more depth for me to talk about my culture and heritage in a new way.
What emotions do you want clients to feel when wearing your brand?
Empowered, feminine and graceful. I would like to imagine they can live in their sci-fi fantasy while they are wearing my clothes.
With these empowering emotions which can represents also their own life stories, as a strong independent individuals as they are walking in the real world.
How has Hong Kong culture impacted your work?
Certainly in work ethic and the unlimited amount of inspirations the city has to offer. From the streets of gold fish along one of the busiest streets in Mong Kok, to the multicultural influence on food and architecture––the balance between nature and the artificial is always the core inspiration of my work. [This balance is something that] I believe is the timeless language that can be communicated to the world.
What do you hope to introduce to [Hong Kong] consumers in the future?
I hope to build an international brand whilst being known as a Hong Kong designer. I am currently also working on shifting a lot of production units to independent manufacturers in Hong Kong.
I would also love to work with the education system in the future, to focus on fashion and other creative fields in Hong Kong. I want to support younger generations of talents, and hopefully I will be able to offer opportunities that expand their landscape. I hope that Hong Kong consumers will not only support the brand, but also in giving back to the community, and uplifting the industry in Hong Kong as a whole.