Hsu Chiu-i (徐秋宜) studied to be a painter and sculptor, but now she applies the fine art techniques she learned to her one-of-a-kind clothing designs, many of which are dyed with natural indigo pigment. During a press conference for the Taipei Fabricreative Project (台北布思議) at Taipei City Hall on Friday last week, Hsu demonstrated how to turn a few yards of fabric into a sundress or a flowing Grecian goddess evening gown without sewing by using deftly executed twists, tucks and pleats.
“Working with fabric is just like sculpting,” said Hsu in an interview after the event. “It’s about manipulating space.”
Hsu’s eponymous clothing label is sold at her store Artale Workshop near Zhongshan MRT Station (中山捷運站). The space also carries items from other Taiwanese brands, including hand-painted ceramics and glass pendants by Art Lee, sterling silver accessories by Bomb Metal and Fry Jewelry (爆炸毛頭與油炸朱利), fikabrod’s felted toys and T-shirts by minono.
Most of Hsu’s current creations are dyed with indigo pigment made from the leaves of the Assam indigo plant (馬藍, botanical name strobilanthes cusia). Her textile designs range from intricately detailed flowers to bold ombre washes.
“People link indigo dyeing with traditional clothing, but I like to experiment with ways to make it feel contemporary,” says Hsu.
In Taiwan, indigo-dyed fabrics are associated with simple shirts once worn by the Hakka, who favored the deep blue color for work clothes because it hid stains well. Sansia District (三峽區) in New Taipei City was once the center of indigo dyeing in Taiwan, but production began to decline in the early 20th century as chemical dyes became available.
Hsu hopes to revive the industry by selling enough indigo-
dyed clothing and accessories to start passing orders on to
Though Hsu’s clothing label, which was founded in 1996, is now best known for her indigo-dyed pieces, she did not begin working with the natural pigment until just two and a half years ago, while serving as a consultant for textile and accessory manufacturers.
“They had used indigo dyeing for little things like scarves and bags before, but they wanted me to show them how they could incorporate it into larger items like clothing,” says Hsu. “I found it fascinating.”
Traditional dyeing techniques include wax-resist, in which a pattern is first applied to the fabric using wax, or shibori, a form of tie-dyeing that originated in Japan and produces intricate patterns. Hsu, however, prefers to create larger, more dynamic designs.
“The color of indigo dyes reminds me of the clouds in Chinese paintings. I wanted to capture that sense of freedom and movement,” says Hsu. “Some of my patterns have been based on paintings by my husband [artist Wang Ren-jye (王仁傑)] and daughter, or even dogs I see while out walking.”
Though her mother was a custom dressmaker, Hsu never thought she would follow in her parent’s footsteps and went to art school to study Western painting and sculpture instead.
“I always preferred drawing. I would cut out paper dolls from my mother’s fashion magazines, but I never imagined I would enter this business,” says Hsu.
After graduating from art school, however, Hsu landed a position as a textile designer, creating patterns for intarsia fabric. During the early 1990s, Hsu earned a master’s degree in fashion design at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. After a stint as a trends analyst for the Taiwan Textile Federation (紡拓會設計中心), Hsu launched her namesake fashion label in 1996.