How Ximon Lee & Pan Daijing Turned Fashion Into Performance Art

What happens when groundbreaking design meets subversive sound art? A high concept show in a Shanghai swimming pool, apparently.

“It all starts with a feeling, an emotion, a thought or a colour,” says Berlin-based designer Ximon Lee, of the process behind his high concept collections. In the four years since his inaugural offering, Lee — raised in China and trained in New York — has established himself as a beacon of hope in the industry. 2015 was an explosive year for Lee. Just one year after graduating from Parsons, he won the prestigious H&M Design Award, was nominated a semi-finalist for the LVMH prize, and was even awarded a seal of approval from millennial philosopher Kanye West (who declared that Lee was “killing it”). Lee has responded to considerable hype with an unwavering commitment to the avant-garde. Each of Lee’s seasons is, in his words, an exploration or a “study” of an initial emotion, which he expands into something tangible; treating textiles like a scrabble board, he weaves together different colours and materials to convey his broader message. The resulting pieces are manifestations of a self-devised narrative. “For me, it’s not about garment making. It’s about storytelling,” he says.

Process and concept are crucial to Lee’s practice — and his AW18 collection proved no exception to the rule. “This season, the theme was melancholic violence,” the designer explains. “I wanted to show a series of work that represented things which are contradictory in nature but which coexist nevertheless.” Lee is no stranger to heavier topics. Each of his seasonal offerings, which he terms “studies”, builds the basis for his next conceptual rumination. In the past 3 seasons, he has moved from “Shame” to “Xenophilia” to “Melancholic Violence”, each an elegant embodiment of the darker and more complex aspects of human nature. “Melancholic Violence” is his most avant-garde study to date in both form and exhibition. Lee used “Melancholic Violence” as an opportunity to move his designs further away from the fashion world, which is as dependent on commerce and mass appeal as it is on creativity and innovation. “I’m curious about other methods of presentation”, says Lee. “I think perhaps the message is more powerful when taken outside of a fashion context.”  

This season, Lee worked with Chinese sound artist Pan Daijing to explore performance as a means of collection presentation, fearlessly stepping outside of the accepted borders of what fashion can and should be. Daijing, known for her site-specific compositions and performances, proved a sensible match for Lee’s daring intentions. Both are Berlin-based creatives of Asian heritage who approach their mediums from an equally lofty frame of mind, and with a unified initiative to break boundaries.

Lee and Daijing exhibited a preview show, titled “Melancholic Violence”, during the most recent Paris Fashion Week. Models dressed in key silhouettes did a small-scale performance in a luxurious flat. “The space was really elegant but the presentation itself was quite dark,” says Lee. Daijing created a score for the space and choreographed the models, who walked the runway slowly, performing actions like blindfolding one another or whispering. This served as a kind of warm up for a bigger production in Shanghai at the end of March, entitled “Master of Mess”.

Lee showed this latest work in a suitably storied space: an ex-biological institute from the 1930s, complete with a swimming pool previously used for naval training. Lee and his team constructed a stage over the pool and filled it with sand, so that it resembled an island floating on water, while attendees perched alongside its slightly elevated rim.

For models, Lee and Daijng turned to the streets of Shanghai, casting a selection of the city’s teens, who in spite of their notorious partying habits proved impressively professional and dedicated to their task. Daijing and Lee had only two days to train them for the performance, which was set to a unique piece piece of sound art involving opera and spoken word. Daijing’s choreography, designed to simulate different emotions, invoked actions like repeated self-punching and intimate group work. “There was an orgy scene,” Lee expands. “In the beginning the models were quite resistant to the idea and giggling a lot, but during the performance they were really into it! They twisted together, like snakes in love.”

The garments were made from Lee’s custom textiles, which he based on a series of his own paintings that resemble dried, bloody fingerprints and other haunting imagery. Lee and his team digitised the paintings and coded particular hues with different kinds of wool and yarn. They then weaved and steamed the material to create a three-dimensional texture with wildly organic qualities. “We juxtaposed bloody reds with softer, pastel colours to represent violence and melancholia. The resulting fabric was this like this sad, collapsing structure. Almost like a corpse,” he says. The fashion abstractions were presented like sculptures or creatures — some resembled animal carcasses, others sea corals — with the human bodies beneath them serving both as supports and animators.

“Master of Mess” can be interpreted as a resistant effort against the often empty-headed, normalised methods of exhibition in the fashion world. Lee’s production forces us to consider why the runway and showroom are the status quo, and just how limiting those forms of presentation are to designers. By incorporating performance, Lee believes that the communication between audience and artist is optimised, enabling highly conceptual narratives (like his) to better translate. “If you only look at a static model or a quick walk, how much can you really digest?” he asks. And there’s no denying that Lee’s shows hold his audience spellbound: just one glance away could mean missing a crucial element of the story. AW18 was an opportunity for Lee to carve out a space for critical thinking in a notoriously superficial sector of the creative world.

Lee belongs to the ranks of a kind of fashion intelligentsia that cherishes idealisation and craft over trend: “I’m most fulfilled when I’m creating pieces which are most honest to my feelings, not when I’m making things that other people want to see or buy”. Spontaneity and flexibility are two things Lee holds dear to his practice: abiding strictly by the fashion industry’s gruelling deadlines, quotas and narrow markets would mean imposing limitations on his ever-evolving studies and explorations. His decision to show off the exhaustive fashion schedule is another bold move, one which he recognises means forgoing press and buyers. But those privy to his efforts, or fortunate enough to experience them in real life, know that this way, his contribution to the fashion world is more significant. This unprecedented fashion “happening” proves that Lee is, if anything, unafraid. He’s unafraid of the monstrous, the serious, the conceptual and the imperceptible. He is bravely forging his own way and demanding more out of fashion than just surface level beauty and market appeasement — and for that, we should all be grateful.

The Feminist Pop Art Pioneer You've Probably Never Heard Of