From village girl to fashion iconoclast

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-7 5:03:02

Wang Shouying, 24, stands next to her mannequin at her home in Nanliuquan village, Shandong Province. Photo: Zhang Yu/GT

When Wang Shouying looks at a fruit packing net, she sees a delicate crochet lace, the perfect material for an elegant hat. When she looks at an iron nail, she sees sparkling jewels that can embellish a headband.

The clear plastic used to cover the porridge she sells at her breakfast stand is the shimmering, transparent fabrics of the future. Leaves are the most versatile material, because their myriad shapes can form unique hemlines. She strings peanuts and corn together to make necklaces.

The 24-year-old farmer lives in Nanliuquan village, about two hours' drive from the city of Tai'an in Shandong Province, and aspires to be a successful fashion designer.

Wang has been helping out at her parents' breakfast stand and hawthorn field since she dropped out of school after only a primary education. About two years ago, she started to post pictures of her quirky designs, made from any materials available on Weibo. She now has 166,929 followers.

I visited Wang's home on a cold November afternoon. She lives with her parents in a shabby, sparsely furnished one-story brick house, its front door facing a dusty country road. She was dressed in a light blue corduroy jacket ("an old garment from my cousin"), black jeans and a pair of black boots. With a square, plump face and narrow eyes, she's no different from any other woman living in rural China.

Lonely beginnings

"I started to design clothes for my Barbie dolls when I was 10 years old. They used to be my only friends," Wang said in her "studio," a dark, unfurnished room on the eastern side of the house. "They were fake Barbies - there was no way I could afford real ones."

She couldn't buy any nice clothes, so she used scraps of her old clothes and plastic bags. Even then, her parents thought she was being wasteful, so she ended up using free things like leaves and twigs.

The "studio," about 20 square meters in size, is cluttered with piles of her handmade clothes. The materials they are made from range from plants such as corn, garlic and straw to pieces of cardboard, sacks, electric wires and plastic bags.

Many of her designs, such as a hat made of fish, went directly to the kitchen after she photographed them. Others were thrown out by her mother. "I thought they were rubbish," her mother, aged 45, said.

Taste of rejection

When Wang was 18, she went to an Internet cafe in her village, paid a man a few yuan and asked him to send her résumé to several clothing companies via e-mail.

"To make sure my résumé wouldn't be ignored, I asked him to send over 200 copies to each company. Still, I didn't get a single reply," she said. "China's fashion industry values education, diplomas and work experience. For a person like me, there's little chance of getting into those circles."

However, her chance to connect with the fashion industry came after all, when a popular fashion blogger, Gogoboi, shared Wang's Weibo posts this April. He compared Wang's designs to those of her idol, Coco Chanel, and he said both of their designs were bold and defied convention. That post was shared over 7,000 times and brought huge attention to Wang's page, making her something of an online sensation.

Being an "Internet celebrity" is not always enjoyable. Her page was soon flooded with insults.

The scorn was not just targeted at her crude designs, but also her appearance and apparent conceitedness. Wang's Weibo ID, "Wang Shouying is a fairy," elicited pointless indignation. "Calling yourself a fairy, don't you have shame? I want to slap you in the face," one angry netizen commented.

Her remarks on Weibo also invited anger. Wang often calls herself a genius and describes her early designs as "groundbreaking." She also criticizes clothes worn by celebrities, saying that she could create much better outfits.

Big break

Online notoriety, however, eventually brought her what she wanted. She was featured on several television shows, and clothing companies wanted to use her designs. But Wang said she wants to have her own team and build her own brand.

Last month, she worked with Youppie!, a fashion company based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, which created a clothing line named "Youppie! X Shouying Wang" to showcase her designs. The brand's in-house designer enlarged and retouched two miniature coats Wang designed for her Barbies and sold them at 2,399 yuan ($392) apiece.

In one promotional photo for the series, Wang was barely recognizable, covered in heavy makeup and posing like a sophisticated fashion guru, with the words "You don't really know me" emblazoned across the image. When asked if she was given one of the coats  she co-designed, she said that "they promised to send me one, but they didn't. They probably forgot."

These interviews and offers changed her mom's attitude toward her designs. Other villagers, however, remained skeptical. In a documentary about Wang made by, one villager said, "I don't know how to appreciate her designs." Another woman said, "People say she's talented, but it's hard for her talents to be recognized here [in the village]."

Plastic surgery clinics called and offered to perform surgeries on her for free. She's had more calls from these clinics than from clothing companies, she said.

Wang has never been confident about her looks. "I'm the only woman of my age in the village who's still single. People have been laughing at me since childhood. No man has ever courted me, and I don't think anyone is ever going to love me."

But  she refused those clinics, because she has "given up on [her] looks." Two years ago, when her family tried to arrange a marriage for her with a construction worker in the village, she also refused. "I would rather stay single than marry someone I don't love."

From the corner of her studio, she dragged out a sack, packed with yellowing papers. "When I feel lonely, I write love stories and imagine I'm the central character. I've written 30 love stories so far," she said.

Newspaper headline: Rebel by design

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