SHANGHAI — Penultimate, a Shanghai-based designer with a knack for playful garments that earnestly explore contemporary Chinese culture, has steadily grown a cult-like following in recent years.
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In 2020, Gao moved back to China and began shifting her interest from traditional Chinese motifs to contemporary Chinese culture — her playful and zany designs are not only popular with celebrities such as A$AP Rocky and South Korean musician Oh Hyuk but also attract the attention of trailblazing artists such as Cao Fei and Feng Li.
For Penultimate’s fall 2023 collection, Gao’s hyper-realistic gaze traveled to Japan, a first trip abroad since borders reopened last January.
“This collection pieces together abstract and specific moments of my trip to Japan,” said Gao. “Japan is always a sensory overload, a huge theme park, which feels refreshing after three years at home.”
Gao took inspiration from lucky charms and fortune sticks she found at Japanese shrines, which were inscribed with fortunes regarding highly specific aspects of life. With the help of an AI translator, these fortune scripts read eerily foreign in her native tongue, which Gao reconfigured into prints for Hanfu-style hoodies and pleated skirts.
Other classic Japanese cultural elements — including Buddha eyes, wooden massage tools, izakaya ceramics, miniature objects discovered at Tokyu Hands, schoolgirl uniforms, Japanese burlesque girls, and montages from Tokyo-Ga and “Lost In Translation” — also informed her design process.
Surrealist elements, such as threads of synthetic human hair poking out of gingham and floral pieces, serve as an ode to Sadako, the famed Japanese horror film character.
Gao made oversized shirts in the shape of a puzzle for the simple reason that “Japan feels like a huge puzzle; it’s almost impossible to piece it all together.”
“I wanted to do a really straightforward collection. There is even a sweatshirt that reads ‘Penultimate sightseeing in Japan,’” added Gao.
It’s easier to understand Gao’s work via a contemporary art lens. Her color-bombing knitwear, nonchalant silhouettes and a keen eye for the zeitgeist have pushed her into fine art territory, which resonated with Louis Vuitton-approved photographer Feng Li.
“We began working together because we have a lot in common,” said Li. “We are both drawn to the bold and the playful and anything that’s really childish. No one can say ‘no’ to her cute and fashionable designs.”
Upon discovering Penultimate on social media two years ago, Li’s creative collaboration with Gao quickly took shape.
For Penultimate’s fall 2021 collection, Li oversaw a photo shoot featuring Gao’s friends and Gao’s little sister Tin, the Anti-Agency model known for her unconventional beauty, who, almost by default, became the muse of the brand.
Last spring, the clan took an impromptu trip to a national park in Chongqing, where Li shot a series of humorous and whimsical editorials that Li said were only the byproduct of their spring outing.
Li is already planning the next installment of their anti-fashion excursion, with plans to travel to a yet-to-be-revealed location in the southwestern part of China, where Li will capture a series of portraits with models wearing clothes printed with images from the previous trip. “Every shoot is a reexamination of the previous works and a means to seek breakthroughs,” said Li of the self-referential work and the clothes he called “wearable content.”
“I want to be sustainable in my fashion image-making,” Li added.
For Ying Zhang, founder of Not Showroom and a longtime champion of Penultimate, the label’s strength lies in Gao’s alertness to her immediate cultural surroundings. “The brand contains multitudes. It does not try to construct a fashion narrative but offers a quick response to this moment in time, with a relatively light-hearted approach to reality,” said Zhang.
Last season Gao put out a collection called “Battle of our land,” commenting on a disastrous Chongqing wildfire and extreme heat waves she experienced in Shanghai last summer.
“I wanted to talk about nature, and our continuous power dynamic with nature, so I looked back at the origins of human nature and ended up referencing Nüwa, the goddess of mankind in Chinese mythology,” said Gao.
A mini clutch bag from the collection, which LMDS buyer Eric Young called “highly impractical,” quickly sold out.
“All her crazier pieces have become best-selling items,” said Young. “Even though a lot of designers are good at being weird, Gao’s design dazzles with a sense of avant-garde sophistication while giving us universal appeal.
“Her clients have a certain awareness of what’s going on around the world. At the same time, they are picky and unapologetic with their fashion choices. Definitely not the fashion victim-y styles populating my social media feed,” added Young.
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