When one talks of the new vanguard of independent brands that are disrupting the Chinese fashion system today, it’s impossible to ignore Shanghai-based Shushu/Tong from the list.

In a span of almost four years since the label — a cheeky portmanteau of the nicknames of Chengdu-born designers and BFFs Liushu Lei and Yutong Jiang (below) — was founded in 2015, it has become the byword among fashion fiends for girly frills and frou-frou confections.

Liushu Lei (right) and Yutong Jiang

If the UK has Simone Rocha and Molly Goddard, and Denmark has Cecilie Bahnsen, then China’s rep to that inner circle of designers — cue dressing women in clothes that are big on individuality, girlish charm, saccharinely romantic, yet offbeat and quirky at the same time — would be Lei and Jiang. If clothes are meant to incite joy, then Shushu/Tong certainly hits the mark. Just think of its M.O. which has remained since day one: a healthy dose of bows, frills, and schoolgirl uniforms.

That distinct vision has even caught the attention of one famed Japanese designer. When Yohji Yamamoto visited Dongliang, the Shanghai multi-label store that stocks the brand, he was reportedly impressed and commented that the brand is “very pure and innocent.”

“We didn’t create this brand because that little girl’s aesthetic is popular,” says Liu matter-of-factly when we meet for an interview during his recent trip here to launch the brand’s S/S ’19 collection at Dover Street Market Singapore. “It’s something that we like. Probably, women just want to feel young. But this idea [of girlhood] has attracted us for a long time.”

Shushu/Tong’s latest collection (S/S ’19) at Dover Street Market Singapore.

In fact, age is irrelevant to the duo when it comes to dressing up women, he says. At the end of the day, a woman is supposed to be confident and feel powerful in whatever she dons. “Power dressing is now for women who dress just for themselves regardless of the views of other people,” he says, hinting at the rise of China’s emerging feminist wave.

“That is why I find women who dress like Lolitas very brave. When they are walking on the streets, people are still looking at them but they are bold enough to be in what they like. This is the new meaning of what power dressing should be. You are proud of yourself,” he says.

Lei reveals he and Tong Tong are die-hard anime junkies and have a deep affinity for Japan, its subcultures and icons — from Cardcaptor Sakura to Ayumi Hamasaki. Their latest obsession is sci-fi anime Darling in the Franxx whose plot revolves around survivors of a cataclysmic war against monsters and features heroines are pilot battle robots.

Titled “Boudoir”, the S/S ’19 collection envisions a wardrobe fashioned out of items from the bedroom.

Asked if these anime heroines inadvertently land on the drawing board, he responds: “Unconsciously it will translate into the design. We do it more spontaneously.” For S/S ’19, though, the collection dubbed Boudoir takes a more intimate and slightly risque spin.

Drawn by the idea of what it would be like to repurpose everyday items in the bedroom like duvets and curtains into ready-to-wear, the result included voluminous sleeves, organza tops fashioned after drapes, earrings that resemble curtain hooks, and a predominantly white colour palette reminiscent of crisp bed linen.

As for the pantsless looks, the idea was something quite relatable to most of us growing up. He says: “Tong Tong and I are flatmates and one day we were going through our old photographs and saw that we were dressed in our underwear and T-shirts in the bedroom. We want to take this concept and create a look that is innocent but at the same time a little bit sexy. There’s always something twisted in our work.”

Dressed in a black short sleeved shirt, bermudas, and leather sandals, he looks even more boyish in the flesh than he does in his official portraits. Soft-spoken, but firm, he could easily be mistaken for a teenage schoolboy rather than one half of the duo behind one of China’s most exciting new labels.

The knickers in the S/S ’19 collection are sparked by the designers’ childhood photos which had them dressed in just T-shirts and underwear.

Indeed, his demeanour belies the kind of maturity and vision that he and his business partner have honed since they graduated from their MA course at the London College of Fashion. It was during their time there that they also cut their teeth at British fashion labels Simone Rocha and Gareth Pugh.

Their graduate collection, which comprised structured jackets and tops accented with frayed ribbons, folds, and raw cutouts, imbued the clothes with a kind of subtle deconstruction and was swiftly picked up by Lane Crawford. Since then, their label has been stocked at some of the top fashion retailers like Opening Ceremony, Farfetch.com, and DSMS — a coup for any young designer label, especially for those which have not even crossed the five-year mark.

In fact, Shushu/Tong was one of the newbie labels that Opening Ceremony handpicked for its 2016 campaign that was dedicated to the new Chinese labels alongside more established indie names like Xander Zhou. Asked if the brand’s high profile now means he must be doing something right, he shakes his head. Surely, if top notch shops like DSMS are stocking the brand, they’ve made it, we pressed.

“Thank you,” he says coyly.

For all its success, you get a sense of how the label’s nascent status when you consider the small operation that Lei and Jiang run out of their Shanghai studio ­— every piece of clothing is made in the city­ — with the help of a three-man team comprising two assistants and one technician.

“When any garment is freshly made, we are excited to try it on. In fact, we try everything because designers should think of the shopping experience. You want to go to the store and try what’s on the rack. Ours is a designer brand so we want to keep it connected with ourselves,” he says.

Their youth also shapes the way they view their roles as China’s next fashion vanguard.  “The older generation of Chinese designers feel that they have to present the Chinese culture in their work. You will see designs like the royal palace and dragons ­— that idea can be old fashioned.”

“For us as (new gen designers), that’s not something that we have to do. We can free ourselves. As a designer, we have to be ourselves, rather than a country,” he says.“The brand is very personal and connected to me and Tong Tong. It’s not that we want to be the most successful Chinese designers. That’s not our concern.”

Surely, making money is important too, we inquire. With a boyish laugh, he responds: “That’s true.”

Main images: Instagram (@shushu__tong)