It may be cartoonish, but Ryan Lo’s work is never cynical or insincere. In climes when business growth and ‘new establishment’ are buzzwords around London, authenticity has suffered. It’s rare to see a catwalk show that looks like it informed by obsessions - like the designer just couldn’t do anything else even if they’d wanted, that their collection was bursting out of them. One got that feeling at Meadham Kirchhoff’s shows, before their label folded. One still gets it at Gareth Pugh’s. While Lo arguably owes more of an aesthetic dept to the former than the latter, the ethos of both are in step with his. His show is him, and he is his show. Lo is obsessed with romance - so each season his girl is embarking on a new stage of her relationship; looking for love, meeting her Mr Right and so on. He’s obsessed with pop culture - so ever season we see nods to TV, music and film. For A/W 16, he’d quoted Reflections, a ditty from Disney’s Mulan on his press release - ‘When will my reflection show / Who I am inside?’ Well, if Lo’s show is intended as his reflection, then, for A/W 16, he’d succeeded in revealing who he really is. This was more personal than ever - about him, rather than a fantasy girl or alter-ego. It’s seems strange to a talk about reality in the context of a Lo show, what with all those O Thongthai sparkles, faux fur stoles, quilted Empress robes and other touches of whimsy inspired by the likes of films such Everlasting Regret and TV programs like My Fair Princess, but this show was about real life - Lo’s life. Lo both championed Chinese culture - he was born in Hong Kong - and explored the way his own heritage had been affected or even warped by years in London, away from his birthplace. That perhaps explains why this felt like an ode to deliberately ornamental depictions of China - really it was about perceptions or cliches of his homeland. This was, to borrow from the Met, China Through The Looking Glass.
But, Lo has license and mandate to ponder these themes. If another designer had done a ‘China show’ and quoted Mulan, it would have felt crass and even offensive. This didn’t - it felt like a celebration of the way China is perceived, remembered or depicted. That interest in fantasy and perception runs through Lo’s work. He likes looking at culture through filters or glasses - femininity through the eyes of Britney Spears, human bonding through the eyes of Sugar Sugar Rune. Those influences are authentic to him, so they feel authentic in his work.
There’s a festival of twisted femininity happening right now in London. Pink, ruffles, ribbons, fluff, sparkles - sometimes it’s smart, built via a consideration of gender identity, power and what it means to be a woman today, other times it’s silly, saccharine and, at its worse, regressive. Lo’s work is somewhere between the two, but really neither - that’s what makes it special. It may look in step with the tutus and pompoms of some his peers and followers, but really it’s just about him and his world, not some wider movement. The romantics amongst us love that. Meanwhile, the cynics may point to the fact that young London designers regularly find success in Asia, even if London retailers don’t buy big, so a celebration of China and oriental emblems is as much tactical - and smart - as it is touching.