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Interview: Ryan Lo

published on 8 September 2014

Lou Stoppard talks to London designer Ryan Lo about his interest in girlishness and romance and his approach to designing for women.

Lou Stoppard talks to London designer Ryan Lo about his interest in girlishness and romance and his approach to designing for women.

Lou Stoppard: This project is focusing on the overt, almost cartoonish, childlike, girly aesthetic that seems to be very popular at the moment. There are people like yourself who are doing it in a high fashion context at London Fashion Week, but you're also really seeing it on Tumblr, and in high street stores. I think you're seeing it done in a pseudo-ironic way, you're seeing it done in a very sincere way. Why do you think that this girlishness is having such a moment right now?

Ryan Lo: It's honestly about what we grew up with. We aspire to those notions, you know, the aesthetics of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls. They're our teenage dreams and even when we grow up we still go back to re-creating that.

LS: So you think there is something aspirational about it?

RL: Yes, yes, yes. People grow up with dreams - some may want to be in an indie band, so they become the audience that Hedi Slimane caters to. So I guess the Saint Laurent aesthetic is a similar thing to girlishness, but instead my girls just want grow up and become a popular princess or something.

LS: That's interesting because it's kind of, if you think about it, a very modern, internet-friendly form of luxury. I think perhaps for an older generation, you bought high fashion because it was luxurious, and it made you feel like you fitted in because it showed off your wealth and it showed off your spending power. Whereas I guess today, actually, spending power isn't what makes people cool; popularity is. It's this idea of fitting in, so maybe that's what luxury is to our generation.

RL: Yes - they want to be famous on Instagram and Twitter as well.

LS: I'm interested in the way you design. You mention it's very much like 'our generation', you said 'we've grown up with it'. But obviously, I think when one mentions high fashion one assumes it's bought by a slightly older age group, purely because of their spending power - a 30 to 40-year-old age group. Do you think about them when you're designing or do you think about the girls you know and people of your own age?

RL: It depends, mostly I think about people of my own age. So not a girl, not yet a woman - there's a Britney Spears thing going on there.

LS: (laughs) Is there an element of irony to what you do? Do you want it to feel funny?

RL: Maybe it's a bit funny. I guess it's both, it's both girlishness but womanly at the same time. People say 25 is the new 18.

LS: Do you think about this idea of what that kind of aesthetic says about women? Because I think some people would point to people like Britney and Paris Hilton and say that they're not particularly progressive role models.

RL: That depends. That look does suggest things. Maybe because pink is such a Clueless colour. Even more so with Legally Blonde - Elle Woods. She's a lawyer but what she wears makes people perceive her as kind of a dumb girl, if you see what I mean. I don't think Paris Hilton is the whole package obviously - but Paris Hilton has gimmicks and she's fun. I mean she definitely has a sense of humour. The weird thing about her is it's not about being cool, 'Diet Coke is just for fat people,' and all that. I find it quite funny, and she obviously doesn't take her life too seriously.

LS: I think there's definitely a humour to your work. Do you think there's a strength to it too? I think the way you dress your girls - they look quite subversive and there's something interesting there because I don't think they look silly in any way and they don't look fragile, even though they're dressed in a very feminine way. Is that intentional or is that just how I'm reading it?

RL: I don't think it's intentional, it's just from the heart. It's just how I dress and my generation of girls like to dress. It's about looking very spontaneous actually. I guess it's dressing for both men and women. So as much as I like the idea of girl friends and the Miu Miu or Prada ideal of women dressing for women or whatever, at the end of the day I think boys finding my girls weird is not what I want. So it's dressing for both men and women. I want them to to be popular, to appeal to a wide audience.

LS: That's really interesting to me, because I think a lot of people look at that aesthetic, that very girly aesthetic and they think that it's almost kind of rejecting men, almost rejecting the male gaze. That it's this idea of dressing just for yourself. But it's really interesting to me that for you it's also about looking sexy and hot. You talk about designing for the girls of your generation but do you think that the guys of your generation, that that's what they think of as attractive? They're not looking at some Hervé Léger bodycon dress and thinking that's hot, they're looking at that Clueless aesthetic and thinking that's pretty.

RL: I suppose it's college chic, it borderlines Japanese manga.

Some Japanese editors emailed me and asked whether I'm a woman or a man. I actually took that as a compliment. I guess that it means what I'm doing is like real femininity.

LS: But do you worry about it ever? I'm interested because I don't know, I think there's a lot of feminist debate that could be employed against this idea that girls want to dress up like little girls. Why would women want to look virginal or young or passive?

RS: Young people want to look older and older people want to look younger, it's just the way it is isn't it? I'm sure more people want to look younger because its unattainable.

LS: Tell me more about your own influences. Because people have made parallels before between your work and things like Westwood, and even contemporaries like Meadham Kirchhoff. Do you think you fit into a set of designers or do you see what you do as being very different?

RL: I see myself in a set of designers but definitely not Westwood or Meadham Kirchhoff. I associate myself more with Sonia Rykiel, possibly Chloé from the seventies.

LS: Why?

RL: For me, what I do - girlishness - it's a no brainer. It's not try hard, it's not pushing boundaries. It's just making girls pretty, cute, gorgeous and sexy. It's always a classic silhouette. When you think about my work it's always girly, always pink, glittery. You've got sexy shoes, we always have pretty make-up. Do you remember the bunny face [S/S 14]?

LS: Yes.

RL: Yes, at the end of the day it's almost like nympho-chic. It's just looking lovely and pretty. I've actually got a really funny story. Some Japanese editors emailed me and asked whether I'm a woman or a man. I'm not lying, literally people email me about that.

LS: Why do you think that is?

RL: I don't know. I actually took that as a compliment. I find it quite funny. I guess that it means what I'm doing is like real femininity.

LS: Explain.

RL: When I first came out a lot of people thought I dressed boys. I don't know why, but for some reason they did. I'm not dressing drag queens - it's not about trannies. And I don't street cast, I rarely street cast. It's a very typical girl, or very specific but normal girl.

LS: It's really interesting that you said it's just a no brainer and just about making girls look pretty and girly. Because I think a lot of your peers who are working would be quite reticent, I guess nervous or even quite pissed off to say 'oh my work isn't intellectual', but it seems like you're quite happy to say it's about girls looking pretty. It's not about some great social or political statement.

RL: I think life's difficult enough. I mean we are living in such a difficult world right now and I think clothes should be just clothes. So for me I think about the woman or the girl getting married or getting a boyfriend. I think about her having it all I guess - wanting to have it all. Wanting to have a career, a loving family, kids, an amazing husband -that's the dream. And that's life. Hopefully it's aspirational, creating a life now. That's why I see myself in with that old Chloe, Phoebe Philo, that kind of thing. Obviously Phoebe represents like a motherhood figure. So I guess it's just like my generation's version of life - just wanting to have it all.

LS: It's almost become uncool for women to say 'I just want to look pretty, nothing more.' Many people, understandably, would think that was an odd aspiration.

RL: Yes - well for people that work in fashion. But from an outside perspective, she's a muppet because she doesn't work in fashion, she doesn't get it. Like sometimes if you do something completely outlandish she doesn't get it, she's like 'what are you doing?' So again it's going back to doing things for a wider audience.

LS: And why do you feel like there is such a moment for it though? Because I feel like the aesthetic you're championing, it is one that has infiltrated right down to the high street and on Tumblr and stuff like that. Why does the time feel right? I think for a long time women didn't dress in a very girly way, it was a bit of a taboo. In the eighties power dressing was all about dressing like a man. Where-as it does feel like a lot of women are saying, 'hang on, I'm happy to dress in a traditionally feminine way.' Why do you think that is happening so much now?

RL: I think about it culturally. There aren't any movies with mainly chicks in. Apart from Bridesmaids I can't think of any good movies that celebrate women, I literally can not. After Mean Girls, it's literally Bridesmaids and that's it. All the films are about men, men, men. Different types of men - think Boyhood. There's nothing about celebrating women - like creating a new form of celebrating femininity. And I guess in a way women are kind of stuck there, in that Mean Girls period. Like my generation of girls just can't grow up, they want to be that. It's almost like they're stuck being a teenager for a while.

LS: That kind of sounded like you think 'girly' is kind of a feminist thing in some ways. You think that women are reclaiming femininity and they want to be like, 'hang on, I'm a girl and I have a perspective' - it's almost a way of combatting that everything is quite male focused, and everything from movies to music is all about men, by just putting girlishness out there in peoples' faces. That old, 'girl power' thing.

RL: That is one type of girl power. For me girl power is freedom of choice. So if you feel conservative, you can be conservative. If you like to be aggressive in a very sexual way you can be. I think that it's ultimately about informed choices. As long as you have the freedom to do it - whether you want to be a career woman or a sixties Stepford housewife. It's a choice.

LS: Tell me how you want to take your brand forward.

RL: The thing is, my label is more about the aesthetic rather than the looks. It's almost like your best friend I guess. I would say maybe toys for adults. So girls can actually spoil themselves when they buy a Ryan Lo piece. It's that princess feeling. Let's face it, it's not something that you'll wear over and over again every day. But maybe something that you will buy and wear once in a while.

LS: It's like that prom dress feeling isn't it? When you buy your prom dress.

RL: Yes. It's like a prom dress, when you go on a first date and you dream about it. It's romantic.

LS: Do you think that they are the kind of clothes that women buy for themselves then? Never ones that boyfriends would buy for girls.

RL: I wish it was both. I want it to be both.

LS: You said you think about girls your own age when you're designing. Do you think about your friends? Do you think about girls you've seen on Tumblr? Who's the girl in your head when you're designing? Or is it just Paris Hilton?

RL: I don't think about girls from Tumblr, ever in fact. I think about lots of things. Every season will swap a little bit. Do you remember one season, I think it was in 2013, when everyone was doing the power suiting and everything? That season I was referencing Ally McBeal, Bridget Jones, Miranda Hobbes - there's always constant Sex and the City influence in it. So for last Spring/Summer it was really Carrie. I love cartoon characters as well - Sailor Moon.

LS: Why are you so obsessed with movies?

RL: Because there is the set, there is the script, there is the boyfriend/hero or whatever. And you can just pretend it's you on set. It's almost like cosplay. For me it's very romantic - it's very indulgent to think like that.

LS: You said a little while ago that your designs were about an aesthetic. And I think that's something really interesting that we're seeing with the designers of your generation - it's almost like their catwalk shows and what they put in the shops are proposing a way of dressing, not necessarily trying to sell clothes. Would you say that a girl could be a Ryan Lo girl even if she didn't buy Ryan Lo? So if it was some little teenage girl who saw it on the internet and loved it, she could be a Ryan Lo girl but if she didn't have the money to afford it she could create that look. Is that something that you are open to?

RL: It's not something I'm open to but it's a real issue. But that said it really is part of the attitude and the mindset. So anyone can be a Ryan Lo girl actually. That's why I feel like it's a laugh. I'm not sure if you've seen it but do you recognise that every season she's looking for love? Last season was like Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers, and then the previous season with the bunny ears, that was like girls preparing themselves to be homemakers actually. Nesting. The season before, the Ally McBeal one was about a really cynical, craving for love, workaholic woman - kind of sexually frustrated. We actually wrote 'sexually frustrated' in the press release.

LS: So is it all about man-pleasing? Do you like making the girls on your runway look like the kind of people boys fancy and fall in love with?

RL: At the end of the day they look hot and go out with their girl friends and get the men at the same time.

LS: Do you feel like the day that your girl finds love will be the day that you have to stop designing?

RL: If she gets married she's going to need clothes, so maybe the direction will be a changed look, a bit more womanly. But we'll see. I don't think I'll stop designing.

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