How Rui Xu’s Design And Innovation Took The V&A By Storm By Victoria Macmillan Bell

Wildlife, animals and endangered species are garnering more column inches than ever before thanks to the many charities and millions of supporters highlighting their plight and plugging away at reversing the declining numbers across the planet. Fashion houses have long courted furriers, whether it’s the trim of a cuff, the lining of a handbag or boot or a full-blown, floor length fur coat. Remember the PETA supporters storming the catwalks with banners reading the slogan, ‘‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur?’’

Designer Stella McCartney, conscious of her company’s ethical footprint, hasn’t used fur or leather from the beginning and now Marco Bizzarri, CEO of Kering stable mate Gucci, has announced that the brand will remove fur from all its collections from Spring/Summer 2018. Animals are beginning to have a voice at last.

One leading designer from China, now based here in London, is going one stage further however, and actively promoting the plight of endangered animals through performance art.

Rui Xu designs wearable art, garments that are both structured and soft but have a unique and fun quirkiness to them. Her friend, the late Dame Zaha Hadid, was a huge fan and ultimately became her muse. Recently, Rui was invited by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to create a performance as part of their monthly Friday Late event, this one called Sino Flux, celebrating the contemporary art, design, sounds and states of China in Flux.

She chose to tell the story of the antelope in her native China, an animal whose habitat is fast disappearing through urbanisation and slaughter by man. The antelope is seen as a proud and gentle creature, and their story was so beautifully interpreted by Rui and her team, choreographer Amy Grubb, and musician and dancer Javier Murugarren, along with 10 dancers all wearing extraordinarily beautiful masks, as faces of the antelope family.

In November 2016, The Animal Ball – a first of its kind event created by The Elephant Family to raise funds and awareness for animals facing extinction – invited fashion designers and fashion houses to create costumes and masks for the event to be worn by VIP guests. Rui was one of the designers chosen, who went on to create 14 of these wildly beautiful and delicate antelope masks, seen at the V&A.

So delicate, as the antelopes appeared one by one on the steps of the Raphael Cartoons Gallery, as if they were appearing out of the woods into open land. As a cluster, all gathered together wearing white, the masks rose up high into the air, and what an impact it had. Such stillness.

And then the music came, gentle at first, and the dancers depicting antelope took their first, tentative first steps into the room, the open grassland. But then, lulled into a false sense of security, a reminder of why we were all here watching the performance, piece by piece, the sounds of the city seeped into the musical frame – a car horn, a pneumatic drill, voices, shouting, bangs, thuds, sirens and so it increased.

The animals scattered, frightened and confused, until they retreated back into their collective group by the steps.

Nighttime came and the score changed again, slightly softer, the antelope taking prudent steps back out into the unknown, undercover of the imaginary darkness. This time, they stepped gently amongst the assembled audience, exploring their habitat, inquisitive and occasionally with the softest of touches.

It was beguiling; we held our breath as the movement from the dancers was so beautifully gentle. Nobody dared move.

And then came dawn, rush hour; the musical pace hastened dramatically and we all awoke from this moment of pure capture, of silence, fully immersed in the performance.

Bang. The animals fled in every direction, expressing fear, entrapment and no escape. They were fleeing from man. One of their numbers was down. Fellow guests were visibly moved by the immense change in environment to the point of tears running down cheeks.

No longer their peaceful world, this was now a fight for survival. Man was taking their world and shredding it. They have no voice, no self-defence. It is brutal and unrelenting.

There was a moment at the end of the performance where the story had been told, the dancers were gathered once more, as they had begun, as a group, safety in numbers, their heads looking down. The moment hung, the audience didn’t flinch. The silence was deafening. The performance was over but we were all collectively held in this moment, taken aback by the emotional pull of what we had just seen.

So beautiful, so sad and so utterly swept up by ‘‘Sky In Their Eyes – The Antelope In A Vanishing Landscape.’’

We have to hope that the story hasn’t been told in full, that there is hope and that the likes of Rui Xu and her creative industry partners will help give all endangered species, all animals a voice, through fashion, through art, through performance and through whichever channel helps to engage and spread the word, not the concrete.

About Rui Xu

Rui Xu is a Chinese fashion designer and contemporary artist based in London. She was formerly Director of Fashion at China Central Academy of Fine Arts, having studied at Royal College of Arts, and her works bridge fashion, painting, music and performance. Her solo exhibitions BEAUTY ON FIRE – FOR ZAHA at the Zaha Hadid Gallery (in memory of her friend and muse – the late, great Dame Zaha Hadid) and FROM XUAN TO BLINDNESS at the Royal College of Art, as well as her fashion experiment performance CHANT OF BREATH at the Saatchi Gallery, all received high acclaim in the UK.

Her professional experiences include being Chief Costume Designer for the 60th Miss World Final in 2010, Costume Designer for The Dance Theatre – The Tea Spell from 2012 to 2017; and Bespoke Mask Designer for The Elephant Family Animal Ball in 2016. Rui’s designs are widely collected by leading institutions and individuals including The China Silk Museum, The V&A Museum, Clarence House and the late Dame Zaha Hadid, amongst others. For more information, visit www.ruixuart.com. To see the performance of ‘‘Sky In Their Eyes – The Antelope In A Vanishing Landscape,’’ click here.