LCF SHIRT: A Q&A With Winner Neil Xu Hao
At Turnbull & Asser we’ve been championing the humble shirt for over 130 years. With customers including the Royal Family and world leaders, our designs range from classic striped cottons to Peacock-worthy prints.
With that in mind, when the esteemed London College of Fashion told us of a proposed competition that would place the shirt in the limelight by getting budding talents to create their own interpretation of the iconic garment, naturally we were excited to be involved.
LCF X Turnbull & Asser: SHIRT aimed to strip the almighty shirt of everything we know it to be today and allow the university’s bright young things to rethink, reimagine and rebuild it from first sketch to final seam. The winning student won a bursary from Turnbull & Asser to fund their last year of education, helping them on their way to achieving their design career goals. With nothing off-limits responses varied from minimalist to avant-garde, a fantastic selection that reflected T&A’s contrasting values of tradition and eccentricity.
An exhibition of the final entries was held at the T&A showroom in Mayfair with judges including T&A’s head of design Dean Gomilsek-Cole and shirt factory manager Jessica Moore. The unique challenge proved a fantastic opportunity to see first-hand what the next generation of creatives had to offer. Participants included students from courses such as Bespoke Tailoring, Fashion Pattern Cutting, Fashion Jewellery, Fashion Design Technology Menswear and Womenswear. Dean commented: ‘It’s wonderful to collaborate with young designers just starting out in their career. It’s been really amazing to look through everybody’s work and get inspired myself as well.’
After debating a host of strong contenders, the winner was third year BA (Hons) Bespoke Tailoring student Neil Xu Hao. His victorious design featured a pared-back silhouette offset by a bold bolt-buttoned collar – the ideal mix of wearability and quirk that makes a shirt great. One year on, we interviewed Neil about how it felt to win and what he plans to do next.
Neil Xu Hao's winning shirt.
TA: Neil, how did you feel about winning?
NXH: It was my first time winning any kind of prize so I was thrilled and honoured and it was a very exciting feeling. I wasn’t expecting anything, I honestly thought I was the one least likely to win.
TA: Talk us through your shirt – what were the inspirations?
NXH: I actually designed the shirt as part of a collection - I only made one shirt but I designed a whole range around it including a suit as I studied bespoke tailoring. My designs are unisex – this shirt could be worn by men or women – with an element of elegance. Although it may look structured, the spirit of the piece is very relaxed.
I didn’t have just one inspiration as I would integrate key ideas and words with my own personal taste, however one heavy influence actually stemmed from ceramic making. I looked at the process of vases being made on spinning wheels - the clay would change shape and develop lines; a tiny touch would change the detail of the entire object. I loved that delicate process and the fact it took time to create something beautiful. That was the essence of my design.
TA: What fabrics did you use?
NXH: It is 100% cotton with a very thin striped textured – like a horizontal twill.
TA: Your shirt has a very distinctive collar - did you collaborate with a jewellery designer?
NXH: It’s wasn’t a collaboration, more a favour that I called in from my friend Emily He, a fellow third year LCF student studying BA Jewellery Design. I actually designed the collar piece to go with the shirt myself but I didn’t have the skill to make it, so I did some technical drawings and told her what I wanted and she built it for me.
TA: Some of the shirts on show were quite statement while others had a more minimalist feel. Turnbull & Asser consider craftsmanship as paramount so our shirts are quite a traditional cut and silhouette. Is this something you took into account when designing your shirt? Was your objective to fit our aesthetic and make it marketable, or is this sense of minimalism just part of your ideology?
NXH: At the beginning of the project we took part in a marketing brand research workshop and as part of it we had to brainstorm future marketing ideas with T&A in mind. My group focussed on how T&A could expand its customer to a broader, younger market.
Minimalism is part of my aesthetic, yes – if I had to sum it up in one phrase, it would be romantic minimalism. I think the shirt is understated enough to be reproduced on a large scale but is still wholly original. In terms of the pattern of the shirt, it was drafted as a menswear shirt but was altered to be more feminine fitting. I think my mother could even wear it. It is slim and long – the reason for its length was because it was intended to be worn with a matching outer jacket to create a layered look.
TA: Were there any other shirts from the competition that you particularly admired?
NXH: Yes! There were quite a few I was envious of but having worked with a jewellery designer, I thought the shirt with the amazing melted fork detailing was great.
Neil's favourite shirt came from Qi Yun Wang, BA Fashion Jewellery.
TA: Moving on to future aspirations - what do you want to do next? Do you want to establish your own label or work for an existing company? If it’s the former, what kind of brand do you aspire to be? Do you want to focus on menswear or womenswear?
NXH: I actually want to stick to unisex. My plan is to move into a tailoring position in Savile Row for three to five years, absorbing all the skills I can from the true masters. Then I want to go back to school and do an MA in womenswear because I’ve never had any official womenswear experience and I would like to be skilled at both. After that I would like to work for a worldwide fashion house, make my name known in the industry, then open up my own label. A long plan!
TA: That’s great to see you want to go out and get physical tailoring experience before doing your Masters… a lot of people just go straight into their MA.
NXH: Yes! There’s a designer called Paula Gerbase – she trained at Hardy Aimes then was head designer at Kilgour for five years before she created 1205, a unisex brand with tailoring elements. She’s my idol and biggest influence – that is the career path I am going for.
TA: What style rule do you live by and what do you consider a style essential? Do you have any other favoured brands alongside 1205?
NXH: Normally I dress in semi-formal attire, shirts with cardigans and jackets but nothing fitted and formal – casual elegance. I particularly like masculine womenswear such as Jil Sander and Celine, and the soft tailoring that Armani showcased in the 70s and 80s.
TA: Are there any outfits from your past that you’d rather forget?
NXH: I used to wear a punky pink jumper with spikes all over it! A very long time ago – it was awful.
TA: Lastly, what advice would you give to students entering a competition like this?
NXH: Be eager, stay motivated and commit yourself, but also remember it is not always about you and your taste. You need to put yourself in the position of the design house you’re working for or being commissioned by. In bespoke, your client’s wants and opinions are the most important thing, even if you don’t agree with it. The way you may your mark is by putting your own stamp on their brief.
Top and bottom right images credit: Hanna Puskarz
Other images: Courtesy of London College of Fashion