Last Updated on 2021/03/21
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Denise Huang is a Shanghai-based designer who opened the boutique Suzhou Cobblers where she sells her unique handmade shoes, slippers, and accessories.
Denise Huang is a designer born in Shanghai and graduated in graphic design from Shanghai Hua Shan Art Institute. She has also lived in Hong Kong and California, USA. Denise has worked as a freelance graphic designer for airline magazines and has created artwork for advertising. When Denise returned to Shanghai, she opened her boutique Suzhou Cobblers, motivated by making high-quality embroider products. Denise began designing slippers to demonstrate the beauty in China’s traditional styles, but always creating something fresh and different. Everything is handmade, and the quality of all items is double-checked when they are delivered. She also attended a TEDx event where she deeply and passionately discussed her idea “I want my Shanghai back”.
This interview appeared first on Planet China Vol 11, Celebrating Women who push boundaries.
Did you always want to work as a fashion designer? Where does your interest come from?
I don’t think of myself as a fashion designer — but instead a designer. I try to design meaningful items. Some are in fashion but others aren’t. I don’t limit myself to fashion. I’ve designed material and furniture, as well as shoes and clothing. In daily life, there are so many items that can be put to better use. So many products have never changed. That’s particularly true in China and especially when I was little. My interest comes from building on those things I see in daily life. I always want to make a change to the things I see, make things a bit different, more interesting, and maybe with a new function.
Shanghai-based designer, Denise Huang, produces Chinese slippers, shoes, handbags, hats and clothing that recall her hometown’s stylish roots
What do you enjoy the most about your job and what are the greatest satisfactions?
My job is very free. I don’t need much to create, only a pencil and notebook. I can work anywhere and at any time. It’s great satisfaction when a customer writes to me and says a design has made their life better in some way. Many people have told me they’ve worn my design to an important event, like their wedding or a big party. What’s especially good is when they tell me how when they wore my design and friends chase them for details about where they got that bag or those shoes. Very satisfying for both of us.
How did you start Suzhou Cobblers? What motivated you?
Once in the late 1990s, I was watching TV and the commercials came on. I was in advertising at the time. I did a lot of artwork for shampoo brands and even a paint company. At that moment I was watching TV and I couldn’t take it. I just switched off the TV — and realized I needed a new career. I realized at that moment I needed to find myself a new job. Eventually, I created the brand Suzhou Cobblers. But at first, it was scribbles of slippers. I always liked slippers and remembered how my grandmother used to make them for the whole family. By the time I started my business they were all the same designs: dragons and phoenix. I’m very motivated when walking around town. There’s endless creativity surrounding us. And I’m not only talking about artistic things or high-design. I mean vegetables in the market and old tablecloths. In my childhood memories, household items blended together — everyone used the same items, styled the same, and in the same colors. Bed linens were blue and white striped, or maybe red and white; drinking glasses were displayed on a glass tray; all notebooks said “notebook” on the cover; a light blue bicycle would stand out because everyone knew back then that bicycles were dark green. As I grew up, I gradually understood that supplies were scarce in the China of my childhood. It was almost like the sameness motivated me to think differently. So I turned off the TV and started drawing shoes. I was living in Hong Kong at the time and once when I went back to mainland China I found a shoemaker. He made 15 pairs based on my drawings. I took a pair or two of those shoes with me everywhere and showed everyone. The drawings too. I went into big stores and little ones, and a couple of shop owners agreed to sell them for me. I started to design shoes. I found you can put everything on your shoes. I’ve been inspired by a conversation with friends, poems, seasonal flowers, and much more. A few years later, when I was back in Shanghai, I opened my shop, Suzhou Cobblers.
On National Day in 2002, Denise opened a tiny shop steps from Shanghai’s historic Bund. For around 18 years, the boutique showcased Denise’s lively patterns on special footwear, unique handbags and fun shirts. The specialty item at Suzhou Cobblers is a line of all-silk, 100% hand-sewn slippers. Denise is inspired by Shanghai’s grandest era as a fashion capital. Her footwear features vibrant colours and playfully elegant patterns. Her window displays complimented a grand skyline and dressed up the Bund. The shop became a must-visit destination for visitors from around the world and Denise earned a reputation for her ever-expanding collection and attention to detail. Each design is Denise’s. But a group of expert women and men gets credit for the quality craftsmanship that brings the styles to life. In 2020, Suzhou Cobblers went online only, where Denise continues to offer her designs.
What are the biggest challenges when you start new collections?
The design part was never my challenge. My difficulty was business. I didn’t know how to run one. How do you register for a business license? How do you hire and manage an employee? Company finances, accounting, numbers. That’s all very tough for me. After designing the first 15 pairs 20 years ago, I haven’t stopped. I’ve perhaps designed a new pair every week. Not everything gets made but I have the drawings.
The redesigned, hand-sewn, silk slipper was Denise’s initial idea
What are your sources of inspiration, and what is the creative process behind it?
My friends can be my source of inspiration. Once I was talking with my friend who was struggling to be a vegetarian. She would tell me how many days she’d gone without eating meat. I decided her choice might make a cute pair of shoes. There aren’t always right or wrong answers. On the left shoe is a rendering of a steak and the right shoe has broccoli. In fact, vegetables have been a big inspiration for me. I didn’t use to go to the vegetable market very often, so I guess I had a fresh attitude. I would start to see Chinese vegetables as full of personality in terms of shape and taste. Take Chinese cabbage. The fat and tender cabbage stalks and round leaves are available in all seasons. But every season you eat it, it tastes a little different. Edamame wears its woolen coat regardless of the season, summer, autumn, and winter — and the green beans inside are sweet and tender. So I embroidered Chinese cabbage and edamame on my shoes. London’s V&A Museum seems to approve: my Garden slippers were added to the museum’s permanent collection in 2013. I will always put my ideas in my little notebook. Then I wait for the right opportunity to process the ideas. I draw a lot.
When it comes to fashion design is a balance between the look and the touch. Can you tell us your relationship with the materials and fabrics you chose for your collections?
I’ve spent a lot of time in material markets and yarn stores. My family knows it’s part of any trip anywhere that we have to look at the local material shops. Our vacation tradition. These days I also spend hours looking at material online. Plus I’ve designed a lot of my own material. I will make a number of samples, of a new shoe or dress, or a household item like a bench covered in yarn. I will be the first one to wear it or use it. My user experience is the first feedback for my designs. And over the years we have been lucky to build a bit of a fanbase, so many from that group are eager to give us suggestions.
Your design brings a fresh spirit of Chinese history and cultural heritage. How do you manage to balance embroidery tradition with innovative design?
As I grew up in Shanghai my design is influenced by the culture. But each generation will have new ideas for their designs. I see a traditional technique, for example, embroider, as a tool. I believe every designer will have their own way to use this tool. To find the right balance we will make a lot of mistakes.
How long does it take from the design idea, embroidery, and get the final product?
That’s a hard question to answer, I will say a lot of ideas will never make it to a final product. Since so much of what we do is handmade, we produce very small quantities. That’s to keep standards high. But it’s also because my team is pretty small. China’s pretty famous for factories. But no factory wants to make the small quantities I need, so I’m not really involved with factories. But I can offer a few ideas about what goes into a pair of embroidered shoes. After I draw and draw, I make a pattern or stencil. It will take some time to print my pattern on silk or for me to find the correct silk design. My embroiderers will need about three days to do their work. It’s another three to five days to put that embroidery onto a shoe shape, for the finished product.
Can you share with us any meaningful story from the backstage of your work?
Visiting the Philippines several years ago I had a chance to spend some time in a friend’s old village. They had animals in the yard including chickens. My eyes were drawn to the rooster who stood proudly on the top of his little hen house. His feathers were brilliant black and white. He pressed out his breasts. He demanded attention — starting just before daybreak. At 5 AM he began crowing and crowing. It was his job to wake everyone up, and he was good at his job. He was unforgettable. I decided to stitch that proud rooster onto a pair of shoes for Suzhou Cobblers. I call that style, “Good Morning!”
Photos courtesy of Denise Huang & Suzhou Cobblers
Featured image: Gráinne Quinlan