The LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers was launched in 2013 with the aim of seeking out and fostering emerging talent within the fashion world. Each year, the winner receives €300,000 and mentorship from LVMH and the runner-up (or winner of the Karl Lagerfeld/Special Jury Prize) also benefits from this mentorship, as well as a grant of €150,000. With this incomparable support, winners consistently graduate from the realm of ‘up-and-coming’ to fully established and revered designers. This is evidenced in the success of past winners such as Jacquemus and Marques’Almeida which now have their shows sandwiched between century-old houses at fashion week.
Before the winners are announced, however, a short-list of finalists is released. Within the group of the 2021 finalists, we find Nensi Dojaka and RUI. Nensi Dojaka is a designer from Albania and based in London. Having graduated from Central Saint Martins, she was swept up by Ssense, producing a capsule collection with them in 2019. She has recently finished a stint with the so-called ‘talent incubator’ Fashion East. Rui Zhou, the designer behind the eponymous brand RUI, describes herself as from “a small city surrounded by mountains and trees in China”. She now works in Shanghai, having studied at the Tsinghua University, Beijing and Parsons, New York. Although the background and education of these two designers are contrasting, their works similarly challenge the rules of womenswear and create new definitions of femininity.
Speaking to the LVMH panel, Rui described the aesthetic of her brand as “based on the relationship in between fragility and strength” and this definition could equally be applied to Nensi Dojaka’s work. In the latter’s garments, this fragility is created by the straps which hold the pieces together. The concept of the strappy little black dress is taken to its extreme, as she criss-crosses thread-like straps (too slight to be called ‘spaghetti’) which precariously hold up the main body of the item. From this precariousness arises a provocativeness as it seems that the garment could snap at any moment. As the wearer can be confident that the structure of the item is not as delicate as it appears, this endows them with a secret strength which raises them above any viewer who dares to think that they will see more. This effect is also achieved by Rui’s pieces which consist of star-like panels of fabric held together by tenuous links adorned with crystals or beads. The placement of this adornment visually symbolises the beauty of this fragility, but also physically strengthens the most delicate parts of the garment, thus representing the designer’s vision of fragility and strength existing in harmony.
The shapes which arise from the structure of these pieces hint towards a playfulness within this new vision of femininity and this partly derives from the use of asymmetry in the work of both these designers. In some of Nensi Dojaka’s most recognisable pieces, she connects the straps in such a way that the panels of fabric sit at wonky angles. This adds to the provocative nature of the garment through making the function of the structure seem even more miraculous. In other pieces, she stays strictly symmetrical, but a playfulness is maintained through intricate layering. For example, in one of her bodysuits, three layers of sheer fabric are placed on top of each other to form a bra. As the transparency of this fabric is lost through this layering, an element of modesty is born out of the sensuality and this ties into the symbiosis of fragility and strength.
Rui Zhao similarly experiments with symmetry and asymmetry. In the symmetrical pieces, the shapes that are formed in the negative space of the fabric are perfectly circular, making the overall effect rather cute and fun, contrasting with the severity of the geometry in Nensi Dojaka. In others, spiky and asymmetric layers are chaotically intertwined as if the wearer has accidentally become tangled in a cobweb. As well as showing playfulness and experimentation, the construction of these shapes is a testament to the technical prowess of these designers.
It is easy to get wrapped up in the fragile technicality of these pieces, but one must remember that they are made to be worn. Nensi Dojaka and Rui Zhao did not forget this. Their radical femininity is reflected in the way that their clothes accentuate the body, wrapping themselves around the curves and contours of the figure. This flattering fit was not accidental and it is clear that the designs were created for real bodies rather than coat hangers. Nensi Dojaka uses adjustable straps which allow you to precisely fit the item exactly how you desire. Whereas adjusting the straps on a normal piece of clothing would change how high or low the garment fits on your body, the sheer number of adjustable straps on each item means that you can transform its whole appearance through playing with the endless permutations. Rather than using adjusting devices like Nensi Dojaka, the materials used for the RUI collections are inherently adjustable. This is because they are extremely stretchy, meaning that they change shape to fit whichever body they wrap themselves around. This is evidenced through the range of the bodies used in their campaigns which in itself points to an inclusivity in this femininity – it is not limited by the boundaries of gender or size, but willing to be embraced by all. The downside to these wonderfully stretchy fabrics is that they are thoroughly unsustainable (polyamide, nylon, spandex etc.), but Rui Zhou reassures the LVMH judges that sustainability is something she would focus on if she won the prize.
Unsurprisingly, I am not the only one who is obsessed with this new style of feminine dressing. It only takes a scroll down the Instagram accounts of these designers (@ruiofficial.me and @nensidojaka) to see that celebrities have been lapping up their striking pieces. Emily Ratajkowski was recently pictured in a signature-style Nensi Dojaka minidress and other big names such as Bella Hadid, Emma Corrin had come before her. For her Rolling Stones cover, Dua Lipa was pictured in a RUI bodysuit, leggings and gloves and even the insta-famous ‘robot’ @lilmiquela has had a RUI top superimposed on her CGI body. When a robot is sporting your work, it surely means that you have captured the zeitgeist. This celebrity popularity does, however, betray a lack of accessibility to these clothes. RUI’s prices start at £180, and that is just for a single sleeve and the cult minidresses of Nensi Dojaka cost around the £800. Perhaps this is reflective of where the designers are in their careers. Having won the LVMH prize, Grace Wales Bonner collaborated with Adidas allowing her to reach a different audience outside of the sphere of high-fashion and I wonder whether RUI and Nensi Dojaka could follow a similar trajectory. For the moment, we may just have to admire these clothes from a distance like works of art. Even if we cannot wear them ourselves, they are still able challenge our understanding of femininity and inspire us to find strength in fragility and to dress to reflect this.