It’s always a crazy time for me when the lingerie trade shows come to town. I tend to make an appearance at Curve NY, as well as any indie shows or brands that happen to be around offsite. I love the opportunity to see plenty of new brands, plus all my old lingerie friends. One brand I was very much looking forward to seeing was Pillowbook, as the designer had come to NYC all the way from Beijing!
It’s been a little while since I’ve come across a brand I’ve been as excited about as I am about Pillowbook. Pillowbook is designed by Irene Lu, who was born in New York City but grew up in Taiwan (where her parents are originally from), studied at FIT, and now lives in Beijing, an international path that definitely shows itself in her work. I felt so lucky to see her beautiful work in person because of its undeniable quality and beauty.
There are so many exciting things about Pillowbook. The first thing that I love is the truly unique and thoughtful design that you see throughout all of their collections. Another thing I admire is how the brand specifically embraces its Chinese heritage in a way that enables design innovation while still showing true respect to Chinese lingerie heritage. Too often, lingerie is seen as a Western concept that is merely mindlessly manufactured in countries such as China. As a luxury brand based in China, the brand defies harmful stereotypes of ‘Made in China,’ which often raise up American or European manufacturing as naturally superior. It’s common for European or American lingerie companies to draw ‘inspiration’ from China, but this always seems to take the form of something both stereotypical and superficial. I think that the difference between Pillowbook’s designs and this sort of ‘chinoiserie’ is an excellent example of the difference between being truly engaged with a cultural history and merely treating it as some sort of costume.
An important foundation of Pillowbook’s collection is the dudou, a traditional form of Chinese underwear dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) that Pillowbook updated with graphic lines in her debut collection. Each new collection that is coming out will include a dudou, as well as pieces inspired by the qipao and including details of golden embroidery and frogging (also known as Chinese knots). I also loved Pillowbook’s small capsule collection of Mondrian-inspired products– they are so fun and modern, I would totally wear them as outerwear.
I mentioned to Irene that I was really excited to see that she was using an Asian model for her lingerie, as it’s pretty rare to see non-white lingerie models, even for other brands based in Asia. She explained to me that this wasn’t merely discrimination on the part of lingerie designers– in fact, she said, it was seen as acceptable for western women to be seen in lingerie because they were generally seen as more promiscuous, while it would be more scandalous for a Chinese woman to be portrayed in lingerie that could be construed as sexual. I was very interested to hear this because although it didn’t surprise me, I was happy to get insight into how the Chinese consumer differed from my own perspective. Sexuality, gender roles and race can never be separated from one another and it’s always good to be reminded that these issues are more complex than I might think they would be if I just thought about them superficially.
Another awesome thing about Pillowbook is the origin of the name– check out the explanation from her website:
Pillow books are titillating works of art created in ancient China as illustrated guides for adventurous love play. It later became customary wedding gifts to advise young newlyweds in pursuing the pleasures of love and thus, planted near matrimonial pillows. Today, this tradition bears the seed of PILLOWBOOK creating an alternative design aesthetic with a healthy dose of eroticism to inspire our lovers to seduce, pleasure and empower.
Many pillow books were destroyed in the early days of Communist China, which makes this an especially precious piece of sexual history. I was unfamiliar with this history and I think the fact that Pillowbook draws its eroticism from engagement with this Chinese tradition, rather than by adding dragons and fans to typically Western lingerie is why this is such a compelling collection. I’m so excited to see where this brand goes and see this brand be embraced by more and more consumers who understand their compelling point of view.