Photo credit: Emma Grann
Louise Xin makes stunning, one-of-a-kind dresses that almost float down runways with an ethereal quality. Xin is a Chinese-Swedish couture designer who used the pandemic to realize her dream of becoming a designer. Like her clothes, her methods are quite unique. Xin is self-taught and her line is rental-only. She upcycles as much material as she can because she can’t 100% know” where her fiber comes from and “if someone says they do, mostly they’re lying…” She also made her fashion debut last year with a digital runway presentation – protesting Uyghur forced labor.
Amongst a colorful confection were signs sharing the designer’s commitment to human rights including a banner unfurled at the end of the catwalk declaring, “Free Uyghur: End All Genocide.” Xin does not mince words.
That show went viral, landed her the cover of Vogue Scandinavia and established Xin internationally as a Uyghur rights advocate. It also put her in the bad books of Chinese state tabloid, the Global Times. Xin, who left China when she was 10, is certain she cannot return home because of her work. She is scared but will not back down. “There’s nothing that can be worse with than what the Uyghur people are going through. What I’m going through, you can’t just compare it…If I sacrifice my business and my brand, if that can, in any way, help the Uyghur people, I would be happy to do it over and over again.”
Between learning about the forced labor detention camps in the Uyghur Region of China and her debut show, Xin acted more swiftly and boldly than the U.S. government in passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and the U.N. in sharing its analysis of the situation despite overwhelming evidence.
True to her word, Xin has done all she can to aid the Uyghur cause. She endorsed the Call to Action of the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour and partnered with advocate groups like Freedom United to raise awareness of Uyghur forced labor in the industry via a social media mock runway video featuring persons from around the world, including Xin herself, saying no to forced labor fashion.
This year, she’s swapped the colors and the online digital show for an all-white collection and an in-person runway show that was broadcasted on 19 screens across Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the U.K., the Netherlands and Finland during Stockholm Fashion Week thanks to the generous support of media giant Ocean Outdoor. This collection includes a hand painted dress which has 300 of the 3000 names of Uyghur victims identified by the leaked Xinjiang Police Files. Following her show, she participated in a panel on European fashion, human rights and the environment. She used the opportunity to call on corporations to remove all potential forced labor touchpoints from their supply chains.
Xin has been invited to exhibit her collection in Paris and to take part in a follow up panel to continue the conversation begun in Stockholm.
Before she headed off, however, she sat down with Freedom United to share a bit about her mission and hope for the future.
KB: What inspired you to speak out on the issue of Uyghur forced labor?
LX: I discovered the tragic news about the ongoing genocide in the Uyghur Region in China. And since I am Chinese myself, it was something that became really, really personal. And once I also discovered the connection between fashion and the genocide – that 1 in 5 cotton garments are tainted by Uyghur forced labor that became really something that is very close to my heart, something I decided to advocate against.
At that time I had no idea how – I was a very new startup designer who’s still trying to figure out how to 1) make dresses, make a living, and make my way in the fashion industry. At the same time, 2) to take on something that was really hard… Last year for my debut fashion show I dedicated it to human rights and using fashion as a platform to advocate about this particular issue. It went viral and I became a human rights activist overnight! I remember the Vogue Scandinavia piece about me saying I did something political. I was like, no, no, I know nothing about politics. I don’t even know what’s the right and left in the political spectrum. For me, this is all about human rights. For me, it’s just the simple fact that we simply can’t talk about sustainability, but still profit from human suffering.
KB: A huge problem in the fashion industry is these very complex supply chains where, you know, it’s not just, say, X brand, if you want to say, Urban Outfitters or Zara, they don’t just make the clothes themselves in Spain or in the US. There’s a whole complicated system whereby they have suppliers who get their cotton, and then who send it elsewhere and then the clothes are made and then then that comes over here and ends up in the stores in the US and Europe and so on and obviously when the system is that complex and there are lots of opportunities for exploitation. In this light, can you tell me a little bit about how you work as a designer and how you create your clothes?
LX: Yes, so my goal is to work 100% with only upcycle and deadstock fabrics – to eliminate the purchasing of new materials to 0. And it’s really hard because I work with couture dresses so it means that, for instance, one dress can be up to 50 meters of fabric. When I do that it’s pretty hard to find the same amount of fabric in the same pattern and the same colors, so a lot of it is second hand and upcycled. And I do purchase some new material as well. The reason why I have been advocating for this [European Union] forced labor ban to happen is because I myself can say honestly that I do not know 100% of my supply chain. I hand make all the dresses. I do not have a production team – but still I don’t know where my fiber comes from and if someone tells you they do, mostly they’re lying because it’s like you said: the system that we’ve had for decades, it’s outsourcing everything. We’re giving away the control of our own supply chains.
KB: What do you think of the new European Union import ban proposal?
LX: To be honest with you, the recent fashion show was totally dedicated to that. So, the theme was ‘A turning page’. What I wanted to do is reimagine a new beginning where fashion can continue to flourish, but no longer at the cost environment… I really do believe that we need to turn a page and redo the way we’ve been doing fashion, the way we’ve been working in the whole industry and this forced labor ban will change the game once and for all.
The brands will have no other choice than to reform and we need this change. Change can be painful for a lot of people, but I think for the long term sustainability of our industry and also for us, as you know, customers, it’s vital. I always say that this is a most important piece of legislation.
Because it’s like slavery never ended. It just shifted form and more people in the world than ever are suffering under it, depending on how you count it, like 50 million people around the world are suffering from modern slavery, which is the highest number ever in the history of mankind. And we don’t think about it. We think that, oh, that’s something that happens in, you know, another century. But it’s not true. It’s happening right in front of our eyes. But this time, because of globalization, because of our technology, we can see it. And through a computer, through our phones, we can see what’s going on on the other side of the world. We can no longer say, oh, we didn’t know that was going on. We know it. Therefore we also have to take our responsibility for it.
KB: Do you have any advice for other designers or other fashion brands on speaking out on issues like this?
LX: A friend of mine said something really good. He said it’s very expensive to say the truth today. But then he said: but it would be less expensive if more people do that. And this I really, really believe to be true. I made a decision very long ago before I even did this. I came into the industry knowing it’s a very problematic industry with the way we not only destroy the environment , the way we also destroy the self-confidence of a lot of youth, especially women, and I decided that I can either go into the industry and let it change me as a person, or I can change it – and leave it a bit better than I found it.
And also I believe everything is about priority. What do you do what you do? What are your values? What is most important for you? Is it profit or is humanity?
So it’s really about asking yourself, what would you do if you were someone else? What would you do if it was actually someone you knew who was in a concentration camp producing your clothes?
KB: What would you say to the argument that some brands might say the E.U. import ban or in the US the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is bad for business or production costs them more, you know, because, in order for them to cut ties with the Uyghur region, it’s going to be very expensive for them. Some of them might say they’re going to go out of business. What would you say to that?
LX: The problem is that the system itself is bad. The system itself is not working, and when you have a system that’s not working, that’s not sustainable. It’s just a matter of time before that collapse, so it’s better to change the system from the root and make it good from the start.
This is something that customers will demand as well. The customers are more aware than ever about sustainability, about human rights issues, and the more people wake up to the fact that the only reason fast fashion can be that cheap is because someone else is paying the price. And that day when that comes, when your customers realize your products are not ethical … you will lose everything, so it doesn’t matter if you want to look at it in from a business perspective or a human perspective. The only way forward is to redo the whole system.
KB: One thing that we get told at Freedom United, because of our campaigns – and we have several actions for supporters to take, including writing to a few fashion brands, signing a petition to call on the Chinese government to end the forced labor detention camps and so on – one of the messages we keep getting is that people think that this means that we’re anti-China even though our messages are directly to big brands who profit from this system of forced labor or the Chinese state which runs the forced labor system. You’re in a unique position because you are Chinese. Can you speak to how fighting Uyghur forced labor is not connected to anti-China sentiment?
LX: The reason why I’m doing this is not because I hate my country. It’s the opposite. I love my country. I love the people in my country and that’s why I’m doing it because… I’m very proud of my Chinese heritage with its very, very long a cultural history of beautiful art and poetry. We have silk, we have porcelain, we have beautiful handcrafts – that’s what’s “made in China”. So, I don’t want the world to remember us as an anti-human country that produces cheap plastic stuff. I don’t want us to go down in history as that. “Made in China” shouldn’t be something bad.
It’s demand as well. It’s very easy for us as customers to say, oh, they are Chinese, they are a dictatorship. But …as long as there’s demand here in the West for this kind of very cheap goods, there will continue to be people suffering making these goods. So, it’s not about pointing a finger at one country or one state, but rather at a system that’s not working.
We’re talking about people going through genocide. They’re making our clothes. Do we want to consume that?
…we do have the power as consumers, as brands, collaborating with China, we have immense power to demand for humanity and human rights.
But we’ve been giving away that right because of our greed, because we want to have the cheapest stuff, we want to have the biggest profits. That’s why we’ve been losing our own power to actually right things, right the wrong things, right. And that’s so important to understand that we do have the power to make a change. But we are too afraid and we’re too greedy…
But if we want to come together as a collective, we will be able to end it. And that’s something we need to understand: that it doesn’t matter how powerful a dictatorship or government is. The united power of the people will always be stronger, and that’s something we need to realize. The love and understanding will always be stronger than hate. But that’s why we need to do it together. I definitely have big hopes for the future…It’s our collective response to it and it’s also something I always say is my duty as a Chinese person to end this.