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The 'low carbon' fashion designer connecting China and France via silk

Li Jianhua


Silk has been part of China's identity for millennia. Its production originated in Neolithic China about 6,000 years ago, and the art of its manufacture was confined to China until the Silk Road opened in 114 BC. Even now, China is still the world's largest producer of silk, whose story is tightly woven into China's own.

Of the various types of silk produced in China, the Gambiered Guangdong Silk is less well-known outside the country. Or at least, it was – until fashion designer Liang Zi rediscovered it and brought it to the world's fashion capital Paris in 2019.

Over the past decade, Liang Zi has worked in France and China, encouraging and promoting sustainable production. She believes the global fashion industry should lower its carbon footprint and proactively contribute to the ultimate goal of achieving net zero. 

"Soft Gold" – Gambiered Guangdong Silk

As its middle name suggests, the Gambiered Guangdong Silk is mainly produced in southern China's Guangdong Province. 

The making of the silk involves complicated and ancient techniques, including plant-based dyeing, drying and coating the fabric with the specific river mud in Guangdong – indeed, "mud silk" is an alternative, if less glamorous, name for the silk. 

It's the dyeing process that tells it apart from other types of silk from China. The silk fabric is soaked in the juiced extracted from the wild plant Dioscorea cirrhosa - commonly known as dyeing yam - at least 30 times over the course of 10 days or more. 

The fabric is then dried on the lawn until it completely absorbs the Dioscorea cirrhosa juice. Finally, iron-rich river mud is applied to the fabric. The most traditional Gambiered Guangdong Silk is brown on one side and black on the other, with tortoiseshell patterns. 

This particular silk-making technique dates back at least 2,000 years, and gained prominence during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is recorded that the silk was first produced on a large scale and exported from Guangdong in the early 15th century.

Production flourished in the early 20th century and the silk was distributed worldwide, mainly to Europe, America and Southeast Asia. Later in the mid-20th century, the popularity of cotton and artificial silk textiles dented the demand for the Gambiered Guangdong Silk – until Liang Zi got involved, and made a selling point of the complicated production process.

"From silk making to the production of the Gambiered Guangdong Silk, it takes about two years," she says. "In that sense, isn't it 'soft gold'? In this day and age of rapid development, it is a luxury to make this kind of plant-dyed silk by hand." 

Guangdong silk traces its heritage back 2,000 years
Guangdong silk traces its heritage back 2,000 years

Guangdong silk traces its heritage back 2,000 years

Reviving Gambiered Guangdong Silk

Liang Zi has been a fashion designer since the early 1990s in southern China. She can still recall the pungent smell that hit her during her first trip to a fabric dyeing factory back in the day.

"I didn't wear a mask when I went into a dyeing plant," she winces. "The smell was so strong. The waste water was so polluting." 

This experience prompted her to find an alternative fabric that is eco-friendly and sustainable. 

In 1995, a supplier contacted her to see if she could work with a small batch of fabric scraps that had been stored for many years. Liang Zi said the fabrics were already very old and most of them were brittle. Regardless, she instantly fell in love with them due to their unique texture and colors. 

She gathered the very few artisans who held the knowledge of making the gambiered Guangdong Silk in southern China – and managed to revive the ancient craft. 

Tangy helped change perceptions of Chinese clothing /Tangy
Tangy helped change perceptions of Chinese clothing /Tangy

Tangy helped change perceptions of Chinese clothing /Tangy

Bringing the silk to Paris

In 1999, Liang Zi went to France for the first time, to attend a course on three-dimensional tailoring at the L'Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. It was then that she first brought the Gambiered Guandong Silk to Paris – and wore some clothes made from it herself. 

"Whenever I was in those clothes, French friends would say to me 'Your clothes are so special, the fabrics are so unique, where are they from?'" she says.

Liang Zi's experience in Paris made her determined to bring the silk to France – along with her brand. Like any other designer, she'd always had the dream of bringing her designs to the center of the global fashion industry, thinking "If I could open a shop in Paris one day, I'll be so happy…"

In 2003, Liang Zi was invited to participate in Paris Fashion Week, where she officially presented the silk to a global audience. And after years of painstaking effort, in 2019 she finally opened her first boutique shop in Paris. 

However, it was no easy work to compete with other well-established international brands, given the ingrained idea of China being a manufacturer rather than a designer. 

"The stereotype of Chinese brands has been whether the Chinese can come up with good designs – 'They only do manufacturing or make cheap and low-quality garments'," she says. "In fact, through our exhibition and exchanges, this stereotype has been broken."

Liang Zi studied tailoring in France in 1999 /Liang Zi
Liang Zi studied tailoring in France in 1999 /Liang Zi

Liang Zi studied tailoring in France in 1999 /Liang Zi

Promoting sustainable fashion

Over the past 10 years or so, Liang Zi has been encouraging exchanges among designers across the world to promote sustainable fashion, regularly bringing professors and students from fashion schools to her headquarters in southern China.

"It is because we have such a totally green production and dyeing process that professional designers in the French fashion industry have been very impressed," she says. "It is also because of this that for many years they have been studying us and learning from us about sustainable fashion."

She believes the very existence of her boutique shop in Paris allows the French people to feel the strong Chinese culture, Chinese creation and the concept of China's sustainable fashion. 

"Clothing is a very good carrier to show Chinese culture and designs, as well as the original Chinese raw materials and the concept of sustainability," she says. "It needs a vehicle, which is clothing for me. In my field, I think fashion design can be a tool to facilitate international cultural exchanges."

The 'low carbon' fashion designer connecting China and France via silk
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