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Manfred Lu's 'Deflower' breaks away from monolithic standards of manhood and fashion

A self-directed, true to form presentation of textile collection Deflower will be shown at Why Not, a runway performance and exhibition put together by a collective that challenges what are considered to be outmoded structures of contemporary fashion.
Manfred Lu's 'Deflower' breaks away from monolithic standards of manhood and fashion

by SAND Magazine

May 26, 2019

Photos by Izwan Abdullah

How did you come to weave in stories of masculinity and the male gender into your work?

The collection started as a womenswear collection. The initial concept was to work around the most general yet overlooked subjects I could find. I decided to work on flowers, an extremely overused element in fashion and challenged myself to find a darker and more controversial element from it.

Vanitas, the 16th-century Netherlandish art that depicted the fragility of life with flowers were starting points. However, a few weeks later I realised I couldn’t work around it. Everything that I proposed was predictable and boring. A big part of the process was also about figuring out who I was as a designer. So I started designing for myself instead. Instead of justifying designs with a muse in mind, I made myself that person. It was a silly and unserious attempt at trying to get work done. I took all the floral elements I had from before and developed them with familiar items from my own wardrobe. It was only then I realised what it truly meant to design with meaning.

Manfred's portrait, shot by Izwan Abdullah
The collection evolved from there, and I wanted it to be more personal. So I took the parts of me I was forced to hide – the desire of showing your skin, the joys of sex and the feeling of sexual arousal. I took all of the things that I was shy about, juxtaposed it with my desire for the male body and made them into garments.
Then, I picked up on the initial research I had put aside and blended them together. The flowers that drew my attention, in the beginning, were now references and reflections of the male genitalia; where the sexual reproductive organ of an orchid is now reimagined as a dick, and its petals and form as the symbolism of hidden sexuality. These surreal floral references became key elements in the collection.

What was the initial impetus for your collection Deflower, and were there any challenges in particular that stood out to you?

When you’re designing a collection about masculinity and male sexuality, it’s easy to come up with corny and flamboyant designs in order to appear loud and different. I really wanted it to be subtle, almost as if you’re still attempting to hide those desires; which is where I am right now with my masculinity. That’s where the challenge manifested – making sure the clothes stood out quietly but was also true to what I was standing for.

As the collection grew, I also took inspiration from traditional male customs that I felt were ridiculous and toxic. There are tons of articles and videos on how to be ‘masculine’ and the rules that apply. The most ridiculous ones like, ‘don’t wear colours, don’t wear feminine prints and avoid materials made for girls’. If anything I’d take a coloured floral printed jacket made of feminine materials over boring suits anytime! I took those absurd rules and made sure every single aspect of my garments had them because I don’t see anything wrong in doing so.

It seems that you’re also interested in examining how people are enabled or affected by masculinity. However, your work also comes across very personal. How do you manage the dichotomy between public and personal when tackling topics that are as polarising and multi-dimensional as masculinity and male sexuality?

By starting with your point of view and as you do more research, allow the topic to enable you to understand more of the subject matter. The research materials I came across were mostly visual documentation, such as Xavier Dolan’s film Les Amours Imaginaires’ pulsating depiction of lust on males, and Ben McNutt’s heavy documentation of male sexuality and homoeroticism through wrestling. However, in my case, you could say I didn’t really care about making it 'safe’. It’s something I have to deal with on a daily basis and had I went on that approach, it just wouldn’t give it any justice.
The constant battle of pretending in front of strangers so not to seem too feminine, dressing up in clothes that are muted and not attention seeking – these are my personal afflictions with the topic.
I always believe if it comes from a place that you know well then it will present itself in its truest form, if not it’s just an imitation of a feeling. I’d rather not attempt to do it at all than pretend it’s something I understand just because it’s trendy.

Why Not? questions the types of measures that young designers can take to acquire more ownership of their craft. Do you feel that there are sufficient platforms, avenues and resources for individuals like yourself to exercise and develop your practice?

No, not at all. I know a few people might disagree with me on this but there are insufficient platforms to develop graduate designers. Sure there are many new opportunities from private and government aided programmes and competitions, but all they do is bring you momentary fame and attention with irrelevant aid. We don’t need more scholarships for short courses as prizes. I also don’t like the fact that my peers and I have to compete with one another to establish ourselves. It’s not the hunger games of fashion. If anything, what we really lack is a platform that simply celebrates collaborations and new ideas.
The way I see it, fashion, at least in the context of Singapore, is repetitive. The industry is comfortable with that because it brings in money and is quite sustainable, but it's unmotivated and restrictive. By refusing to try new things, you set an outdated template for all to follow.
And that's why a lot of students and new designers don't know where to start. So that's what Why Not aims to do. To drive young talents and help them realise what they're capable of beyond the institutional boundaries. It will be interesting to see how the industry will change with more underground initiatives.

Placing your work in the context of Why Not?, do you find your approach, theme and craftsmanship, even as it develops, as something likely to be rejected or unaccepted by institutional or traditional modes of contemporary fashion?

Of course, rejection of designs and concepts are natural and happen all the time. However, it’s the rationale for the rejections that are insane. More often you’ll be rejected because your ideas are too ‘unsellable’ or ‘too much’ for the public to handle (this is true and I’ve had exact comments on my work before). Institutions are often uninterested in the meaning of our work and only focus on the aesthetics of things. If it looks pretty, it’s good. If it’s weird, it’s a big ‘why?’
Instead of encouraging more forward-thinking ideas with each rejection, they dilute our ideas with the easy way out by copying things that they believe to be more ‘successful’.
That is why the climate of our current graduates’ works feels repetitive and uninspiring. It has to change, and it can only change if we try right now. And even if no one buys it, it’s still an attempt to make things better. 

More about Why Not? 

It’s quite exciting just thinking about it. With full control of the environment, it’s a huge opportunity for me to deliver the most accurate depiction of Deflower. The hidden sexuality and pulsating feelings that influenced the collection now gets to be shown in full glory.
With the school show, a lot of what I envisioned was rejected because it was considered taboo for the general public. Deflower is about male sexuality, and to not talk about sex, even the slightest mention, wouldn’t do the collection justice.
I’ll try not to disclose much, but a recreation of the sensation of sex is what you should expect to see on June 8. There will be surreal depictions of male nudity with explosive endings, in a non-graphic manner, with a lot of flowers. A lot of that hidden sexuality aspect will be shown on AR posters, where classic and dull depictions of masculinity blossoms into queer odysseys.

Manfred Lu is a graduate menswear designer whose work focuses heavily on interconnecting visual elements and traditional tailoring techniques to create statement pieces. His interest lies in exploring the topics and stories of the male gender.
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