Kelly Wang Shanahan is a woman who does things on her own terms (and three degrees including an MBA). Her label, Ziran, adopted the name and values of the Daoist philosophy, and this might be why Ziran's collections, which are hand-dyed, made in LA, and, created from exclusive xian yun sha silk using traditional Chinese techniques, feel like bliss.
"Ziran is this idea of just being self. It's like nirvana in Buddhist thought, but for Daoism, it would be Ziran," she explains. Sounds a little abstract for a fashion label, I know, but the concept of ziran inspires pieces that are thoroughly modern, versatile, and look good on literally everyone. We know — we have the video to prove it.
In our interview, Kelly talks about everything from philosophy to fish poo and sheds new light on the value of 500-year-old silk making techniques.
I would love to know a little bit more about you, your background and how Ziran came to be.
I’m half Chinese, half white and I grew up speaking the language, and going to China, sot a lot of the things that I liked was related to Asian culture. I also grew up going thrifting, reworking clothes, and selling it to my friends. I went to UC San Diego and majored in Chinese studies. I wrote my thesis on fashion in China from the Ching Dynasty until today, and through doing research I discovered xiang yun sha silk. I went to fashion school and started working for a luxury brand called Libertine. It's a small brand, and a lot of the pieces are one-of-a-kind reworked vintage. So, it's sustainable in a lot of ways. I got a lot of really good experience working there but, after four years, felt like I was tired of working for somebody else's dream. I also went to business school and got an MBA in entrepreneurship, and hated my job. So, I started Ziran.
You mentioned your connection with Chinese culture. Your website has a quote from the Philosopher Laozi, "Man follows the ways of Earth, Earth follows Heaven, Heaven follows the Dao, Dao follows its' own ways." I found this such an intriguing quote to have on a brand website. It's not the norm to have something with so much depth and meaning behind it on a fashion site, can you tell me a little bit about what this means to you and why it is important in defining your brand?
Well first, a little more background, both my parents are philosophers. My mom is Chinese philosopher, and my dad does evolutionary philosophy. So growing up I could never say , "I want to go to the bathroom." I mean, I could say that [laughs],. but they would be like "Why? Why do you feel that way?".
Very intense. When I was trying to come up with a name for my line, I knew since I was using xiang yun sha silk, I wanted something that had to do with Chinese thought or some goddess’s name — something along those lines. I was talking with my mom and because she specializes in Daoism — she was like, “What about ziran?” Ziran is this idea of just being self. It's like Nirvana in Buddhist thought, but for Daoism, it would be ziran. Ziran translated in Chinese means natural and I instantly felt connected to this idea of being spontaneous, of being free of reaching this state of bliss or whatever is above heaven, above man and above Earth, and this state of being. And that is reflected in this silk because when you wear it, you feel natural, spontaneous, and free.
So would you say it represents both the physical process of how your product is made and also acts as a philosophical guide for your business? Because running a business is challenging at times right? But the way you describe it, I can imagine that this might serve as a guiding light when you're trying to navigate the business and fashion world...
Totally. A while ago, we were writing our mission statement and what we want to stand for. I kept reading about Coca-Cola andor Wal-Mart — all these different brands. Coca-Cola’s mission statement is to inspire happiness, it’s not like to sell soda. So for Ziran, we're not necessarily just trying to sell bomber jackets or robes, but sell this greater idea and greater purpose and meaning that goes beyond that.
I know a little bit about the way that the xiang yun sha silk is made, can you explain in more detail the process of how this particular silk is made and what makes it unique?
Historically, it's been made in a region in southern China, and then after Mao Zedong and the communist revolution, it fell off. In the past 10 to 15 years, people have re-learned this ancient technique that was kind of forgotten. Right now, there's only a couple of people who are making it.
There's a whole ecosystem devoted to producing this silk. It starts with fish ponds, and the fish poo becomes fertilizer for the mulberry trees that grow next to it. The leaves on the mulberry trees feed the silkworms and then this silkworm poo feeds the fish. It's a circular ecosystem.Although those systems aren’t as prevalent,; there are silk producers who rely on it. And then the silk is dyed in it's called ju-liang a type of Chinese yam that takes seven years to grow before it's ripe enough to be picked and used as the dye. The silk producers juice the ju-liang to make the dye, that's the only dye that's used on the silks. Fifteen-yards of silk are dyed at one time, theni taken to the fields to be stretched and baked in the sun for seven days. This process can be repeated many, many times depending on how rich of that brownish color is needed The silks are then coated with mud, which come from the Pearl River ince it's fifteen yards of mud-coated silk is heavy, seven people carry it to the river to be rinsed, and dyed again. The tannins from the ju-liang juice and the iron in the mud create a chemical reaction that changes the silk so that it becomes xiang yun sha.
Wow. And you're the only company in the U.S. who works with this silk?
How did you make that happen?
I asked my mom to help me because she is a Chinese philosopher and, in Chinese society, teachers and educators are highly revered more than doctors or politicians. She put out feelers in that area. She met a local scholar, and then he made the introduction to one of the silk producers?.
That's incredible. Do you feel a responsibility to market and represent and design with that silk in a particular way given the exclusivity and the privilege of that access that you have to it?
The silk producer I work with told me that it's such hard work and it takes expertise and skill that young people are not jumping up and down to work there. They'd rather work in front of a computer. I talked to the boss at the silk farm, and he said “In order for us to continue making this, we need to introduce machines, and we need to automate at least some of the process so that we can create more of it and the quality will be better.” So, I definitely feel like it's my responsibility to share it and keep it going and to help the people who are there making it.
Do you do you foresee a shift in its production in the future to be able to sustain this particular type of silk?
The challenge then becomes, how do you introduce technology and maintain the integrity of the local environment, the culture, and the product?
Right. There’s no way it can be fully automated, but the part where they think they can use a machine is for putting the mud on the silk because they wake up in the middle of the night every day to do it. But if they had a machine for that part of the process, then it could increase quality, increase volume, and make it cheaper too.
That brings me to my last question for you: It's clear that you're building a business that you feel is a good representation of your values, your aesthetic, and your design vision. But what you're doing is not the status quo, is this your fashion utopia? Do you feel like Ziran is part of a new and improved fashion system?
I mean I think about this all the time, I fantasize about it.
Yeah, me too.
I think Ziran is the start because to me I'm kind of frustrated with sustainable fashion. To me a lot of it seems like it's a lot of organic t-shirts and bamboo stuff — it's bland and not very glamorous, which is good, but there's that space of luxury that's missing. Maybe Stella McCartney would be an example, but her price point and like her level is kind of .
Yeah. I would like Ziran to be the leaders of a movement for slow fashion and sustainability —even luxury sustainability. [This idea of] the consumer putting more thought into what they buy and being more conscious of choosing brands based on what brands value and their purpose. Also, for people to know it's okay to spend more money on one piece and wear it forever rather buying something at Zara that you know you're only going to wear one night.
Yeah, I agree. That's what we wanted to show with the film. At a glance, it might seem like there’s only one way to wear a Ziran robe?, but it has an enormous amount of versatility. If you were to invest in this piece, you could wear it forever and to any occasion in an endless number of ways.
Which I think is really important, I think that art of styling has been lost.
Totally, I remember, my going through my paternal grandma's closet and she had written her name on every single piece of clothing. Nobody would ever do that, nobody cares that much about their sweater or this or that and it's totally forgotten so…
*this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Director: Astrid Sterner
Creative Director: Laura Jones
Director of Photography: Jake Saner
Stylist: Courtney Kryston
Make-Up: Chichi Saito, Akiko Owada
Hair: Kiri Yoshiki
Photo Assistant: Javier Villegas
Editor: Thilo Booth
Color : Mike Bothe
Words: Laura Jones
Copy Editor: Sonjia Hyon