While knitting and crochet are having a moment—along with everything 1970s—designer Dairu Ren is less interested in trends and more interested in texture, layering and time-honored techniques. With them, she puts her own artistic spin on everything from headpieces and dresses to scarves, capelets and shawls.
From her New York home, she tells me, “Becoming a fashion designer was my dream when I was young, but my parents objected because they didn’t feel I’d be successful as a designer. My grandma wanted me to pursue my dream and she taught me to crochet and knit when I was 11.”
After attending boarding school since her primary years, the transition to living solo in New York has been a surprisingly easy one. She’s been there for eight years now, in the same apartment, but rather than embracing the city’s colorful, bigger-is-better attitude toward dressing herself, she prefers to see other people wearing her outre designs.
“I think the type of clothes and accessories you wear are very important and it can totally show who you are, so it was really important to me that you could dress in a whole look head-to-toe,” she says before adding, “I wear accessories that I’ve designed but my clothes…”
Here, Ren, a graduate of New York’s renowned Parsons School of Design, trails off into laughter.
As much as she loves colorful things and dimensionality—undeniably and effusively woven throughout her designs—she dresses in vintage finds, mostly black.
“In my heart, my designs totally show my personality,” she tells me. “I like to see people wearing [them]. I lend my clothes to stylists and to date, my clothes have been in A Book of Us, Bazaar in Vietnam and China, and for Pitchfork, a rapper wore my clothes in a photo shoot in New York.”
Her designs have attracted not just media coverage but also awards and opportunities. In January of this year, she won the Ones To Watch Award from the Fashion Scout China Film Festival and took part in Boston Fashion Week SS23, where she brought her colorful, multi-textured fits to the runway. In September, she’ll debut a new line of signature creations at London Fashion Week.
Ren has had to balance crafting her own line with her work as a full-time Assistant Designer to the Embroidery team at Thom Browne—a role she was promoted into in August of 2022 after serving as a Patternmaker Assistant.
“I think it has been game-changing for me,” Ren says of her work with the brand. “I’ve had the chance to dive into the world of high fashion and their styles are avant-garde, giving me the opportunity to create really dramatic designs.”
Is it glamorous? Yes—it’s fashion in New York City. More importantly, it’s a life that was always achievable according to Ren’s grandmother. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Ren’s debut collection was a tribute to her nan.
“My grandma always encourages me to do everything,” she explains. “My parents might want me to go back to China, but my grandmother says ‘If there’s a big chance there for you, just stay there.’ Moving here has been life-changing, and I’m grateful my grandma supports me.”
Ren’s collection Grandma’s Horror Stories is gorgeous and feminine and hilarious and utterly beguiling. The accompanying campaign features a doll-like young woman and a beaming grandmother in situations that call to mind those pearls of kitchen table wisdom passed down by our elders that haunted us as children: those anxieties over swallowed gum lingering in the stomach or the negative consequences of opening an umbrella indoors.
In her frilled, flounced, multi-tiered and boldly hued outfits, Ren’s model defies the many ways she could choke, slip, slice or suffer in outrageous style.
“Everything is based on Chinese superstition, but I think my designs—even though they’re from my memory and personal experience—have a strong cultural and emotional connection with my audience,” Ren explains. “I want there to be an emotional connection with the garment so that wearers take care of those garments and see them as both an investment and as inheritable objects.”
Clothes aren’t just clothes, she tells me. They have meaning. When she was first considering Grandma’s Horror Stories, her teachers and classmates at Parsons thrilled at her initial proposal to explore Chinese superstitions and shared that their own families and cultures had similar superstitions, reinforcing Ren’s belief that her designs transcended our differences.
Could Ren’s shell-pink, pouffed mini dress with a frilled collar work on Fifth Avenue? I vote yes—but wear it unapologetically, with platform combat boots (if you’re going for 90s supermodel vibes) or 10-inch silver stilettos (if you’re channeling Barbie).
Who did Ren envisage would wear these sensational outfits?
“Another little me,” she responds. “Another outgoing version of me, someone brave enough to wear them.”
That includes men—“I think my clothes are all-gender,” she tells me. In her ideal world, we’re wearing her looks from head to toe. “I think it’s interesting when stylists mix up my looks with other pieces, but I prefer when people wear a whole look.”
To that end, Ren is focused on a future in which she establishes her solo brand, yet she recognizes that she still has a lot to learn. Working at Thom Browne is showing her how designers, companies and the industry function. It has also let her play a part in designing for the Oscars red carpet, the Met Gala and the Tony Awards.
It’s an enviable training ground for a young, aspiring solo designer, and it’s not hard to imagine D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Madison Beer, Emma Chamberlain or Iann Dior wearing her intricate, embellished creations at a premiere or an awards show. You heard it here first: Dairu Ren is going to rule the red carpet, so watch that space.