A model jogs up the runway. Stopping to look behind his shoulder, he staggers. He is covered in tattoos and blood drips from his forehead and arms. Naked, down to his cream-coloured, woven underwear and blood-splattered white trainers. He’s hot, in the way that any man with a chiselled jawline and tattoos is. But here, running, panting and gasping, fearful and vulnerable – stripped bare to his underwear, little tighty whities, tender male fragility exposed to the world – he is unappealing.
This is The Chase, look 0.
Wackie Ju’s debut Fashion Week show, Summer Fade, begins.
Wackie Ju is a Melbourne-based, multidisciplinary fashion, art and performance project by Jackie Wu. The brand’s ethos is in critiquing the entrenched norms of the fashion industry – consumption, elitism, heteronormativity, gender binaries – to build a world where clothes are no longer a product of capital to be bought and sold, but an extension of the wearer’s soul: a non-transferrable invitation to join Wu’s “speculative utopia”.
Wu’s work is informed by their intersectional identity: a trans, queer migrant, Wu was born in China, and moved to Australia as an international student. Their work is informed by Chinese philosophy, alongside a hard tilt towards the anti-establishment.
“It’s so funny that everybody thinks I’m a fashion designer,” Wu tells me, as I meet with them at their Brunswick studio. “I literally hate fashion so much. I’m deeply anti-fashion.”
This is only mildly surprising. Hostility is a common, murmuring sentiment for emerging designers towards the establishment of Australian Fashion Week – especially those without inheritance safety nets, parent-introduced “networks” and Central Saint Martins transcripts. In Australia, the fashion industry is reputably elitist, a heaving, great albatross of systemic averageness couched in safety that has seen it criticised for lack of diversity – whether it be size, race or economic – year upon year. This year, Denni Francisco, of Ngali, became the first Indigenous designer to have a solo show.
“You shouldn’t have to be like ‘oh amazing, we have plus size models’ – why do you not have that?”
Wu’s studio is out the back of Kines cafe, a staple hub in the inner north. The entrance is a hospitality goods corridor for the cafe, where boxes of toilet paper, old discarded stools and tools loom in haphazard piles. Beyond that, past a tattoo studio, and through curtains that hang from the ceiling, it’s like Narnia. Clothing racks, cutting tables, fabric scraps, steamers, chairs, a tiny little heater. It’s messier than I expected, but then again, the creative industries are always havoc in the back end.
Wu agrees, “People always think I’m so put-together,” they say, rugged up against the cold in a black puffer, comfy pants, and Uggs. “I don’t know why, I’m so chaotic. I’m a mess.”
We’re here to talk about Wu’s breakout Australian Fashion Week show, Summer Fade, a project they first began conceptualising in 2020. It was supposed to debut that year, but then, everything happened.
Three years later, Summer Fade was celebrated among the queer community as the “show of the year”, “the winner of fashion week”, and “the one”. In the press, Wu was dubbed as “one to watch”, “avant-garde”, “equal parts delicate and daring”. Pastels, youthful silhouettes, a brilliant cast with recognisable faces from the ballroom community, and Wu’s own friendship circles, and a haunting, otherworldly performance from ĀNJÍ.
As the show had concluded, I’d heard a friend gasp, “That was a show for gay people!”
But, Wu described, Summer Fade was a deep collection; a commentary on the postmodern human condition and the toxicity that infiltrates our relationships – the system that leaves us no choice.
Closing the show with Lana Del Rey’s Summertime Sadness was a reference to the idea that started it all, Wu said.
“First of all, I love her, I really truly do love her, even though her behaviour is annoying at times,” they said, referring to a post Del Rey had made on Instagram in 2020, where she called out multiple black women – including Cardi B and Nicki Minaj – for receiving media acclaim by empowering themselves through sexuality.
“[Del Rey] completely neglected that they were people of colour, and experiencing a very different world to her,” Wu said. “She did something so wrong, obviously.”
But within the criticism and the backlash, Wu saw irony.
“The whole post was on raising awareness for the inclusivity of vulnerable femininity, which I think is a very, very important point. But with internet culture today, it’s like the epitome of post-modernist lifestyle – you see one thing on the internet that goes against the grain of political correctness, and people rush into cancel culture. The point that she made was never discussed on a macro scale. And I think it’s a shame.”
“With ‘PC culture’, people are practising feminism without really understanding the concept of equality. That’s where the collection is derived from.”
Launching from this pop culture moment, Wu’s analysis led them to explore toxic relationships.
“My work has always been to do with gender and identities and femininity and masculinity. And that really sparked me to make a collection to criticise the post-modernist lifestyle within capitalism, because that incident – the whole internet culture – is something I think people have issue with these days. I want to criticise the system being set up for people to have reactions like this.”
Everything in Summer Fade, from the colour palette to the fabrics, was placed to represent Wu’s view towards the system. There was inspiration from personal experiences, and a focus on revealing our toxic relationships, personal and interpersonal, that permeate our lives.
“Summer Fade comes from the Andrew Lloyd Webber song ‘Think Of Me’, from The Phantom of the Opera,” Wu said. “The quote is ‘flowers fade, the fruits of summer fade / they have their seasons, so do we’. I feel that it is so beautiful and poetic. But when you look at it, from today’s lens, it’s such a toxic relationship idea.”
The colour palette was inspired by rotting summer fruit, evocative and melancholic pastel greens and oranges, gesturing towards deteriorating summer flings and the rot that, with time, oozes out of once-gorgeous things.
“I actually hate orange,” said Wu. “It’s my least favourite colour. Using orange was so intentional because… it’s a toxic relationship for me. The idea of a toxic relationship is about making do, a lot of the time, and I’m just trying to make do with orange.
“These colours are so vibrant, so off-brand to the spirit of Wacky Ju, in my opinion, but they’re my interpretation of what is marketable in a capitalist system, in today’s age, they’re so internet culture, relevant, TikTok.”
“But in the way that it’s been put together, because it’s so aggressively vibrant, to me it is something very eerie and grotesque. I guess some people will be like, Oh, my god, this is pretty! But it’s actually gross. It is so intentionally out of the ordinary to what I feel spiritually is authentic to Wackie Ju’s reality. It’s the complete dark side of Wackie Ju. I would never use a colour palette like this, never create such bubbly, youthful silhouettes. Designs from this collection are intentionally done in a way that is, in my interpretation, youthful and marketable in today’s age.”
Summer Fade consisted of 28 looks.
But for those familiar with the brand, which prioritises queer people of colour, it was jarring to see the show opened with a straight white man.
“Well, we don’t call him the ‘opening look’,” Wu said. “This is another relationship, from my personal experience with a cis, straight, white man, and the image of that. He’s usually the epitome of ‘I’m the man, I’m the one who is right’. And they’re always like that.”
“We want to criticise that sort of identity. So, we presented him in a vulnerable state and had all the beautiful, femme, queers chasing after him. That was the symbolism there, and he is ‘Look Zero’. He doesn’t count.”
Following The Chase, was The Kill, an alien, icy hunter, tracking their prey in a green draped mesh dress. Look 2, Chokehold, featured bumsters – a nod to Wu’s “idol”, Alexander McQueen – and a bralette with a cascading train. On the train, a poem written by Wu, embossed in braille.
“I remember it was 2018. I was having a breakdown out front of the State Library on Swanston Street after dealing with this toxic man.”
Wu read me the poem from their iPhone notes app.
“When you are in my area, you instantly become air, pumping into my brain leaving me all hazy. I can’t carry the body and mind on without feeling your existence. I get intoxicated so easily, almost voluntarily, desperately, it’s a chokehold in my light, the light of my life, a wail for joy, a heartbeat of collision.”
Look 3, Bound, features a top inspired by the binders worn by trans-masculine people. References to Zyzz and Jersey Shore, Britney and Justin in double denim, the popular girl, the femme fatale, Maddie Perez from Euphoria, the hot wife who dominates her husband. The party girl who plays dumb and wields her sensuality to manipulate her way into her desires, the hot man who uses his warmth to get exactly what he wants.
The garments were draped, ruched, and strung together by string. Entire looks were precariously held in place by the models. “Pointlessness” and “t” were recurring themes. Wu used mathematical calculations to design forms for the fabric, a process which resulted in the repetition of multiple square shapes.
“Using repetition is also my understanding of toxic relationships, of how you’re just repeating the same thing over and over again.”
The apex moment of the show came with the final look, Look 27, Autumn Leaves. ĀNJÍ, a performing artist currently based out of London, was flown in to perform the eponymous song. Dressed in a tattered orange dress, ĀNJÍ’s performance was ethereal and cathartic. The song, in English and Mandarin, was written by Wu.
“I love writing. I feel like I’m really a multidisciplinary,” Wu said. “I know, in today’s age, people will be like, everyone’s multidisciplinary. But I don’t think people should underestimate that. If you’re practising fashion, it doesn’t mean you’re just doing that forever. You know, I want to be a painter. I want to be a tattoo artist, also.”
The final look was a tattered wedding dress, dyed deep burnt orange. Initially a nod to fashion show conventions where designers would close with a wedding look, but with a Wackie twist – just two days before the show, Ju had ripped the dress to shreds. Instead of the final look being a sombre wedding dress, ĀNJÍ’s performance of Autumn Leaves left the room hushed in reflective awe.
“ĀNJÍ’s character is the embodiment of the first leaf to fall in autumn. That sort of very cold, heartbreaking sentiment. That song has so much sentimentality, the darkest time of my life. But I like that, I romanticise sadness, that’s why I love Lana so much.”
Throughout the collection, in its creation, execution and story, toxic relationships occurred again and again.
For Wu, a personal connection to their team was important. They thanked the work of their extensive team, as well as the talent across the show’s production – from set designer Renee Kypriotis, co-founder of independent production house Almanac, producer Bella Rose, music producer Slam Ross and art consultant Josaia, to hair designer Bec Snow, and accessory designer Atelier 372, who custom made belts, bags and shoes for the entire show.
The same attention to detail and connection was applied to the show’s casting.
“I casted every single person so carefully, based on their energy. I’m friends with pretty much all of them and I know the energy that they carry and image that they have, because I feel like in today’s age people can get so politically correct about casting because they think, oh, we need to have inclusivity… but these things should have been industry standards.
“It’s all marketing. And I really hate when people do it. For me, I’m only willing to work with people who I have a spiritual connection with, and their race or body image doesn’t matter. Also, [inclusive] sizing should have been industry standard. You shouldn’t have to be like ‘oh amazing, we have plus size models’ – why do you not have that?”
Wu’s interest in anti-fashion, and 1980s designers like Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Martin Margiela, reflects their anti-capitalist politics, too.
The idea of socialism is very ingrained in how I practise myself, and the way I interact with the world spiritually. Because I truly believe socialism is what brings people happiness.”
“From that point of view, I incorporate that sort of ideology in everything I do. Like I said before, I don’t think I’m a fashion designer, because to be honest, fashion is really just the medium that I discovered, and I practise more to articulate the messages I want to put out into the world. I feel like I’m very deeply a political person.”
“I always felt like an infiltrator ever since I moved to Australia,” Wu said. “I feel that every day I have a different level of fluctuation of emotions within the intersectionality of my identity being a migrant and then being queer, being trans and all that, y’know?
“Migrating here, you are instantly underestimated, and that happens for a very long time because people don’t truly understand you, don’t really understand the depth of your thinking. Firstly, maybe my English wasn’t the best, and I was exposed to the environment too soon and those skills hadn’t been developed to be able to communicate exactly.
“And then people underestimate you, treat you differently. That’s something I want to criticise about the fashion industry, because people seem to hold such a competitive or elitist point of view that they want to keep their circle; keep their power contained. But they don’t really see the growth and the point of fashion because they only see fashion as something like beautiful clothes, style, whatever you wear means something. But it means shit to me.”
“For emerging artists like us, we don’t come from a privileged environment, or having a strong support network in the industry. We have support from our communities, but our communities are marginalised.”
While Australian Fashion week this year celebrated its emerging designers and talent, Wu said the process of actually breaking in – without the backing of institutional, monetary support afforded by industry status – was difficult.
“We had the most hectic experience with just Fashion Week because I’m so broke. I think people think I’m rich or something. I have no money. We thought Fashion Week would be a good opportunity, and I’ve wanted to do a fashion show, and everyone gets sponsors. But that wasn’t really the case for emerging designers.”
“Fashion is such a capital centre. And everything, it seems, is about what profit people are making, and catering to whatever people want. For emerging artists like us, we don’t come from a privileged environment, or having a strong support network in the industry. We have support from our communities, but our communities are marginalised. We’re doing everything for the community, but we don’t have the resources others have. And they just expect you to have the money, instantly, to be able to do something. And it was really, really difficult to find a sponsor, it felt like such a rollercoaster, constantly feeling defeated and neglected.”
“The toxic relationship I’m utilising in this practice, in Summer Fade, not only derives from my lens as a queer, trans person. But it has a lot to do with my personal relationship with my own body, my experience and my community’s experience in society and dealing with different communities and different people who hold very negative points of view on people who are merely just doing themselves and existing and loving. Some of it is actually a really sad collection. For me, it’s really an emotional thing. And I personally got this really strange physical satisfaction from romanticising sorrow.”
“Fashion is so bullshit… it’s just a medium you can use to do whatever you want,” Wu said. “It doesn’t have to be so capital-centric.”
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