Making Clothing With a Chinese Aesthetic

With ZIRAN, L.A. native Kelly Shanahan has successfully woven the two together. A clothing line that reimagines an ancient textile from China with a West Coast sensibility, the company is situated at the intersection of high-end fashion and sustainable business practice, equally concerned about embodying a modern aesthetic and preserving cultural heritage. Shanahan is comfortable with the duality — indeed, she seems to inhabit it.

“I’ve always done well in school and have always had a creative side when it comes to fashion,” Shanahan says. “I’d sew clothes as a kid, rip stuff up and make new things. I was always going thrift shopping.”

Her artist’s flair is obvious. The first time we meet, she’s wearing wide-legged black and white plaid pants and holding a bomber jacket lined in floral print, both her designs. Tattoos climb up her arms, half-hidden beneath the twisting, long brown curls of her hair.

Raised in Southern California by a Chinese mother and an American father — Robin Wang and Timothy Shanahan, both professors of philosophy at LMU — Shanahan attended weekend Chinese language courses and traveled to China to visit relatives each summer. It wasn’t until college that she embraced her background, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Chinese studies and discovering xiang yun sha silk, the textile that would later define her brand.

“It’s all natural, completely sustainable. It doesn’t wrinkle, nourishes the skin, and is anti-microbial,” Shanahan says. Its name means “perfumed cloud clothing,” a fitting epithet for fabric that moves like liquid and seems almost suspended in phase change.

Tracing those roots, the fashion enthusiast-turned-entrepreneur recently returned from a trip to Guangzhou, where she spent 10 days establishing relationships with xiang yun sha producers and studying the manufacturing technique at several silk farms. Hand-crafted using 500-year-old methods, the fabric is bathed in iron-rich mud from the nearby Pearl River, dunked in vats of dye made from the ju-liang root (a yam-like vegetable), then rinsed and laid out under bamboo rods to bake in the sun for a week. Only 15 meters can be produced at a time, rendering each length of silk completely one-of-a-kind. The entire process takes 45 days, can happen during only four months of the year, and currently exists in only a single region of China.

As Shanahan summarizes: “The elements need to be perfect.”

The same can be said of launching a business, and Shanahan’s approach was accordingly systematic. After completing her undergraduate degree, Shanahan studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising before pursuing an M.B.A. at LMU, the final step in bringing her vision to life.

“I went into the program knowing that I wanted to start my own company, knew that when I was three months from graduating, I’d have everything in place to launch my brand. That was my plan the whole time,” Shanahan says. “It was deliberate.”

For a company still in its infancy, ZIRAN has deep roots. It takes its name from a concept in Daoism that translates as “self-so,” or spontaneous, natural and free, a term suggested by Shanahan’s mother and quickly embraced by Shanahan.

“It means self-confident, and free to express yourself, to wear whatever you want. I naturally gravitate towards that idea. It’s who I am and what I stand for.”

While interest in and production of the silk has started to increase in China, the tension between past and present, repression and freedom — an undercurrent flowing through much of the country’s history — is part of the textile’s heritage and permeates Shanahan’s approach to design. The corkboard above her desk is a landscape of paper garment patterns overlapping pencil sketches; on a nearby clothing rack, barely-there bodysuits brush up against enveloping robe coats.

“I think about how conservative Chinese women are and how reluctant they are to embrace their curves and show off skin, and I want to rebel against that,” Shanahan explains. “But now I need to pull myself back. I’m constantly battling between wanting to make clothes that sell and wanting to design for art’s sake.”

With nine new styles in production and upcoming appearances booked at the Capsule Show in New York and Eco Fashion Week in Seattle, the next few months hold the promise of both, and Shanahan is strictly looking forward.

“Doing what you want and taking the leap is so freeing.” Part mantra, part mission statement — unmistakably ZIRAN.