Ed Hung & Michel Sutyadi: NLGX Preserve…Create

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| May 6, 2010

NLGX is a Beijing-based design community and brand founded by Ed Hung and Michel Sutyadi in 2008. After witnessing first-hand the changes taking place in China’s ancient capital city, Michel and Ed decided to capture the new spirit of the city with a fresh and unique lifestyle brand. Inspired by Beijing’s development into a multicultural melting pot of artists, entrepreneurs, travelers and global-minded individuals, together as NLGX they create original designed apparel. Notes on Design spoke to Ed and Michel this week to uncover more about the NLGX journey.

Notes on Design: Where are you both from, and how did you meet?

NLGX: Ed was born and raised in San Francisco, USA whilst I was born and raised in Germany. Both of us, however, are of Chinese descent, which makes our move to China a bit of a homecoming (albeit, a generation or two later). We actually met in Beijing back in 2005, after each having spent some time at Wudaokou (Beijing’s “student central”) studying Mandarin.

Notes on Design: Why did you decide to set up NLGX?

NLGX: The sequence of events that led to the birth of NLGX were quite random and opportunistic, like many new ventures; from a friend’s Christmas party, Ed deciding to “rough it” by living in the hutongs (the Old City of Beijing), a blog about a trendy hutong neighbourhood in Beijing called Nanluoguxiang, a lunch at a backpackers café, to a small “For Rent” sign on a dusty window. Our flagship store, subsequently, opened in March 2008 on Nanluoguxiang.

When we opened NLGX, our goal was to create a space to promote independent fashion and product designers from China. Most of the world sees factories, assembly lines, and cheap labour with “Made in China,” but we see ourselves as an up-and-coming brand that represent the thriving local art and design scene in Beijing, carrying products that are uniquely “Designed in China”.

Notes on Design: How do you go about collaborating with other local artists and designers

NLGX: We are always very open to working with other creatives. In fact, last year, we collaborated with Beijing-based designer Zhijun Wang: to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, we came up with two t-shirt lines celebrating the special event. One line was strictly limited edition, with just 60 individually numbered t-shirts printed. We also created a matching army bag and a poster, which was part of the 60th anniversary gift package. Working together with different designers and artists helps us to add new ideas to our lines and keeps us fresh.

Notes on Design: Can you tell us more about your overarching theme “Preserve…Create”? What does it signify, and how did it come about?

NLGX: Our design philosophy “Preserve…Create” refers to preserving the past whilst creating new; NLGX creates original designs inspired by colours, patterns and icons that exemplify traditional Chinese elements.

We have chosen “Preserve…Create” as our principal theme because it represents what we love most about living in modern Beijing: history and future, culture and commerce, traditional and contemporary. The fusion of two different eras in China, and the delicate tension between them, has created a unique energy in the Beijing of today. NLGX is our interpretation and expression of feelings towards this.

Notes on Design: What inspires an NLGX product or collection?

NLGX: There are many places we look to for inspiration for our products. Most are right in front of our eyes; all the ideas are out there, but they just need to be discovered. Living in a rapidly developing city, where so many different cultures and backgrounds come together also helps. Beijing is the perfect environment for inspiration.

Notes on Design: Michel, you design most of the t-shirts yourself. What does your creative process entail?

NLGX: My creative process varies all the time but, mostly, if I come across something very interesting, I take a picture of it or sketch it down and write out a concept. I guess this process is still with me from my old days in advertising. Before I execute any idea, I try to think of an exciting way of translating the raw concept into something visual. I ask myself “What would catch people’s eyes and look interesting or cool on a t-shirt?”

We love to tell stories through our products. We look at all the different ideas we have and always think about how to turn them into something interesting; something that would or could connect to people. Not every good idea can be transformed into a good graphic. At the end of the day, the t-shirt design needs to be interesting and convincing enough to make somebody want to buy and wear it. So, it is also very important that the design entails the right message, and an inspiring story.

Notes on Design: Why did you decide to venture into eco products?

NLGX: Our NLGX RECYCLED collection, consisting of eco bags and accessories, uses a more literal interpretation of “Preserve…Create.” Pollution and waste management has been a well-publicized problem for the quickly growing Chinese cities. NLGX RECYCLED is our statement to support a greener lifestyle, whilst looking stylish at the same time!

Notes on Design: Has it been difficult realising your eco range?

NLGX: The early adopters and fashionistas in Beijing have certainly shown an interest in our NLGX RECYCLED collection, but the green lifestyle is not as embedded into mass culture here yet. However, we are confident that, in time, this will change, especially since the adoption of eco products is now more widely embraced in Europe and North America. Our NLGX RECYCLED line has, however, attracted much interest with local “green” NGOs and corporations looking to portray a greener image. We are definitely open to working with other like-minded organizations to promote a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.

Notes on Design: What is your most popular product or collection?

NLGX: Our most popular products are the “不拆” (meaning “do not destroy” and refers to the destruction of local neighbourhoods called hutongs) and the “Beijing Bicycle” design. They have been with us from the very beginning. People like the simple messages behind them. As for the “不拆” design, we recently started a partnership with the local NGO, Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP), where part of the proceeds of sales go to CHP to fund future activities for hutong and cultural preservation.

Notes on Design: Ed is no stranger to living in hutong neighborhoods. How do you both feel towards the destruction of hutongs widely taking place in Beijing right now?

NLGX: To maintain any semblance of the remaining culture and neighborhoods in the old city areas of Beijing – the “hutong” areas – there needs to be a balance between development and preservation. I am certainly not against modernizing 800-year old neighborhoods – running water, central heating systems, more sanitary bathrooms, safer electricity wiring (underground, rather than hanging them with telephone lines above), and even re-building certain structures that are no longer safe for habitation. However, I see a problem when the old residents of these neighborhoods (sometimes spanning generations) are kicked out of their homes and sent out to live in residences provided to them outside the city. When this happens, these old neighborhoods lose their soul and become gentrified. Buildings are built and re-built all the time. Neighborhoods, and the culture that thrives in them, take time to nurture. Over 90% of these original hutong neighborhoods have already been demolished to make way for apartment buildings, office high-rises, shopping malls, and wider roads. Countless numbers of old Beijingers now live in the outskirts of the city after their homes were taken over for re-development.

Notes on Design: Beijing is constantly changing. Do you find it hard to keep up?

NLGX: The constantly changing dynamics of Beijing (and China as a whole) provide us with endless content and inspiration for new stories to tell via new products. We actually see this constant change as a benefit, as it keeps our ideas new and forces us see things from different angles. As our surroundings are developing, we need to absorb what is happening around us; our products will always be a reflection of this change.

Notes on Design: Nanluoguxiang has become vogue for new start-up boutiques, cafes and bars. How do you make yourselves unique?

NLGX: When Nanluoguxiang started becoming popular for local hipsters, the neighborhood was ripe with start-up boutiques, cafes, and bars. It was a neighborhood that attracted artists for its cheap rent, historical charm, and location at the center of Old Beijing. With increasing rents, the stores are becoming more homogeneous, like most tourist shopping sites in China. To stay unique, we simply stay original. We pride ourselves on original Chinese design, and we will maintain this identity as the local scene matures.

Notes on Design: As entrepreneurs, what is your biggest obstacle?

NLGX: In China’s fast-paced and ever-changing environment, long-term partnerships with any organization are a challenge. This is especially true for start-ups and entrepreneurs looking to build a long-term, sustainable company. For us, the constant temptation of quick money versus long-term brand building is one of the biggest challenges we deal with everyday.

Notes on Design: What do you consider to be your biggest achievement to date?

NLGX: I guess we haven’t really thought about that yet, since we still consider ourselves a very young company with our best creations yet to come. We take a lot of pride in what we are doing, so it always makes us very happy to see people wearing our t-shirts or carrying our bags out on the streets of Beijing. This keeps us going!

Notes on Design: What does the future hold for NLGX?

NLGX: In two years of NLGX, we have established a strong local presence for innovative t-shirts design and fashion bags made from recycled materials. Our identity, as demonstrated via our designs, has been very much inspired by the city in which we started. As we expand to other cities across Asia, we aim to localize first and sell second. This means that we’ll be looking for new design talent as we grow to maintain a localized feel for each market NLGX enters. NLGX will be unique in each, but maintain a common identity via original Chinese design.

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