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Chinese designers lead a sartorial revolution

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Yang Du , 33, describes herself as a surrealist. Certainly, a visit to her studio (which is also her home) in a shared flat in a Georgian terrace in west London takes on a surreal edge.

'Take a seat,' she tells me as she goes to make green tea. I look around. The only spare bit of space is on the edge of her bed, so I perch there, surrounded by her vast collection of 'stuff'. Her bed alone is heaped with stuffed toys, cute creatures, gonks, pompoms, Japanese characters with eyes that are too big for their plush heads. (She later tells me that she sleeps with them all there - the bigger the bed, the more stuff she would pile on.) There are shelves with piles of zipped-up refugee bags filled with fabric and clothes. There are stacks of DVDs, magazines, dolls, knitted animals, books. There is also an industrial sewing machine, and lots of SpongeBob SquarePants characters. There are eyes everywhere, all looking at me.

Yang Du was born and raised in Dalian, on China's north-east coast, a town where there is an annual fashion festival; she would go with her mother and enjoy looking at the clothes. She liked to draw and, after a family friend spotted her artistic potential, was allowed to go to a school where she could specialise in art. When she was 17, she left home and moved to Beijing to do a degree in fashion design at Tsinghua University.

China's answer to Prada?

After graduating, eager to get into Central Saint Martins, where John Galliano had trained, she booked a flight to London. She arrived in 2001, suitcase in tow, and managed to get herself an interview with Louise Wilson, the head of the MA course at Saint Martins. 'I just turned up with a bag of drawings, it was like something I had to do; there was no other way.' Wilson turned her down. Du stayed in London for a month and went back to Beijing.

Three months later, she came back and took a place on the Fashion Folio course at Saint Martins, where she was given guidance and advice on putting together the sort of work that might get her a place on the MA. She was advised by her tutor to apply for the fashion print BA degree course, run by Natalie Gibson. She graduated top in her year but when it came to the fashion show at the end of the degree, she was not selected to show. There are too many students to show everyone on the catwalk so it is a selective process, and only 45 out of 144 students made the cut last year.

'I wanted to be in the show,' she says, still clearly scarred by being denied her moment of glory. 'I wanted to shine, it's such a tough course, you're working so hard…' Instead, she watched her fellow students show their work with her mother, who had flown over specially.

During her time at Saint Martins she had worked with Giles Deacon while he was setting up his label, and Vivienne Westwood; she had also spent a year working with Galliano in Paris. She went on - finally - to be accepted on Louise Wilson's MA course, from which she graduated in 2008. Invited to take part in the East Seven International Talent Support show in Italy, she was spotted by Dee Poon, the influential Hong Kong-based daughter of Dickson Poon, who owns Harvey Nichols. Dee Poon bought Du's collection for her pop-up shop in Sheung Wan. 'That made me think actually I can do this, I can do my collection, I can use this money to make a new collection,' Du says.

For the past two seasons, she has been sponsored as part of the New Generation showcase at London Fashion Week, which took her work to the London Showroom in Paris and to New York where she showed her collection for spring/summer 2012. It's a small collection because she has also been working on costumes for a film as well as an exclusive collection for Joyce, the boutique in Hong Kong. 'Because I'm Chinese, Joyce has been very supportive to what I do,' she says.

For autumn/winter 2012/13, Du has just shown on the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week as part of the On/Off showcase, which supports young designers. One of her best customers is the American octogenarian Beverley Jackson, a Chinese cultural historian who has one of the finest collections of Qing period Chinese textiles. Jackson loves Du's playful oversized cashmere sweater dresses with their cartoon animal characters including giraffes, owls and pink flamingoes. There are also quirky leather bags in the shape of animals that Du has made in China by a lady who has a small studio at home and makes them one at a time. Her mother knits the gloves she designs with animal heads on each finger.

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