This article is part of a series on The Chinese Changemakers, where I shine a spotlight on the young Chinese changemakers and community leaders. Today I believe we need a collaboration with the younger generation through their passion, their sense of duty to their families and communities and the urgency of our current climate crisis.
Through this series, you will follow my journey and go deeper into China and the wisdom she holds. How are the changemakers equipped for their future? How will they transform things for our common green future?
The journey is about friendship, passion, strong values, and authenticity.
The Natural Flow of Thread & Life
It’s a soft summer morning when Khailou and I drive up to a small village just outside of Dali. To get to Rio’s home we have to take a small country road that cuts through the Yunnan countryside.
I stop the car in the middle of the fields and pause for a moment to take in the beauty that surrounds us. There’s a light breeze in the air, the Chinese farmers have been working in the rice fields since 6 am, the sun is at a 45-degree angle in the sky, and everything just feels perfect.
As we enter Rio’s yard, we are greeted by Lucky, her dog whose back legs don’t function, and he gives us the biggest smile. Rio lives in a traditional old Chinese house, which is a square structure with a garden in the middle. They called it ‘ a yard’ in English, and it refers to the 4 buildings that surround the lush garden in the middle.
They’ve lived here for 8 years and renovated it over time. It’s really a lot of space, so they have regular guests and people who rent one of the large rooms. Lucky lives in the garden all year long with his new young friend Beatrix the cat.
Rio and her husband, Locky, are preparing an amazing brunch for us to enjoy before starting the interview. Rio and Locky own a bakery and dining place called Simple Stone, so on the menu for brunch, we have bread, croissants, and local veggies, and I contributed with coffee from ‘the kitchen’ in my car.
I literally could not have asked for a better way to sit down with my friend and learn more about who she is and what she’s about.
Prefer to read? The interview is below:
What does RIO HILO stand for?
Rio is my English name, which is Spanish actually and means river. Coincidently there's an American actor I really liked who died more than ten years ago. His name is River Phoenix, and his nickname is Rio. I was really into him when I was in high school. I decided to call myself Rio too. Later, at University, I studied Spanish and learned that my name meant River, and I really liked the meaning and felt very connected to it.
So for the brand, I felt like, I wanted the whole thing to flow naturally up and down, from mountain to ocean. I really like the concept, it has a lot of nature power in it.
Hilo in Spanish means thread. So it's really simple and it kind of rhymes. So I put the two words together: Rio Hilo. As I'm designing, I really enjoy touching the fabrics, the textile, and the texture. So the textile is basically combined by a thread and just how the thread goes up and down, like a river going up and down. There’s a rhythm.
I see the beauty, this kind of beauty in textiles. I want to show this and make sure this beauty of textile gets designed well and put in clothing, and they don't lose their beauty.
Can you explain who you are? Not what you do necessarily, but who you are and what are the pieces of the puzzle?
Oh, wow. That’s a deep question. A lot of times I think what I do is who I am. But recently, for the first time in my life, I realize that I shouldn't see myself like that.
I'm someone who likes to pursue and do things. I'm driven. I was studying and working as a fashion designer for altogether, maybe ten years. So I thought that's the only thing I can and want to do.
But after we opened the restaurant and bakery, I connected myself to the business in a different way, not as a creator, but as a manager, and operator, which makes me see things in a different way. I connected myself to this whole thing, not from the creation, not from the very creative side, but from the very business and commercial and profitable side, which makes me more anxious and has me struggling more.
Right now I'm trying to separate myself from the success of the shop, which inspires me to also separate myself from the designs, to which I felt much more connected before.
I figured that maybe there are more possibilities for me if I separate myself from design, too.
With this newfound inspiration, I really want to do my passion again, which is to design things.
I got to hear about your brand last year. From the pictures, your designs looked very natural and cool and very different from what I saw before. How would you identify your designs?
I was working for this brand for two years, right after graduation. One of the best brands in China, I could possibly work for. This experience gave me the big picture of how this whole industry works. From the design to the pattern making to the sample making to the manufacturing etcetera. I wanted to jump out of it to see this whole thing a little bit more eco-friendly because to jump out from it means I can control it.
There are a thousand pieces of plastic for the buttons, and then a thousand pieces of plastic for the zippers. So you need to organize them really well to be able to make this scale of production. After I left the brand, I really want to do something of my own, I really wanted to express myself.
But at the same time, I'm really scared of the market. What if it doesn't sell because it's a lot of expenses to produce and to set up the whole business. I really like some of the stuff I did, and I want to keep doing it. I keep exploring and I figure out what I really like and how to convey it through design to customers and to people.
In the last two years, I have been focusing on the bakery/ restaurant. This time away from creation gave me more perspective on my mistakes or what I did wrong, which is not being myself basically. Right now I made the decision that I don't want to treat my creative designs as a career, as a money-making process. This means that I can allow myself to do whatever I want to do, instead of expecting to sell.
So you mentioned a little bit about plastic and sustainability. What are other aspects you had in mind for the brand for making it more sustainable?
Sustainability wise there are a lot of ways of designing clothing. Maybe you can be more sustainable during the design process, or you choose the manufacturing process that the customer actually can't see. I use way less plastic when I send the parcel from my studio to the factory. but in the designing process, it actually saves a lot of plastic use.
I also paid attention to the cut-offs of fabrics, I found that a lot of big factories when you ask them to send them back to me? They always say no because they want to save time. They want to do their best to earn as much as possible, so they won't spend extra 20 minutes taking all these cutoffs and wrapping them around and sending them back to you.
The factory I'm collaborating with is more like a small studio, and they are willing to send back the cutoff and I'll do something with it, even if it’s composting. They're all-natural fabrics and naturally dyed.
When I design, I always save the paper too, I try to use the unbleached paper. Bleached paper is not as good, so I like using unbleached paper. These are the small details that actually customers can’t see. But there are also things that you can see. Like hemp is something I try to use as much as I can. There's a lot of hemps planted in China, manufactured as a fabric, but they are always exported to some other countries, mainly America, Europe, and Canada, because the customers there accept this whole concept. They know it's good.
We don't use it domestically much, but it seems like more and more Chinese designers use it because it looks really rough. Like really raw.
When I'm stuck with a sustainable design method, I keep thinking and trying to find a way that makes sense. And the only way most of the time is to decrease the produce production and design and decrease the quantity of the clothes we create.
If you could do whatever you want with RIO HILO. Like, what would it be like, how do you see it?
Yes, I have this idea, I really want to do it someday. I am probably going to do it. It will take a lot of time to realize it though: I want to make a collection with just from the very seed I plant in the garden to fiber, and then into a garment. For example, I would grow this linen plant, and a hemp plant and grow a few more of them, and then I’ll make from plant to fiber, and they make from fiber to thread.
Then dye the thread with another piece of land of plants, and then you weave them by hand.
Even the looms are made from plants, too. I weave with ocean plastics, these fishnets that wash up to the bank, I twisted them and made a little blanket out of them because the colors are awesome.
It will probably take a long time. But the whole point is not how beautiful the clothes look in the end, but it's to create awareness of what it takes to create a piece of clothing, and why we shouldn't waste so much.
Like, don't buy if you don't need it. And when you buy them, you should have a stronger connection to them as much as you have a strong connection to your food. It's like I enjoy my food. When you're wearing my clothes, treasure them and connect with them, and don't throw them easily away. And when they're dirty, it doesn't matter.
I think it doesn't matter when they're dirty. Don't be ashamed of dirty clothes. But if you want to wash them for sure, wash them, be a clean person. But if you can't wash the small things, it can be part of the story. Maybe I can make it look nice with patchwork or these things. So yeah. This is something that I want to do and maybe fun.
Do you see a shift in the future when it comes to sustainable fashion or sustainability?
More people are aware of sustainability, I feel that China is moving in a certain direction.
After we opened the shop, we actually meet a lot of people that care about the same thing because when they come in, and I give them the product, they'll be like, "Awesome. You don't use plastic.: Or sometimes the customer even brings back their paper bags. All these small details I get to see through the shop and therefore meet all these people that also care about the environment.
Also, I feel like it's awesome that it's already becoming a trend. Like, once it's already a trend. There are gonna be a lot of blind followers, but it doesn't matter if they're blind or not. As long as they're following and capable of making a change.
It would be awesome to have thousands of followers instead of having one person who treats it like a religion. I don't think it matters if it's authentic or not. The only thing matters, in the end, is the result
So any last words or anything you would like to share that you haven't shared?
Yeah. I don't know. Be in nature. Also, like I already mentioned, I think that making your clothes dirty is a really good thing.