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  • Writer's pictureAlizée CCM

Rio, The Creative | Sustainable Designer | KAILU Ep 9 | Sustainability Documentary China

Arriving in Dali

The sun is up at 5 am, and with his acute hearing (or sixth sense, who knows) Khailou starts barking like a mad dog when he hears the villagers walking past our car on their way to the fields. 

      Thank god he’s locked inside the car, understandably this is not my favorite way to wake up. I didn’t have a comfortable night, as one might expect but.... boy, do I feel great! 

I open the car door and Khailou flies out to investigate the surroundings of the car. This dog is a proper bodyguard, I’ll tell you that. After a visit to the restroom, washing my face, brushing my teeth, and rearranging the car again, I ponder whether we try to hike a little bit before hitting the road. Khailou barks again and charges toward another village passing by. 

Never mind. In the car, we go, and we continue our journey to Dali. 

I arrive in Dali around 10 am, and I am starving I know exactly where I have to be for my first meal: Simple Stone. 

Simple Stone is the bakery – eatery of a friend of a friend: Rio, and her husband Locky. Up until this point, Rio and I have only shared some messages over WeChat, but I feel like I know her as a friend already. A couple of years prior, one of my friends had told me about Rio’s clothing brand Rio Hilo, a sustainable fashion brand made with local hemp. At the time, I had jumped on the brand’s WeChat store, and official account, I was mad over her style and brand values. 

I also read that she runs Simple Stone and saw the delicious dishes they came up with in the last year, so I knew where to go for lunch today. Simple Stone is situated on a large road, and I find a parking spot just across from the eatery. It almost feels as if we were expected. 

Khailou and I walk into the bakery, two young people smile at me from behind the counter as I order my coffee and the tabouleh salad. 

        The bakery is simple, warm, unpretentious, and light. There are some tables just outside in front of the large glass windows, two small tables on the inside across from the counter, and then upstairs there’s a whole lot of space to sit. 

I pick a table upstairs next to the open sliding doors to enjoy the sun. At this moment, I need nothing else. It’s quiet today. Since it’s not even noon yet, and we’re in the middle of the week there are few people in the streets. 

A Gentle Approach

By now you may have noticed that I take my sweet time when it comes to speaking and sitting down with the people I meet, whether I meet them on purpose or by chance. 

Instead of planning a time and date with everyone and holding myself to a strict timeline, the choice is to let things flow naturally. 

        Back in my home country, I would not have had this approach years ago. When it comes to doing interviews or meeting people you may not know so well, you are expected to not waste their time. In order to be efficient, one would set up a time and date, be there with the necessary gear, and be gone in a few hours. 

It is my understanding that in China, any relationships, especially business-related ones, take time. One of the rituals that demonstrate that is the tea ceremony. 

... (more on this in my book).

Meeting Rio, The Creative Sustainable Designer

It is a new day and I have some work to do. I would like to finish editing a video to share on WeChat. My room is located on the ground floor and Khailou is not completely comfortable around our host. 

Ziba is a sturdy Chinese man, with a deep voice and a hunched back. It will take some time for Khailou to adjust to him. The next morning as I leave to go to Simple Stone, Ziba tells me I can leave my door open and the dog inside if it’s easier. That way, Khailou can go out whenever he wants, and keep him company while I work. There are few places in the world where I would be comfortable doing that, and this place is definitely one of them. 

"Thank you", I say, "I think it’s better we do it in baby steps, so I will take Khailou with me this morning". And we head off to the bakery. 

As I enter the bakery I see a girl behind the counter, and I recognize who she is and say: "Hey, you’re Rilo!" 

She smiles a bit confused. 

"I am Alizée, I texted you a couple of weeks back about coming to meet you in Dali", I say. 

Oh yes, hi! Welcome to Dali! What can I get you to drink? Please have a seat and I’ll come to sit with you in a minute.

As she joined me at my table we spoke for a good hour, getting to know each other.  

Rio is lively, kind, and creative. We speak about Rio Hilo, the bakery, and how they started. It doesn’t take long to understand that she’s not afraid to work hard, seize opportunities and share with her community. 

We both have to get back to work, but before we part ways for the day, she tells me we should hang out later this week. One of her friends makes a Singaporean feast every weekend for anyone who wants to spoil themselves, and Rio wants to invite me over to her home to hang out in her courtyard. 

       Sounds like a plan to me. For the remainder of the day, I work from the bakery, and Khailou and I head out for a walk in the mountains before the night falls. 

After an incredible dinner with Ziba and a new solo female guest, I head into town to walk around. All sorts of artists are selling their crafts on the sidewalk, ceramics, clothing, and jewelry, there are also some vintage shops and improvised bars with camping rugs on the floor with some music and chairs. It’s a vibe, I am telling you.

Rio Hilo, Sustainable Designer & Brand

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 the early morning, 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 anymore, and 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 call 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. There's a lot of space, which means 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. The couple owns the 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. 

When I came across the brand Rio Hilo on my social media in China, I was taken aback by the creative angle, the choice of fabric, and the entire energy that surrounded this brand. 

Rio has been on the top of my list of the people I wanted to learn from and meet on this adventure. 

   One thing that I see across the people who’ve inspired me is their strong connection to their land, their relationship to their communities, and how these reflect back in whatever they decide to create. 

Read the full interview here below!

Thanks for journeying with us :-)

Watch the episode on YouTube here!

KAILU, The Open Road.

A cross-country journey to meet the Chinese Changemakers in sustainability.

Roadtripping in China


Watch it here: The KAILU Docu Series


Rio Hilo - Sustainable Designer - KAILU Documentary
Rio Hilo - Sustainable Designer - KAILU Documentary

Read an excerpt from the book here:


First of all, why did you call your brand Rio Hilo?

Rio is my English name, which actually means river in Spanish. There's an American actor I really liked who died more than ten years ago. His name was 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 connected to it. For the brand, I felt like I wanted the whole thing to flow naturally up and down, from mountain to ocean, just like a river does. I really like the concept, and I feel it has a lot of natural power in it. 

Hilo in Spanish means thread. 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, feeling the texture. Textile is basically combined by a thread, and just like a river goes up and down, so does the thread. There’s a rhythm to it. 

That’s the type of beauty I see in textiles and I want to show this to make sure it gets designed well, put into clothing, and doesn't lose its refinement.

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. For around 10 years I studied and worked as a fashion designer. I believed that was the only thing I can and wanted to do. 

But after we opened the restaurant and bakery, I connected myself too much to the business, 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 point of view, but from the very business and commercial side, which makes me more anxious and has me struggling more often. 

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. 

Rio Hilo - Sustainable Designer - KAILU Documentary
Rio Hilo - Sustainable Designer - KAILU Documentary

I got to hear about your brand last year. From the pictures, your designs look 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. 

However, the environmental side was lacking and it made me want to jump out of it to see the whole process as a little bit more eco-friendly because to jump out of 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. This means that in order to produce at a huge scale you need to organize them really well. After I left the brand, I really wanted to do something of my own, I really wanted to express myself.

      But at the same time, I was also scared of the market. What if it doesn't sell? Producing clothes comes with a lot of expenses and on top of that, there are also expenses to setting up the business. I really like some of the stuff I did, and I want to keep doing it, to keep exploring and figuring out what I really like and how to convey that through designs to customers and to people.

In the last two years, I have been focusing on the bakery and restaurant. This time gave me more perspective on my mistakes or things I did wrong, which is not being myself basically. 

Right now I made the decision that I don't want to treat my design career 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. 

"Rio Hilo,  just like a river goes up and down, so does the thread. There’s a rhythm to it. ."

The idea of having fun and not being tied to the expectations of the market in that way is very powerful for your creativity, and I believe this is a recipe for success. 

You mentioned a little bit about plastic and sustainability. What are other aspects you had in mind for the brand to make 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, for example when I send the parcel from my studio to the factory I reuse it as much as I can, I also pay attention to the design process and other habits which actually saves a lot of plastic use.

The cut-offs of fabrics are also something I pay attention to. I found that when I ask a lot of big factories to send me the cut-offs back, they always say no because they want to save time. They want to do their best to earn as much as possible, and therefore they won't spend extra 20 minutes taking all these cut-offs, wrapping them up, 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 cut-offs 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 unbleached paper, because the bleached paper is not as good, so I prefer using unbleached paper. 

These are the small details that the customer actually 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 hemp being planted and produced in China, manufactured into the fabric. Unfortunately, most of it is always exported to other countries, mainly America, countries in Europe, and Canada, because the customers there accept the concept of sustainability. They know why 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. It doesn't look luxurious. Three or four years ago Locky and I wanted to visit this hemp factory in Shandong where the fabric gets tested and produced. Now it's in Dongbei and Shanxi.

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 production and design and decrease the quantity of the clothes we create.

It's not necessary to only work within your box. Life can combine so many other things. Don't limit yourself by a job title, but look at the broader things that you can do.

Perfection in the execution of sustainability is so hard to obtain today because I believe we're still in the process of figuring out what is sustainable and what is not. We still have many other solutions to invent and figure out, and it's amazing that all these years ago, you already had these reflexes. 

Today you run Simple Stone the restaurant - bakery with your husband, Locky.

Yes, the way it happened was just a coincidence. He's been making bread at home, especially sourdough bread for two, or three years. He just kept making it at home and really enjoyed it. I asked him, "Why are you so into it?" Baking homemade sourdough bread, it's a lot of work since we don't have a fermenter. You have to keep watching it and check the temperature. It’s basically like a baby.

But he says it’s like playing with mud and there are some, scientific facts that point out that it makes people smile, it’s really good to cultivate happiness. I guess for him, the bread-making part works the same way. His bread was very popular amongst our friends because we would give a lot of it away and they started to encourage us to try and sell it. At first, we only thought of selling it from home or online. 

But one day we saw this ad online for a space, quite beautiful, on a street with a lot of trees. In the afternoon there are shades of trees and leaves in the shop. A few minutes after I saw the information online, we drove there to meet up with the landlord, and we thought about it for a whole day and night.

We knew it would be a lot of work, but we didn't expect it to be this much work. A lot of friends warned us because in Dali, everybody has their own shop and most of them regretted it. But I thought it would be different for me… and it wasn’t. (laughs)

For Rio Hilo, because of the virus and the trade war, the economic climate affected my business, so I thought to myself, “okay, I'm going to stop for one year and help Locky with the bakery.” 

At first, I thought "I'm helping him do this whole thing", and little by little it became ‘our’ thing. We also both want to make the business not harmful to the environment.

We try not to use plastic as much as we can. For example, when we go shopping every day in the market, we try to use a local people's way: the basket. No plastic bags.

Simple Stone is where we connect with Dali in an offline way. Rio Hilo is where I connect with people online since my customers are mainly online and the shops I work with are in other cities. Through this platform in Dali, I want to create something for the platform, and maybe I can use this platform to convey what I can create, which is like some bread bag, for example, an apron, T-shirt, and maybe beeswax wraps. It's pretty easy to do it with cut-offs and you can wrap it around food, it replaces plastic. These things are some of the next steps I want to do. I love it.

Rio Hilo - Sustainable Designer - KAILU Documentary
Rio Hilo - Sustainable Designer - KAILU Documentary

I love everything. It seems separate, but it actually all comes together, you know? And as an outsider, it's interesting to hear, because you can kind of see everything coming together.

Yeah, before my mind is a little bit too straight like I'm a fashion designer. That's my job and my passion. That's my career, and it’s deeply planted in my mind. But a friend of mine told me a few months ago that it's not necessary to only work within your box. Life can combine so many other things. Don't limit yourself by a job title, but look at the broader things that you can do.

What are my advantages? What am I good at? But you can use what you're good at, what your passion is for different things. I used to really torture myself. Thoughts like, “I'm not supposed to be in the dining business, it’s not my thing.” But my friends gave me this new point of view that what I really like is not fashion design, but it is to create, it’s to make things with my hands, and conveying my vision through design.

That actually inspired me. Why don't I just do whatever I can do with the current situation, even if it feels limited, because maybe it leads to way more possibilities?

I also wonder if, in a weird way, maybe it's a sort of a good thing that you're not as emotionally attached to the dining business as you are to your brand. 

As someone who designs and creates stuff, you need a lot of passion, but you also need to be very sensitive. Being sensitive is sometimes really good for coming up with new ideas and protecting yourself in your own world and being able to create something really organic and special full of your character, but it can also limit yourself. 

In the dining business, I'm not the sensitive one. I'm one of the customers. I go to Simple Stone when I'm not working in the restaurant, just to hang out with other customers. Tell would tell me: this is is not as good as before or, this is not a good idea, maybe you can try that, and I don't feel like they’re criticizing me. I have that distance from the business where I feel the same as you, the customer.

That's very powerful.

And then, also knowing my husband's position, I try to tell him this information in a language that he won't take it too sensitively. But coming back to my own perspective, as a customer, what do I want? 

Rio Hilo - Sustainable Designer - KAILU Documentary
Rio Hilo - Sustainable Designer - KAILU Documentary

If you could do whatever you want with RIO HILO. What would it be like, and how do you see it? 

I have this idea, I really want to do someday, and I am probably going to do it. It will take a lot of time to realize it though: I want to make a collection 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 waive them by hand. 

We went traveling once and Locky made this loom by hand. One loom is made by putting some sticks in the ground and then you weave on the ground, the most primitive and ancient way. And then he made a backtrack loom with bamboo. So all these looms are actually made from plants, too. I was weaving with ocean plastics, these fish nets that washed up to the river bank, I twisted them and made a little blanket out of them because the colors were awesome.

They're like washed colors, very faded. I combined them together with the loom. 

Clothing will probably take a longer time. But the whole point is not how beautiful the clothes look in the end. 

You know, it’s similar to how you shouldn't waste food, because every single grain of rice has been grown by farmers, from a seed to the plant, and holds so much hard work, not only manual labor but also having faced season and weather. 

It's the same for clothes. If you think about it.

Don't waste your clothes. Don't buy it if you don't need it. And when you buy, you should have a stronger connection to them as much as you have a strong connection to your food. When they're used, it doesn't matter. I think it doesn't matter when they're dirty. Don't be ashamed of used clothes. 

But if you can wash and repair them for sure, wash them and 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 a patchwork or something similar. This is something that I want to do and maybe it will be fun.

Did you see a shift these last couple of years, or do you see a shift in the future when it comes to sustainable fashion? 

I feel that more people are having awareness of sustainability and that China is moving in a certain direction. 

Since we have opened the shop, we actually met a lot of people that care about the same thing because when they come in and order, we would receive comments such as ” Awesome. You don't use plastic.” Or sometimes the customers even bring back their paper bag, so we can use the same paper bag you give them last time. All these things are visible to us because of the platform. I got a chance to see all these people that also care about the environment.

Also, I feel it's awesome that it has already become a trend. Because once something becomes a trend, there will be many 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 will be awesome to have 10,000s of these people instead of one sincere person who treats it true like religion. I don't feel like it matters whether it is fake or true. The only thing that matters, in the end, is the result.

Any last words or anything you would like to share that you haven't shared? 

I already mentioned it, I think that making your clothes dirty is a really good thing. It's something I really want to convince my friends in the city to embrace. 

     It feels totally natural and I don't think much about it, yet every time I go to Shanghai, I try to wear the same clothes, but it somehow makes me self-conscious, feels like everybody is looking at me, but this is something I'm working on myself. 

It's okay to have dirty clothes.

Sustainability Documentary China


Watch it here: The KAILU Docu-Series



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