Melbourne graduate Odile Zheng is designing clothes that are dreamlike and dystopian

Words by Gabrielle O’Hagn

A dream come true.

It’s not often that a fully formed creative idea comes to you in a dream, but that’s exactly what happened to Odile Zheng, a Melbourne-based fashion designer and recent graduate of RMIT University.

Her collection Escape is the conceptualisation of a dream, bringing to life the dark, dystopian world she dreamt about as a child. But instead of evoking the fear and loneliness that would typically accompany this nightmare, there is something ethereal, otherworldly and alluring about the collection.

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Escape plays with dramatic tension, intrigue and the surrealism of dreams, as well as celebrating the catharsis and emotional release of waking up. Although she was inspired by other creatives around her, Odile drew primarily on her own internal experiences to bring this collection to life.

Despite the challenges of not being able to access her campus during the pandemic, she was able to draw on the support of the RMIT teaching staff and produce a polished and carefully curated collection. The collection earned her a spot among the top 10 designers at the 2022 National Graduate Showcase at PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival.

Fashion Journal is excited to once again be supporting the National Graduate Showcase, presented by Samsung Galaxy, to celebrate Australia’s top-ranked emerging talent in fashion. A select number of leading fashion graduates from all over the country will exhibit their visionary collections in a digital presentation, showcasing cutting-edge design and innovation.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be profiling each designer through a series of interviews. Next up is Odile.

Hi Odile! Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Hi, my name is Odile. I recently graduated from RMIT with a Bachelor of Fashion Design (Honours) degree. I was born in China and came to Australia when I was 18 and now I am 26. Eight years in Melbourne [has been] a lot fun… [I’ve] made some good friends along the way.

Tell us about your collection

My collection is very emotional. It is about compression and release. You will see a lot of techniques like shrinking, pleating, shirring, knitting and more. I was honoured to work with the local knitter Kate Jeffery to create two beautiful knitting pieces. [The] Escape collection has a background of a dystopian world, which was inspired by a dream that I had two years ago. In that dream, I was a little kid with superpowers who [could] turn imagination [in]to reality.

However, a secret organisation found me and kidnapped me from my parents, making me work for them every day along with all [the] other kids who [had] superpowers… I died three times in the dream but never stopped trying, I was trying to return to my own freedom. There [was] so much tension in the dream, the world was dark and twisted but I finally got away.

COVID-19 reminded me of that dream again. You will see a lot of face covering[s] and hoodies in the collection as a response to the escapism. The key message of this collection is not negative – it is about courage, peace and never giving up.


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A post shared by Odile – bby_chyna (@odilezzzzz)

When did you know you wanted to get into fashion and textile design?

When I was in the commerce lecture room at Melbourne University seven years ago. [I] just [felt] like I didn’t belong there… the sense of belonging is so weird.

What were the major points of inspiration for your collection, and you more broadly as a designer?

It all started with strong emotions, then looking for a technician to visualise it. It is the same creative process [as] when I am doing contemporary abstract art. It is hard to put down in words, but it is about letting it go, then [putting everything back] together, and (according to my abstract art teacher), a feeling in your stomach.

Tell us about the experience of putting together your graduate collection.

It was really hard, we [couldn’t] attend campus for half of the course and were not able to access all the equipment and suppliers. I struggled a lot at the beginning, but it all came together at the end, I guess it was all a part [of] the creation. I heard recently, creativity comes from deadlines… I have to say my design teacher Blake Barns and [the] rest of the teaching team really gave me a lot of support and inspiration along the way. I appreciate them very, very much.

You’ve noted your experience working in streetwear has given you a better understanding of what’s best for the streetwear consumer. Can you tell us about your experience in streetwear and how this has informed your designs?

I [have] worked at Subtype store [in] Melbourne for over three years now. We have amazing sneakers and international streetwear brands. I have always been in a customer-facing role, then got into eCommerce styling and now I am interning with the design team with a fantastic designer, Dara.

I saw how people buy and the choice[s] they made along the way. The experience made me understand [that] not all good designs sell, sometime[s] less is more… watching different body types trying on garments helped me understand the relationship between the garments and the body in the real-life, everyday scenario. Also, I learned about pricing, branding, marketing, distribution and business models in fashion.


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A post shared by Odile – bby_chyna (@odilezzzzz)

Your collection plays with tension; it’s about compress and release. What drove this direction?

The suppression I have [had] towards my feelings for many years drove me into this direction. COVID-19 forced them all out… I felt so much better after this collection got built, it [was] like an art therapy journey for me.

What part does sustainability play in your design practice? And other ethical considerations?

Everything in the collection is handmade and people get paid ethically. All suppliers are sourced locally.

Who do you think is most exciting in Australian fashion right now?

All the young designers are coming up, starting their brands and have their very own unique expressions.

What about the Australian fashion industry needs to change?

Let’s conquer the international markets.

Dream Australian collaborators?

P.A.M. They are iconic for the Melbourne streetwear scene.

What’s next for you?

[I’ll] try to get a job in the industry to understand how [it] works on a professional level, and do my made-to-order label on the side. If nothing goes as planned, I will hand in my application for my masters [at the] University of Arts London.

Some of Odile’s responses have been edited for clarity.  

To find out more about PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival’s 2022 program, head here.

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