Today, it’s common to see construction sites of all sizes in China fully covered with a red, white and blue-colored woven plastic fabric to protect certain parts of the scene and to prevent dust from spilling out. Besides being used as protection for scaffoldings and windows during typhoon season, residents of Hong Kong and Guangdong also consider this highly durable material as an important cultural symbol.
Since the 1950s and 60s, red-white-blue carrier bags have been regularly used to transport goods between the two regions. More recently, artists and designers have also used the tricolored bag as an inspiration for their creations to pay tribute to the resilient nature of the people from the region, making the red-white-blue material an unofficial emblem for Southern China.
Image courtesy of Luke Cardew
For British designer Luke Cardew (top photo), who’s been living and working in Shanghai for 13 years, one of his first memories of the material is from the scenes of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that claimed the lives of tens of thousands and left millions homeless. After witnessing the tragedy on TV, Cardew started a grassroots immediate aid and relief initiative titled ‘I Bought a Shelter,’ which raised RMB150,000 for the cause. Using split bamboo poles and red-white-blue waterproof tarpaulin purchased from local companies, volunteers were able to travel to different communities to help build hundreds of temporary shelters for displaced survivors to protect themselves against the elements at the cost of around RMB700 each.
“It was just really amazing; people did everything to help. ‘I Bought a Shelter’ was certainly one of the most gratifying projects I’ve ever done,” says Cardew from his studio near Xintiandi, recalling the outpouring of support his initiative and others received in the days and weeks after the quake 11 years ago.
“By wearing Market Trench, you have to be prepared to get some funny looks on the streets”
Nowadays, when Cardew’s not busy with product design, content creation or photography projects for his clients, he spends his downtime coming up with ideas for quirky but practical products in his workshop – a habit that he attributes to being born into a family of makers and creatives. Although he doesn’t want it to be marketed as a tribute to ‘I Bought a Shelter,’ Cardew has recently launched a waterproof unisex raincoat ‘Market Trench,’ which is made from the red-white-blue polyethylene that served as the main ingredient of the 2008 project.
“I don’t generally sit in front of a computer to design. For Market Trench, I just drew it out on paper and made a prototype,” Cardew elaborates on the design process of the raincoat that began in January 2018. After making several rounds of adjustments to the cut over the next few months, and once he’s happy with the functional prototype, Cardew took it to a Shanghai-based factory and produced 150 pieces for the launch parties at SiDo and Pawnstar in December 2018. “That’s usually the best way of getting things made in China – taking something that’s as close to the final product as you can to the factory so there’s less room for error,” the designer adds.
According to Cardew, what really gave Market Trench a major push was the coverage on the digital arts and design publication Designboom, which eventually caused the first batch of products to sell out by mid-January. While the eccentric raincoat was a hit, some of his friends and customers did complain about the material, and tried to persuade Cardew to switch to a softer and more comfortable fabric, which he refused.
Image courtesy of Luke Cardew
“Look, I’m not trying to make a fancy raincoat. It’s supposed to be something a little quirky, and doesn’t take itself too seriously,” Cardew argues, admitting that his is probably not the best raincoat on the market. “It’s not really for someone who’s looking to buy a proper raincoat. You have to get the humor side of it [to really appreciate it]. By wearing Market Trench, you’re making a statement and you have to be prepared to get some funny looks on the streets.”
Since the initial launch, Cardew has been doing various small-scale pop-ups around the city. Later this year, he also hopes to take the raincoat to New York for an exhibition at a small East Village gallery, Special Special. “The founder of the space (Cai Wenyou, artist Cai Guoqiang’s daughter) received a Market Trench raincoat through a mutual friend of ours, and she really liked it,” he explains. “It would be really exciting if we can take this little side project [overseas]!”
As for expanding his line of products made with the red-white-blue material, Cardew says he has at least one more idea up his sleeves, but that will very likely be the last of the Market Trench collection. “I don’t really want to make a brand out of it,” he concludes, stressing that the fun in the process of making these quirky products is the reason why he’s doing it in the first place. “It’s just a small art project of our creative studio, and I’m already very happy with the response so far.”
Cover image courtesy of Luke Cardew. Find out more about Market Trench here.