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Creating culture in China

Anouchka van Driel spent her early school years at Kellett: now working at the cutting-edge of fashion and design in Beijing, she tells us how the School gave her a valuable lesson in diversity
14 Apr 2021
Hong Kong SAR | China
LoOK
Anouchka in action in Beijing
Anouchka in action in Beijing

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HK OKs

Anouchka van Driel (OK 1988- 91) spent her early school years at Kellett: now working at the cutting-edge of fashion and design in Beijing, she tells us how the School gave her a valuable lesson in diversity

What do you remember about your time at the School?  

The strongest memory I have was the diversity in its student body which was totally new to me coming from a small town in the northeast of Holland. I think that left an impact for the rest of my life, in how I look at and interact with different cultures.

Kellett had a very positive and stimulating environment in terms of its students. Spatial memories that I have are mostly of playing in the school yard with classmates and friends, and the wonderful pet area that was not common at any other schools I attended. Another thing I remember strongly is these story books we made, we’ve still kept them all these years, my sister has a few too. It was great to engage in the whole process from start to finish – a story line, drawings, page design and a beautiful marbled cover, all pre-computer and handmade, of course.

What did you do after you left Kellett?

My primary years were spent abroad and for secondary school we went back to Holland where I’m from. After graduating I applied to art school to study fashion design. I spent my first year at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague but after a few months I realised the programme wasn’t really right for me because of its focus on textile design, and I was more interested in designing actual clothes.

At the time there was a lot of media attention for emerging Dutch fashion designers such as Viktor & Rolf who had graduated from the Academy of Arts in Arnhem (ArtEZ), so I decided to apply there. It was a really good and intense programme, broad in the first year and more specialised in the second, third and fourth years. What helped drive the intensity and concentration is that the school is in a small quiet town in the east of Holland with not too much going on which resulted in a tight-knit social circle and community.

Much later, after moving halfway across the world to Beijing and after some work experience, I eventually embarked on a Master’s degree in Visual Sociology at Goldsmiths University in London. Visual Sociology basically combines social theory with a visual practice which could be film or video but in my case was photography, which was something I had always been interested in.

How did you choose your career path and why China?

It’s hard to pinpoint, but I do think some of the art classes at Kellett may even have played a role! I’ve always been interested in arts and culture, and at the time maybe it was also a bit rebellious in the sense that I came from out of a secondary school that hardly did anything with the arts, and everyone went off to pursue economics and law degrees.

The fascination with fashion was also influenced by my mother; she was always very stylish (still is) in her own and completely unique way, and whom for a short time also ran an apparel business.

While I was studying in Holland my parents had moved again for work, this time to Beijing, so I spent several weeks with them every summer. Beijing really fascinated me, and it was also a very special time. On one of those trips my sister and her then boyfriend and I went out to the bar district Sanlitun, and while we were walking around all of sudden cars started honking and people started cheering – it was the announcement of the 2008 Olympics going to Beijing and the city was ecstatic. There was this optimism and positive energy that was really buzzing through the city. I also made a trip to the 798 art district which back then was not really an art district at all with only one gallery and a few artist studios. But everything was new and different and fascinating and developing at super high speed. So after my last holiday there I decided I wanted to move to Beijing after completing my degree, without a really clear plan in terms of career.

Your career has moved in a number of different directions.

Yes, in the first few years in China I taught English part-time while learning Chinese. After that I worked as a graphic designer at a small British company for quite some time. After returning from London I reconnected with the Dutch community through an assignment for the Dutch government agency Dutch Design Fashion Architecture. After the assignment a position opened up in the cultural department of the Dutch Embassy and I decided to see what it would be like as I never really saw myself at an Embassy or in a diplomatic role.

After more than five years in a job I really enjoyed I felt there wasn’t that much more room to grow within the role and decided to quit. Initially I wanted to take some time off and look into setting up something of my own but got an offer to work at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. From there I joined K11 North China; my work for K11 ended last year with an exhibition I curated.

How has life been over the past 12 months with the pandemic?

It’s definitely been a strange and unusual year. My husband and I went back home to Holland for Chinese New Year in January 2020 intending to stay a week, which eventually due to flight cancellations and extensions turned into a bit over a month. We were fortunate as my sister and her family returned to the Netherlands from abroad at the end of February, so we managed to have a small reunion before everyone spread out over the world again.

We luckily returned to China at the right time when we did have to quarantine but could do this at home and regulations weren’t that strict yet. After that it still took quite some time to actually return to the office because of difficulties obtaining entry permits to the hutong district the office is in. Though none of us minded much as we’d all got accustomed to working from home.

By late spring and summer things slowly returned to more of a normal state. Besides travel another thing that was impacted is an exhibition I curated this year for K11 which actually opened at K11 Atelier North Point in Hong Kong in mid-January 2020 and was scheduled to be on show for one month but never reopened after Chinese New Year. It was later extended with the hope of reopening it, which unfortunately didn’t happen. Luckily the K11 team created a VR version which was a good way to still allow people to see the show virtually. After Hong Kong, the show travelled to K11 Shenyang in the north of China where we almost had another hiccup due to another small outbreak in Beijing restricting travel; luckily it was contained in time, and I was able to travel to Shenyang to install the exhibition and co-host the opening.

You’ve just started a fellowship – what will you be studying?

I was recently selected as one of the two 2021 M+ / Design Trust research fellows which means I’ll be able to pursue self-initiated research with a grant for six months. For my research I’m actually returning to the field of fashion and will be looking at how technology is influencing fashion designers and their practice and industry in China. I will be doing field research in Shanghai during Shanghai Fashion Week, I’ll go to Hangzhou to look into the world of the Alibaba empire and then Shenzhen to see how technology is influencing production. It’s a huge topic, so there’s lots to dive into and threads to unravel. 

Below are some pictures of Anouchka from her time at school.

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