Mimi Xu coordinates runway soundtracks for Mary Katrantzou, Acne, and Topshop
The classical pianist started as a DJ before moving into music direction
Given the splendor of the clothes, the drama of the sets and the beauty of the models, runway music is rarely the focus of your average fashion show. Not that this is a bad thing. If you don’t notice it, it’s because someone is doing their job right.
Usually, this credit goes to the show’s music director. Somewhere between a stylist, a DJ and a conductor, this person makes sure the music enhances the show instead of distracting from it. They’re the ones who choose the tracks that give you goosebumps at the finale, or move you to Shazam a track for later. They make sure the music just seems to fit.
One of the most renowned music directors in the business is Mimi Xu (aka DJ Misty Rabbit). Since 2007, she’s coordinated show soundtracks for luxury heavy-hitters (Mary Katrantzou, Roksanda, Acne), high street brands (Topshop, H&M), and new talent (Xander Zhou, Wes Gordon, Ostwald Helgason) at each of the major fashion capitals.
The daughter of an acoustic architect who worked with opera houses to optimize sound, Xu grew up listening to experimental music and studying piano. (“That was a really amazing opportunity,” she says of her musical upbringing, “but at the time, I wanted to go play with my friends on the playground rather than go to a concrete music concert.”) Today she employs her eclectic tastes and vast repertoire to bring parties, films and runway shows to life.
After a whirlwind week in New York for fashion week, where she supervised soundtracks for Yigal Azrouël, Brandon Maxwell (Lady Gaga’s best friend and stylist) and Zimmermann by day and hit designer after-parties by night, she’s back in London do the same for her home team. This season it means directing the likes of Emilia Wickstead and Pringle of Scotland.
In the lead-up to London Fashion Week, Xu divulged the secret to the perfect playlist, and gave us a sample of what she’s listening to this season.
CNN: At this point, you’re a familiar face in the music direction circuit. How did you make the leap from DJ to music director?
Mimi Xu: I was DJing quite a lot, and then the natural progression was to produce my own music, and fashion shows just happened to ask so I started working with them, and then more fashion shows came along. They just sort of built quite organically.
The first show that I did was actually for Vanessa Bruno in Paris [in 2007]. I did the music for her first catwalk show in Paris. Rather than doing a soundtrack, I remember recommending that she use live singers, live music. So that was how it started. And then I made a second show with Acne and helped produce the soundtrack.
How does music direction differ from DJing?
It’s very different. DJing is all through the night, continuous, and you read the crowd. Working on shows is about the collaboration with the designer and how to really emphasize the culture of the collection, or go completely against it, depending on the take of each brand wants to go. Either underlining the concept or really clashing with the concept. So you know it really depends on the show, on the designer, on the space.
You also have to take into consideration the acoustics of the room because we can’t play something that will annoy people. You also have to understand the timing of the show, if it’s in the morning … All these things enter into the equation. Of course, the quality of the music is incredibly important, and how it’s mixed. It has to be completely seamless. It’s like a journey that you take.
How long does this collaboration process typically take, from your first meeting with the designer to the day of the show?
Usually three weeks from the first meeting about the mood board, the music direction, the collection, and then the styling. Things can change until the last day, so you want to want to be quite flexible with what the designer wants and what the stylist wants. You have to be very reactive.
You’ve worked with everyone from top luxury labels and international high street brands to emerging designers. Have you noticed any difference between larger and smaller clients?
Not really. As the music director, you’re there to really take the best to the brand, to the designer, and the process is pretty much the same. Obviously they vary in tastes, so it all depends. But for me, I treat them quite equally.
Obviously, when the designer is independent, you can be more experimental with things, or you can suggest a less conventional soundtrack, whereas commercial brands are more safe. It’s about understanding what the brand wants and what the brand is about when you come up with your creative ideas.
What has been your most memorable show experience?
The [Spring-Summer 2011] Acne show was really good. We did it in the Kensington Palace, so the venue itself is very special. There was really a contrast between the contemporary show and a very historical setting. Everybody had to be approved by the palace to go in there, so that on the whole was very interesting.
And then I did the Pringle of Scotland [200-year anniversary] show with Michael Clarke, the choreographer, in Milan. That was very good too. It was an interesting show.
And the worst?
I prefer not to talk about it, but you know it could be, like, 20 minutes before the show and the stylist and designer change their mind. That’s pretty bad because everything’s seamless and everything’s organized and produced and mixed in the studio. When you change anything, you have to redo everything, 20 minutes before the show and that’s very stressful.
You’re in such high demand these days. Is it hard to choose which shows to do?
A little bit. And also, my fear is overexposing myself. Less is more. You don’t want to be at all the parties. That would be a little bit naff. Choose your battles. That’s what I apply to the shows. It’s not the quantity, but the quality.
When I started, I was doing 20 and it was way too much for me and I was not enjoying it. Now I’ve decided three per country. Three to four per country is a good number because I produce my own music, I have a band, and I produce, I compose music for films. I have many other outside of fashion work, so I can’t let fashion take over completely.
How do you stay inspired?
I don’t think you can be great if you just do fashion music. You need to do work outside fashion that’s much more refined than doing fashion music, and I think that’s one thing I always remind myself. Your inspiration will come from outside of fashion and then you can bring it back into fashion, but that’s not everything.