Emperors’ Treasures Souvenir Jacket, designed by Chamber 36 and inspired by the Emperors’ Treasures exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (image courtesy Chamber 36)

SAN FRANCISCO — Last Thursday at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, DJs were playing music as dancers were energetically spinning on the floor and flipping up into handstands. The event celebrated the fall line of 36 Chambers, the fashion label started by Robert Diggs, known as RZA, of the seminal hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan. The museum store displayed shirts, hats, and jackets, and people could customize their clothes with 36 Chambers labels. RZA went up on stage, not to rap, but to talk about fashion and Asian art with Jeff Chang, the executive director at Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts and author of books on race, culture, and hip hop.

Last year, RZA and the lead creative of 36 Chambers, Mustafa Shaikh, came to an exhibition at the museum titled Emperors’ Treasures, which showcased art once kept in royal courts. The two men were so inspired by the porcelain, scrolls, ceramics, calligraphy, and textiles they saw, that the display sparked them to create their fall collection, which they have named after the exhibition. The collection includes jackets with Buddhas and wallets, socks, and T-shirts adorned with seals like those used in calligraphy.

When I spoke with RZA ahead of his panel with Chang, he said they approached the museum themselves, wanting to present the collection where they were inspired to create it. And, if you’re a museum and RZA asks you about doing an event, what do you say? Yes, of course.

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RZA speaks at the Asian Art Museum with Mustafa Shaikh and Jeff Chang (image courtesy the Asian Art Museum)

Emily Wilson: You’ve said you want 36 Chambers to tell a cohesive story. What is that?

Mustafa Shaikh: We came to the Asian Art Museum and we were inspired by the art. We got a lot of chi or energy from the museum and we wanted to give it back to the museum. What’s so cool is they do these Thursday night events, and they welcomed us in. And what’s really cool is that some people are going to be coming to the museum for the first time. People who would never have come to the Asian Art Museum are going to be here.

RZA: It’s something they’ve probably been exposed to but didn’t identify with. Whether they were exposed to it by being a fan of our music or through some great movie, our company helps ground it for them, I think.

EW: How were you first exposed to Asian art?

RZA: I was exposed to Asian art through movies. I guess I was always attracted to the motif of their costume design — the earthenware, you know, the dragon-shaped teapots, things like that. Of course martial art itself is an art, the different shapes of their swords and weapons, which have a distinctive look and use. For this line we pulled in a lot from China, different dynasties, but we also are very fascinated with the history and culture of Japan, Thailand, and the ancient history of Korea. I don’t mind sharing this with you — I am an official Shaolin disciple; I was ordained.

Inspiration for 36 Chambers jacket buttons: the Buddhist deity Vajradhara (probably 1736–1795), China; possibly Chengde, Hebei Province, Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Hollow dry lacquer inlaid with semiprecious stones (Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Avery Brundage Collection, B60S81, photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)

EW: What was it specifically about the exhibit Emperor’s Treasures that inspired you?

MS: Last year they had these Thursday night events. They were five dollars, and that’s a great way for people to come in at night and check it out. There was this girl I met at the Giants game and we exchanged numbers. She was also into clothing — she worked at a clothing company in San Francisco, and I asked her, “Do you want to check out the Asian Art Museum? I think this exhibit’s cool, and maybe it will give me some inspiration.” We were just starting 36 Chambers then. So we went and we’re talking about how these different pieces could be translated into clothing and what was cool about it. Two weeks later, a lot of those thoughts were in my head, and I was going to bring Bobby here to see if he vibed with it, and he did.

EW: Were there any pieces in particular that struck you?

Installation view of Emperors’ Treasures at the Asian Art Museum

RZA: We had 50 ideas right away. The first thing that inspired us was probably looking at the dragons. We wanted to use the mythical dragon — the Asian dragon, not the Western dragon with the wings. So we were looking for a dragon for our jacket, and we kept seeing different great items of art from different dynasties. What they mean by “Emperors’ Treasures” is these were things held by royalty. In the Qing dynasty, there was the Emperor Kangxi and his son Yongzheng, so you see their work coming from a youthful mind and then growing to be someone who appreciated the arts — I think that collection really sparked a nerve with us. Then there’s the Yuan dynasty, and once again the art was different with all the scrolls and the embroidery — we’re very big on embroidery, as well. It’s like, yo, to have this embroidered on the back of your shirt! So we wanted to find a way to have our clothing tell a story.

36 Chambers, Wu Seal wallet

I’ve been to China, which is one reason he invited me to this exhibit. So in Buddhist scripture, in some teachings, there are no words. If you go to Shaolin, there’s maybe a wall that has a whole painting of events, and if you read the painting, there’s a story. So I was like, wow, they just told a whole story, imagine if that was embroidered on somebody’s sleeve. So we decided maybe to pull out the Heart Sutra and put it in our clothing.

MS: Here it is right here [shows black bomber jacket, with gold calligraphy on an indigo background in the lining, and with a Buddhist protector embroidered in gold on the back].

RZA: That’s the most important Buddhist teaching. It’s the shortest though, the shortest sutra.

MS: It’s a total of 40 or 45 lines.

RZA: We’re trying to find a way to combine art and fashion, to take some of our philosophy and put it in our fashion and go to the source which the Asian Art Museum was offering at the time through their exhibit.

MS: So one piece we saw was called the “Marvelous Scripture of the Lotus Sutra” from the Ming Dynasty, and we were immediately drawn to it. It’s gold painted on indigo paper — it’s actual gold. It just popped. That’s how we started. So this right here is the Heart Sutra in gold on indigo, and on the back here is one of the four Heavenly Protectors.

Box for a Buddhist manuscript (Heart Sutra) (1704), China; Qing dynasty, gilded and lacquer on wood (zitan) (Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, museum purchase, 1997.10, photograph © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)

EW: What’s most exciting to you about this collection, now that it’s finished?

MS: I’m most excited that we’ve been working on this a year ago and that we finally get to present it here and there’s going to be people interacting with it tonight. I’m curious what people are going to think about the way we interpreted the works.

RZA: I echo his words. Seeing a thought come from conception to fruition is always exciting to me. This is like the birth of it right here, and now we get to share it in the place that inspired us. The other thing I’m really excited about, regardless of what anybody feels, is that we took this art, creativity, and culture and we have created vegan wallets and bags that have the potential to actually help. [Mustafa shows one, with Chinese seals found on calligraphy embossed on it.] You can see how beautiful the embossing is on these.

EW: What are you looking forward to talking with Jeff Chang about?

RZA: I love ancient art, I love Asian culture, I love what it stands for in the world, and how it helped me. I love how it’s always been an amalgamation of cultures around the world. In Asia you see it, and I’m excited to talk about that because I think there’s some importance to that with the climate in our country. Everybody’s grabbing ownership of something we all own. You know, there’s enough for all of us.

Still from video of Takeover: 36 Chambers event (courtesy Asian Art Museum)

Takeover: 36 Chambers took place at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin St, San Francisco) on Thursday, September 21. 

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...