Shanghai’s rebel designer Angel Chen shakes things up with her SS16 collection Youthquake.
Angel Chen’s got a thing about saying yes. You know those nights where you resolve to say yes to everything? Everyday is that game for Chen. Whilst this might seem slightly dangerous for a designer, it’s been taking Chen’s career in leaps and bounds. Having collaborated with everyone from the China based department store Lanecrawford with Swarovski, through to Sony, Kiehl’s and Airbnb, it looks like the sky’s the limit for the Chinese designer as far as collabs go. As for her next project? With Chen’s adaptive creativity, in her opinion the further from fashion the better.
As you can imagine with so many projects under her belt, Chen’s not into wasting time. Only graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2014, she’s done stints at both Marchesa and Alexander Wang, before moving back to Shanghai to set up her eponymous label. Whilst both placements honed her textile developments, it’s her undying love for John Galliano that has really coloured her collections, quite literally. Metallic pinks popped in her punk inspired spring/summer 2016 collection (alongside bright mustard yellows and cobalt blues) which references the Youthquake movement of the 60s. It’s a collection that pushes mega boundaries and Chen notes that China is in a period of acceptance with both designers and artists making waves with exciting, more readily accepted, creativity. Keen to learn more about the emerging designer and all her crazy collaborations, we caught up with Chen via Skype all the way from Shanghai.
What is your earliest fashion memory?
My grandma wore beautiful clothes and she could sew. When I was still in my primary school, she taught me to sew my first shorts by myself. She was my inspiration. Everyday she cooked me breakfast and lunch, and she could even cut a boiled egg into a rabbit shape. She was so good at making different things, so I learned quite a lot from her.
Why did you decide to go into fashion?
I remember the time Galliano was still working for Dior – it was the spring/summer 2007 collection – I was so in love with all the collections. I googled who he was and where I should go [study] and I discovered Central Saint Martins was for me.
Your collections could compare to Galliano’s. What kind of fashion do you strive to create?
I am more childish and more feminine. I am a girl and a boy is living in my heart, so you can see the girl but the rebelling part. I really love the show effect, but for the ready to wear I prefer something more wearable. When you take of the styling it is much wearable, each piece can be worn.
Other than Galliano, which designers do you admire?
Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood.
You gained work experience at Alexander Wang and Marchesa in NYC. Can you tell us more about what you learned?
I first went to Marchesa. The [designers] are both British, so they have very British style. Working there was like studying it was like central saint martins. I tried manipulating different textiles, always played with draping, and created patterns and embroidery details I was there for around seven months. I would illustrate for the pattern cutter to make a real garment.
After that I went to Alexander Wang for one season for their autumn/winter 2014. That was the season Wang got the job with Balenciaga so he was super busy and I only saw him a few times. I was doing lots of draping everyday and sewing samples. I also went to their textile department a lot. That season they tried to do brush denim and our whole group tried to brush the denim and make texture. Around half a year passed and I saw one of my designs in Dover Street Market on a black jumpsuit. I was happy to see they used it in production.
Do you notice any Chinese influences that carry into your work?
Not really, but right now I am interested in the traditional [Chinese] craft. Recently I was working with Swarovski and Lanecrawford, one of the biggest department stores in China. I had a sponsorship (we stock there since last season). They have a new project about Chinese tradition or history, so I chose medicine – acupuncture – and when I researched acupuncture I realized they use really organic material like organic brown paper and Chinese herbs to cover the body. I used those kinds of materials and combined them with [Swarovski] crystal and lots of embroidery. The exhibition is still going on. It’s very different from my typical style, it’s not colourful and dramatic, it’s more pure and organic.
Can you tell me about any more collaborations?
After I graduated I collaborated first with Sony. They sponsored my catwalk show so I created different electronic accessories – bags and cases – for their cellphone and camera. They just finished production and it will be sold in their store in a couple months. They are cute; it was inspired by my 2015 collection, they are super colourful and all printed. There are 500 of each.
Who would you like collaborations in the future?
Just collaborated with Airbnb, so maybe a company like Uber. Something that has a strong point but not in fashion.
Do you have a signature or a common thread that carries through everything you create?
Every time I start with one thing I always start with story. It has a person, where they live, their history and the music background.
Does music play a big role then?
I can hear music from visuals. Also when I was in primary school I danced ballet. I was originally supposed to be a dancer instead of designer. I put a lot of performance in my shows. I recently had a show for Dongliang in an art gallery, and most of the models could dance. I turned the presentation into a party.
I also completed a project with two Hong Kong celebrity singers for their Hong Kong concert costumes. It’s based on my spring/summer 2016 collection, but dramatic and more for stage.
Your SS16 collection features lots of metallic pink. Can you tell us the story behind your collection Youthquake?
It was the history of Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Baptiste. They got together and created things, and they could be a bit risky but they are creating things everyday. I think that China right now is similar to that period in America or UK, so I chose the theme Youth Quake. I think now in China everything has become possible because the society is so open and they would love to see new things, and are so energetic and ambitious. In that collection you see punk elements and it’s rebellious.
I noticed your illustrations on your site. How important is illustration in your creative process?
My dad is runs an oil painting/wall painting family business so he knows colour better than anyone else, he’s a technician of colour. So colour is not only my signature, but is in my daily life. I look into colour more than anything else. Everyday I want to draw with colour and play with colour.
Usually designers choose one or the other, but why did you decide to do both menswear and womenswear?
For me there is no boundary between menswear and womenswear, I don’t like that right now you have menswear fashion week and womenswear fashion week. Menswear can be worn by women, and womenswear can be worn by men – maybe I can just create a line menswear for women, and womenswear for men.
What are your aspirations for the future of your brand?
I want to encourage the young generation to be confident with what they are doing, be as creative as they can, and as positive as possible. My brand will continue this way, and I not only want to create ready to wear but try lots of different things.
What do you have planned for your next collection?
For my next collection I am going to create Kendo, it’s an activity in Japan, a fighting event. I am going to make a uniform for this group. That’s inspiration for my next season: fighting.
WORDS: Janine Leah Bartels