This Saturday, with London Fashion Week AW19 in full swing, the International Woolmark Prize will be awarded to one young fashion designer, changing the course of their life and their business. If you're not familiar with the annual prize, take a seat. Much like the Fashion Awards (which have taken place yearly since 1989) and the CFDAs (since 1962), since 1953 the Woolmark Prize has been instrumental in the careers of some of the industry's most treasured designers.
Founded by the International Wool Secretariat (IWS), which gathered Australian, New Zealand and South African woolgrowers to promote the versatility and modernity of their product, emerging designers were tasked with creating a collection entirely of wool, celebrating original design and sustainable material long before the commercialization of travel, globalization of the internet, and the urgency with which we now demand eco practices.
One of the first winners was Valentino; another year, Yves Saint Laurent took third prize. Oh, and a judging panel that included Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy awarded a 21-year-old Karl Lagerfeld first place in the coat category, too. The star-studded history of the prize – which awards budding designers a mentorship and $370,000 AUD – continues this year, with a judging panel including designer Alber Elbaz, editor-at-large of Business of Fashion Tim Blanks, and Game of Thrones actor Gwendoline Christie.
Among this year's finalists is Angel Chen, the Chinese designer and Central Saint Martins graduate whose colour-and-print-laden aesthetic has taken the international fashion scene by storm since founding her eponymous label in 2014. Ahead of the winners' announcement this Saturday, we spoke to the Shenzhen-born-and-based designer about interning at Alexander Wang and Marchesa, her collection for the Woolmark, and why right now is a great time for the visibility of Asian designers.
How would you say Shenzhen has influenced your work?
I was born in Shenzhen in 1981, right when China started opening up to the outside world, with export, import and trade. The city has been developing really quickly since the '80s and it’s now such an international and modern city that always brings to me new ideas and stimulates international thinking.
I would say that by living here, I get the possibility to access and to understand new technologies. I’m exposed to new ideas and new concepts that help me in growing and in achieving what I want more easily.
Why did you want to move to London to study?
During my junior high school years of 2006/7, I used to read magazines such as Vogue. That was when John Galliano did his SS07 Madame Butterfly collection for Dior. I was totally impressed by the way he created and brought to life a whole universe. It was extremely inspiring and, after that, I decided to become a designer, just like him. I checked which college he studied at, and that was Central Saint Martins. I immediately made the decision to attend.
What was it like, studying there?
I have to say, studying at Central Saint Martins was one of my experimental and happy moments – a way to discover myself. It was a really enjoyable experience. It’s at Central Saint Martins that I think I found out who I am and discovered my own way of creating.
I also encountered great tutors and I learned a lot from them. Not only was I trained on the more technical parts but also on a way of thinking as a creator. I learned how to combine different elements together and to not be afraid to break the boundaries. All this was crucial in order to develop a personal approach to different subjects.
You interned at Marchesa, Vera Wang and Alexander Wang in New York – what was it like working at such big houses?
I took a gap year after my second year and moved to New York. Firstly, at Marchesa, I was hired as an illustration and embroidery intern. I also experienced beautiful finishing and embroidery techniques that I then developed afterwards and that you can now find in my collections. There’s a lot of special and unique embroideries and that was the most important thing I bring with me from Marchesa.
Similarly, at Vera Wang I worked on a lot of fabric manipulations. While at Alexander Wang I was doing a lot of draping and pattern cutting. One of the biggest teachings I learned during my gap year is that all the opportunities – you need to achieve them by yourself, not just sit there and wait for them to come.
Your graduate collection caught the attention of buyers and publications for its representation of an LGBT wedding. Is the LGBTQI+ community important to you and your work?
Of course! The LGBT community is actually very important to me. I met so many talented people in the community who are very smart, very generous and always full of cool ideas. I think it’s part of my job to support them and to speak for them.
You founded your eponymous label in 2014 – how has it evolved since then?
Since I launched my label, we have had a very special brand aesthetic, always colourful, always mixing Western and Eastern cultures and always creating new stories. The feedback from the industry has been quite positive ever since, with stockists such as Selfridges, Lane Crawford and Bergdorf Goodman included. We have been showing our collections in Milan for a few seasons now and I’d say the development so far has been quite steady, stable and positive.
How do you approach combining Eastern and Western influences within your work?
We have come up with many different themes over time based on either Chinese literature, opera, songs or traditional handcraft and heritage elements. We’ve been coupling Chinese tradition with contemporary Western ready-to-wear. It’s easier for both the Asian and Western audience to understand our aesthetic.
I really love the idea of showing and presenting to the world our tradition, history and culture. Also, when I was showing my collection in Milan, many Asian customers felt very proud of their culture when discovering our products… Their reaction genuinely impressed me. China is a country traditionally known for mass production at low quality (and this is what they were expecting) and I really aim to change this idea and to purvey that, alongside products for the masses, we can also offer good design and a beautiful culture.
Print and colour is key to your work. What draws you to that aesthetic?
I was born in a family whose business is wall paint and my dad would spend a lot of time sitting in the lab, exploring colours and discovering new nuances. Colour is somehow in my DNA.
Talk me through your collection for the International Woolmark Prize...
I was inspired by the lifestyle, independent spirit and determination of Qiang ethnicity, the shepherd community from a region that's situated in between the northwest of Sichuan and eastern Tibet, China. The Qiang people are one of the oldest ethnicities in China, with a population of about 326,500.
Last year was the 10th anniversary of the great Sichuan earthquake. Not only was huge damage caused to the population, but the culture and heritage were also massively affected, with some Qiang cultural relics destroyed. This raised awareness of how to protect the ethnic culture and non-material cultural heritage.
For this collection, the inspiration is taken from the Qiang’s typically bright-coloured costumes, as well as from the floral and sheep pattern, produced using traditional handcrafted embroidery technique. As a highly social activity, embroidery serves as a way to communicate news, express emotion and, most importantly, it is a representation of the ethnic group’s culture.
The collection is also inspired by the unisex silhouette and functional details of shepherds’ workwear, by way of using wool bonded fabric for waterproof, windproof, breathable or thermal insulation purposes and double face wool jersey with distinctive features including machine washable, wrinkle resistance, antibacterial, odour resistant and warmth preservation.
What does the International Woolmark Prize mean to you?
A lot! Not only to show my collection to the world but also to help me understand such a beautiful, refined and flexible material that could create a beautiful product. We have been thinking a lot about sustainability and eco-friendly materials during the development of the Woolmark collection and, after this competition, we are going to keep the idea alive.
You've worked with some of China's most important pop cultural figures. Who would you love to dress?
I have always wondered what kind of people love wearing my pieces because, at first, when seeing them people must feel a bit scared – there is so much colour, a lot of crazy embroidery and Chinese elements. But when they get closer and touch it, feel it and try it on… I guess they feel empowered, stronger and almost willing to speak louder and talk faster. They’re not afraid to show themselves, feeling encouraged. I always wanted to dress somebody with curiosity, creative ideas, someone very brave and confident.
It feels like a great time for the visibility of Asian designers right now – why do you think that is?
I think that must be the recent development of the Chinese economy. China has been booming in recent years, especially the fashion industry. You see lots of fashion designers that are coming out of the fashion weeks here, and fashion education is improving. The market is incredibly huge in China so there’s a lot of potential for this generation of designers.
The winner of the International Woolmark Prize will be announced on Saturday evening.