London - Fashion Scout’s Merit Award winner, I-Am-Chen, who was recently announced as a finalist for the International Woolmark Prize, is proving that her knitwear label can be an all-seasons label after showcasing her spring/summer 2019 collection filled with innovative lightweight pieces.
It has been a busy debut year for Hong Kong-based, London College of Fashion graduate Zhi Chen since launching her label in 2017, as she has already received significant international recognition, including winning the Lane Crawford Creative Callout Award, the 2017 Łódź Young Fashion Award, and the Business Potential Award by Shanghai Fashion Week. In addition, the label has secured the likes of Browns and Machine-A as stockists, and was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art to create a pencil skirt for its ‘Is Fashion Modern?’ exhibition.
Following her colourful debut solo catwalk show, FashionUnited chatted to Chen, about the inspiration behind her collection, the challenges on designing knitwear for spring, as well as what it means to show during London Fashion Week and how she is preparing for the Woolmark final
“When I did ‘Ones to Watch’ last season, it was only my second season, and now it is our third commercial collection and my first solo show,” expressed Chen with joy backstage at Fashion Scout’s Freemasons Hall.
As winner of the prestigious Merit Award, which has been won by the likes of Eudon Choi, Katie Ann McGuigan, Edda and Roberts | Wood, Chen receives 20,000 pounds across three seasons, as well as support to help propel her business on a global level.
“I was picked up really early by Fashion Scout, and that’s been so important for me, especially as at the beginning it is really hard to support a showcase, especially during London Fashion Week,” said Chen. “Being part of an amazing supportive platform, like Fashion Scout, has meant that I can present to the world what knitting can be. Traditional knitwear can make you think of grandma’s cardigan, I want to do something really chic, and I love amazing people when I tell them all my collection is knitwear.”
Chen added: “It also means a lot to show in London. I started here in London, I learnt how to design here, and it is in London where I started to be more brave with my designs. Before my Masters in London I’d never done anything with colour, it was very subtle with grey and light blues, but it was my tutor from the London College of Fashion that encouraged me to be more brave, and now my collections are full of colour.”
For spring/summer 2019, the Hong Kong-based designer was inspired by the environment portrayed in the Scent of the Green Papaya, a Vietnamese film from the ‘90s, one of her favourite films that she first saw ten years ago.
“I first watched it when I first started in art, after quitting university where I was studying engineering,” said Chen. “I watched it again this year and it just reminded me of another time by the coast by a papaya tree - the whole mood, the environment and the layers of green.”
Chen added: “This comes through into the collection with all the green, with the layers of green representing the tree, while the different shades of green representing the summer, and the textures showcase when the sun shines through the leaves, and the refraction of water droplets on the leaves.”
What really came across with this collection, other than the playful, sporty aesthetic is the innovations to make her knitwear an all-season label, adding to her signature dense Lycra knit with the introduction of the finest silk knit, which she has created by using 18-gauge knitted machines, to offer a delicate yarn to contrast with what she calls “chunky granny-style knits”.
Chen, who sees herself more as a technician rather than a fashion designer, explains: “It is very challenging to do a full knitwear collection for spring/summer, it is tricky, so I try to reduce weight as much as possible in the pieces, so this season we’ve tried print and knit to keep the weight really light, as well as using layered to offer different textures within the collection to give it more details.
“We have pieces that are knitted out of cotton, which are very comfortable that have a textured overlay, while others have been created using the finest silk knit, using 18-gauge knitting machines, which is an exciting new addition for us.”
As well as innovating within her knitwear designs, Chen’s passion for the technique, advancing knit with technology and pushing the limits of the fibres really shines through when talking to her.
“Knit isn’t considered as chic and I’m trying to show that knitwear isn’t only grandma’s cardigan - I want to make my collections more edgy.
“I love how unique each knitwear pattern is and how you can create every single detail of the fabric, I can custom-make all the details, like the fringing and with different yarns you can get totally different textures, even the pleats are knitted.”
Chen added: “I really want to break the boundaries, limitations and stereotypes of knitwear, to make people aware that knitwear can also be worn in the summer, and that it is comfortable and super chic.”
All of Chen’s pieces are machine knitted, from her boxy two-piece referencing the ’60s mod era, printed with a green and white barcode grid to her playful colourful tennis dresses and floaty skirts with black pleats juxtaposed with neon pastel prints.
“I love using computerised knitting machines,” explains Chen. “I think it comes from my background, I’m into the precision of the machines. I’m a big fan of technology it is the only way to push us forward. For instance my jackets couldn’t be made by hand, it isn’t possible.”
What was evident was how far Chen has come in such a short time, her spring/summer collection shows really flair as well as commercial value, her athleisure-Riviera vibe has a cruise feel to it, perfectly showcased with impressive styling of the catwalk show with sweatbands printed with I-Am-Chen, sun hats, and slip-on shoes worn with tennis socks.
The next challenge for Chen is the International Woolmark Prize, where the designer will take part in the final in February 2019 in London, just days before her autumn/winter 2019 collection hits the catwalk. For Woolmark, Chen has to produce a capsule collection featuring six looks that highlights the versatility of merino wool.
“I don’t really do wool a lot and I’ve never used Merino before,” said Chen. “But when you have a limitation it actually pushes you even further, as you have to turn the limitation, the old habit into something new, and that’s really cool.”
Images: courtesy of Fashion Scout