SS19 Merit Award Winner and finalist for the International Woolmark Prize, i-am-chen is the experimental knitwear brand about to bring their vibrant and playful aesthetic to London Fashion Week.
Inspired by 1993's Vietnamese drama The Scent of Green Papaya directed by Tran Anh Hung, the designers' favourite film encapsulates the spirit of summer through it's portrayal of nature, an idea that runs through their eagerly anticipated SS19 collection.
As a former engineering student, Chen finds the technicalities of knitting workshops and factories to be of infinite interest. These techniques paired with a Japanese 100% superfine silk yarn to transform knitwear into a summer garment, Chen is determined to leave the audience and consumers wearing knitwear all year round, destroying the idea that knitted pieces are only for the depths of winter.
For their show this September, i-am-chen have collaborated with Natali D, an international stylist who has worked with the likes of Adidas, Net-a-Porter and Vogue Italia. We caught up with ZHI Chen ahead of their show to find out their ideas around sustainability, what will be heading down the catwalk and where the courageous patterns and colours of their designs originate.
Congratulations on winning the Merit Award! How did you feel when you found out?
I could not believe this actually happened! I basically ran to the factory immediately after I heard from Fashion Scout that I got into the last round since I had only seven days to create samples before the final selection panel. I was not able to find anyone who was going to the UK from China to deliver the samples, so I decided to fly in myself, keeping my fingers and toes crossed!
I had such a great experience working with the Fashion Scout team last season for the Ones to Watch show and I am extremely excited about having my first solo runway show with Fashion Scout again. It is going to be a 20+ look all knit spring/summer collection. I can’t wait to present how far knit can go in the summer.
What has inspired your Spring Summer 2019 collection?
For SS19, I take inspiration from one of my favourite films The Scent of Green Papaya which I first saw ten years ago. I am much inspired by images of water droplets trembling on a leaf and dots of sunlight speckled on the ground through the undergrowth. All these little details represent summer to me and I want to reflect their spirits on my SS19 collection with my own interpretation.
How do you stay inspired?
I get inspired by mostly two places, museums and factories. As an art admirer, I go to museums to enjoy the masterpieces done by artists throughout history. I always found something in the museums that inspired me tremendously. I learned about my favourite artists/designers such as Dieter Rams, Alexander Calder, David Hockney and Agnes Martin through my visits to various museums. Another important source of inspiration is the knitting factory. As a former engineering student, I am in love with techniques therefore spend a lot of time in the factories to work with technicians and study the capabilities of different machines. I get very excited when I learn a new technique, knowing what possible design I can achieve with i-am-chen aesthetics.
What themes and concepts are you exploring this season?
In the summer ten years ago, I started learning drawing in a fishing village with no streetlight near Xiamen. The summer there is always humid; thunderstorm would come at dusk, sudden while destined. The storm calmed as well as excited me. A green papaya tree about two-story tall stood outside of my studio. The large fruits made me worry if they would suddenly fall.
I watched The Scent of Green Papaya that summer. It talks about a young girl Mui from a rural area working as a maid in an affluent family. The film looks at the world through Mui’s lens and finds beauty in the small details of the surroundings of the household, water droplets trembling on leaves, lines of colourful bugs running around, dots of sunlight speckled on the ground through the undergrowth and the scent of green papaya.
I opened the film again this year in a summer filled with whirling leaves as ten years ago. The green foliage and nourishing rain fashion the spirit of my SS19 collection.
On Summer Knit
Since the beginning of i-am-chen as an all-knitwear brand, I have been most frequently asked about how I would survive the spring/summer seasons. Despite of the inherent challenges, summer knit can be very fascinating when done right. I chose a type of 100% superfine silk yarn from Japan, knitting with 18-gauge flat machine to ensure the finesse of the garment. Knitted together with the colourful Italian translucent yarn that is as smooth and elegant as their gelato, the thin silk piece turns alive and shimmers like sunlight permeates through whirling leaves. SS19 is only my second spring/summer collection in knitting; there is way too much more to be explored in summer knit.
Themes of sustainability, diversity and inclusivity are permeating the industry. What changes would you like to make through your work?
I first learned about sustainable fashion at the London College of Fashion from its collaborative project with Kering. With my own brand, I now put it into practice. I have been studying the different kinds of yarns made of recycled materials such as plastic bottles. I will start experimenting with them for my AW19 collection. I also try to minimise material waste during sampling by using a program for computer simulation system of my knit design, so that I can realise the correct sample with least trials.
Our team also takes good care of our supply chain in order to deliver products with great quality with relatively accessible prices so that more customers can enjoy the design.
What shall we look out for at your SS19 show?
First of all, this is by far the biggest collection for i-am-chen. The sampling process of knitting is very long and our team put in great effort to make this 20-plus-look show possible. In terms of wearability which I have been focusing on, we spent much time working on the pattern of this collection, so I am looking forward to seeing them all on the models walking down the runway. We are also very excited about collaborating with stylist Natali D with whom we last worked together in 2017 in Chengdu. This is i-am-chen’s first solo show and it will be significantly more styled and curated with our aesthetics than everything we have done in the past.
Where do you hope to be next season?
Physically, with the generous Merit Award, I will be back here with Fashion Scout to showcase my AW19 collection! Parts of it will be consisted of the capsule collection for the Global Final of the International Woolmark Prize; therefore, the next season will be undoubtedly quite wooly. While it is super exciting to be able to present my works to industry experts, I also hope to reach a wider audience because I feel most proud and appreciated when people wear my works on the street. I would be very happy to find my work in every continent next season.
Interview by Annabel Waterhouse-Biggins