What’s MA graduate Graham Fan about? Fishwire-mixed dresses and investment banking as a failure-to-launch plan. We speak to the designer who, quite literally, twisted and turned his design ideas, and loves epic scream matches about politics on Fox News.
Graham, you seem like a very nice and open guy. How important do you think it is for a young designer to have a personality, and to be able to chat amiably with an audience?
I reckon on certain grounds it’s always great to have a personality regardless which industry one works in. Though it is difficult to stand out from the crowd as a young designer, personality is not something one can easily “force”, for me it has to come naturally, and their work subsequently reflects that. Not to forget a lot of incredibly successful designers always work behind the scene, they engage with their audiences through their work. I believe audiences would be most engaged with what they perceive visually and a sense of emotional connection would then be developed. It’s certainly beneficial to have an easy and approachable attitude but at the end of the days, the quality of work eventually does most of the dialogue with the audiences.
Anna Wintour keeps stressing how vital it is to present yourself perfectly. How much attention do you give to these details?
I would say it’s certainly crucial to be well presented, but not just superficially in fancy clothes, it’s what’s inside and the message behind the work that really matters. As I don’t tend to spend too much time on dressing up, my wardrobe is mostly in black, as I find that’s sort of the “safest” and no fuzz option. The most I pay attention to is skincare, as I have highly sensitive skin especially under stress, and it can be irritating when you first meet someone with a horrible dotty face. (just joking..)
Is there anything that you would like to shout out to companies for future reference?
I truly admire the work of Raf Simons at Dior, and Nicolas Ghesquiere’s work at Louis Vuitton, it will certainly be a dream come true if there are opportunities to gain experience with either house.
The collection is based on the Boiler Suit, which is a metal artwork that covers part of Guy’s hospital. Did you see this artwork in real life when you first got the idea for your clothes?
Funny enough, I actually walked by the site when I did my laundry one morning, I have been living around the area but never really paid a close attention to the cladding structure before. I was really drawn to the way the stainless steel frames were fabricated and “wrapped” around the boiler house. I was thinking such “twist and turn” idea could probably work well on the human body as textile, so I tried to adopt the way of how the steel panels were fabricated and tested out with the range of materials, trying to create some textiles that can be incorporated into garments.
Was the boiler suit the first idea that you got for the collection? Or, were there previous ideas that were completely different that you’ve scrapped along the way?
I actually created the Boiler Suit-inspired textile at the very beginning of the course, but I was advised to focus more on designing rather than developing textiles. So there were a lot of ideas scrapping along the way, and now when I reflect from my previous work, most of them were so so overdesigned, I saw my design approach evolved a lot while incorporating the textile later in the development process. Things just become more desirable when they are more simplified.
You’ve been weaving a lot for these garments. What did you want to explore, define or refine during your MA course?
As I have always been specializing in womenswear design throughout my study, it was indeed a surprise to create such ‘textile’ collection. When I first started the course, I was just hoping to explore what’s really ‘inside myself’, which at that point I was struggling and unconfident about. There was always a lack of knowledge and disconnection between my work and myself, I was not doing something that’s entirely personal, which now when I look back, I see how crucial it is to fully engage in the ‘dialogue’ and believe in the work that I create.
I am extremely grateful that Louise saw through my weaknesses and taught me be unafraid of trying. There were indeed numerous trials and errors throughout the course, but she never for one second gave up and kept pressing me forward. I remember a conversation I had with her, where I was extremely stuck at one point. She simply said “listen, just take a deep breathe, go out watch a movie, come back and go through your research again, there are tonnes of images here, but you just haven’t even worked on them at all.” It was all about digesting information, sort of “destroying” them and working all over it.
I believe it was in the middle of first year, when I began working on the pre collection, I was advised to focus more at developing textile samples instead of non-stop toiling. Since I simply have no knowledge whatsoever in engineering textile, and never have thought I would capable of doing, I literally just hand-wove any available material, just hoping to something “weird”. That was certainly not what I was expecting to do when I began the course, but I thoroughly enjoy the process.
Was the mix of fabrics that you’ve used intentional, or was it a ‘take-it-as-it-comes’ kind of process?
Not really actually, many strips/cord-kind of materials were experimented and tested during the weave sampling, some worked whilst others didn’t. I was strongly encouraged to include wicker in the weaving, as Louise was advising that that is something highly unusual, and typically “Chinese”. It also strengthens the structures of the garments. The idea of having the metallic plastic cords mainly was to create the uneven shimmering surface, while blending in the mohair was to balance out the stiff texture, it’s like a mix and match of hard and softness.
You’ve used elastic fish wire in your clothes. Have you ever been fishing?
Unfortunately not, as I grew up in Hong Kong; there weren’t many options for that.
Do you have any unusual hobbies that you enjoy doing whenever you have spare time?
Does watching and reading news count? I know it may sound utterly unfashionable, I do love watching news on tele, and going through online papers daily. I am especially drawn to US politics (à la those epic scream matches on Fox News) while also addict to random entertainment news on Daily Mail/ Page Six. (Kim Kardashian lol) I bet it’s important to see what’s outside the whole fashion “bubble”, and pay attention to current affairs/pop culture. Surely they may absolutely have nothing to do with work, but keeping track with news is always good for leisure.
Recently, I’ve heard a lot of fashion graduates say that they want a bakery or café. What would you be doing if you weren’t a fashion designer?
I would say I may have worked for an Investment bank if I did not undertake both the BA and MA Fashion Design degrees. Funny enough, I was accepted for an Economics degree in another London uni before my Foundation year at CSM, but I had a conversation with my family and decided to defer that degree offer for a year, took a gap year off for the Foundation course, which I absolutely loved. It was where I really discovered my real interest was in design rather than Mathematics. After being accepted for the BA course at CSM, I just went ahead with it. I have absolutely no regrets doing Fashion as my brother is now working for an i-bank and I can totally tell the massive difference in our lives, and I cannot foresee myself taking that route.
What’s the most wearable piece in your collection?
Basically all of the sweaters are fairly wearable, as they can be worn inside out, and bits of woven fringing can be tucked in or out for different styling.
How do you feel about ‘wearability’ and ‘commerciality’?
I feel that both elements are undeniably important for shaping up a business. While taking both into account, I believe, however there is always room for creativity both conceptually and technically. The agenda can always be pushed further as long as ultimately the final product is modified enough and ready for showrooms, which for me, will be in a distant future.
In the case of my MA collection, laying away the textile, the base silhouette is in fact fairly minimal. Turtleneck sweaters, semi-circular A-line skirts and full-length coat, those are pieces that can be found in a daily wardrobe, it’s the hand weaving and embroideries that highlight its craftsmanship and uniqueness. Though this particular collection may not entirely reflect the reality in the context of wearability or commerciality, I do see it as an important aspect in my design and hopefully can further translate that in my future work.
You’ve used a 50’s twist in your garments, like the skirt. Which designer from that era do you look up to?
How important do you think it is, for a fashion designer, to know the history (and theory) of fashion?
Personally I would see it’s fairly crucial to know what happened in the past, and what’s currently happening as a designer. Though I can’t say I am not truly well-informed with the history, I do often find myself influenced and inspired by the late 60s, 80s and 90s. Though those eras of fashion were drastically different, there were always interesting ideas from each of those decades. Meanwhile, as today will be the history of tomorrow, it’s also important to stay informed of what’s happening right now, in order to know where exactly one should position themselves in this fast moving industry. For me, in order to innovate, one has to be informed, digest, then sort of “destroy” the information before finally delivering.
What would be your approach to making a commercial collection?
I would probably continue to stay crafty, and be further more experimental in textile engineering, an area I never saw myself capable before as a womenswear designer. Certainly there will be substantial modification in textile placement for commercial purposes, but I believe that will come naturally with heavier focus in silhouette design. To sum it up, there shall be a more balance approach in developing such wearable collection.