Pengji Cai, a recent graduate of MFA Fashion Design and Society at Parsons School of Design, talks to us about his latest collection which was featured at MADE Fashion Week 2015, his distinctive and atypical approach to design, and his stance on the fashion industry in China. His bold work was notable even amidst a myriad other professional designs: inventive in his use of shapes, forms and proportions, he showcased box-cut items focusing on asymmetric hemlines and thickly curved borders. Pengji speaks up about his experience at Parsons and how his development as a designer was both fostered and encouraged by his surrounding environment.

Working in Beijing for two years before moving to New York, Pengji Cai received an investment opportunity to design three collections under his own label. After that, he entered a competition called Creative Sky. The judges for the competition included: Editor-in-Chief of Vogue China, Angelica Cheung; designer Jason Wu, and Simons Collins (former Dean of Parsons School of Design). From this, he won the “Parsons Award” which led to receiving a full-ride scholarship for his education in New York City as a design student.

Reflecting on his New York masters’ education, he explains his approach to fashion and functionality. As functionality is integral to his design, his works are often viewed as commercial. “I’m not really worried about people saying whether or not my designs are quite commercial or practical,” Pengji says. He believes that the definition of fashion in itself is something that is wearable, but that its definition is limitless and boundless. “I believe that garments should be worn, fashion is not just artwork.” Although he does not design for a specific target audience, he wants people who are passionate in making and draping patterns to appreciate his work. Another fundamental asset of Pengji’s work are the details and finishings of his designs: “I believe the details should be the storytellers of what I want to convey and not a description of the background story.”

“I always keep my eyes open to everything, you never know when something will attract you… I’ve had a project start with mouldy strawberries as the initial inspiration!”

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The starting point of “Garment Crash!”, his thesis collection, came from experimenting with different approaches to draping patterns. Initially focused on making a garment installation, he tried to destroy the image of an archetypal garment. Moving on, he explored the building relationship between different shapes and patterns — and, further into his research, he noticed the similarity between his installations and John Chamberlain’s sculptures, which is where he got his idea of making “garments crash”. “I always keep my eyes open to everything, you never know when something will attract you… I’ve had a project start with mouldy strawberries as the initial inspiration!” Using only one or two panels to create each of his pieces, Pengji was able to achieve an organic aesthetic, which resulted from brainstorming three dimensionally. “I usually develop the ideas as I am draping and experimenting. I find this creative process very exciting!”

Before making his MFA graduate collection, Pengji worked on a couple of largely commercial and practical collections back in China, where creating all the patterns singlehandedly helped him understand how to construct the clothes in his own style. Parsons gave him the opportunity to learn and explore how to deconstruct clothes, though perhaps not in a famous Margiela-style “I think those two ways of building clothes will come along with me even for the future”. As his approach to design is not conventional, everything felt very alien for Pengji at the start; constantly struggling with self-doubt, but the college always allowed him to embrace his ideas and gave him freedom to experiment with his own unique style. If Pengji would have to choose something that he still needs to work on, he thinks it would be “continuing to find clarity on who I am and what I should do in fashion design.”

“I just feel real and always in the moment when I am working at Oscar de la Renta. It is great!”

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Pengji speaks some words about the Chinese fashion industry, which has been noted for its rapid growth and success in recent years. “It is growing at an incredible pace, but it still has room for improvement.” He adds that China does not lack talented designers, but is in need of more experts that understand how to correctly promote the development of a strong structural fashion system so that the Chinese market can continue to flourish.

Finally, we hear about his time in New York and his new job at Oscar de la Renta. “I just feel real and always in the moment when I am here. It is great!” As an atypical designer who jumps straight to the making stages before sketching, Pengji never expected so much freedom to drape and to try new things. With this freedom, he is able to work more confidently from 3D to 2D. Most importantly, working for a company with different aesthetic preferences as his own, he believes that this opportunity allows him to challenge himself and explore a different world of tailoring and garment construction.

Words by Grace Ahn

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