A Galliano-revival is what many fashion journalists desire to see during a Central Saint Martins BA Fashion graduate show, and this year, Angel Chen gave them precisely what they longed for, with a twist that’s reminiscent of Chanel’s same-sex gowns…
I meet Angel Chen in the Grain Store, and, in tune with the clothes she designs, she is wearing a colorful Pleats Please dress. Her smile, which doesn’t disappear throughout the whole hour, is infectious, as is the energy with which she talks about fashion.
She gives me a small lookbook, and while we go through it and chat, I ask her what her favourite look is. She points at the girl with the massive yellow dress, and says, “She’s my girl, because yellow is the most representative colour for me.”
Her collection is based on the two girls’ marriage – a pretty bold continuation of Karl Lagerfeld’s closing (lesbian) wedding look for Chanel couture last year, though Angel doesn’t say this is an inspiration.
“At Vera Wang, the designers would just be sitting and chatting to each other, ‘how did you get the green card,’ and that kind of stuff. It’s not about design, but about show-show.”
“My friend once said, “Angel, I feel like you’re a planet in the sky,” and when I asked her which one, she said ‘the sun’. After that, I found another girl, and she’s the moon. We love each other.” Each yellow piece in the yellow skirt is a star, and they’re all connected. There’s more behind the story though, more of a tale. It’s about two girls who are travelling together in a North-African forest. They meet each other when they’re building up a camp (that’s why the skirts look like you can live in ’em). They decide to do something fun with building up their little habitat, and decide to wear the tents. So, they build one tent, make them separate, and both wear one half. Apparently, the dresses (in real life) can also be inserted into one another.
The waiter comes, and Angel orders an earl grey tea. Then she decides to go for a carrot cooler. After that, she asks what kind of snacks they have. She chooses a croissant, then orders an earl grey, after all.
“I really want to stay here for another one or two years, but I’m gonna have to go back [to China] and probably run my own business,” she says. What about doing an MA? She doesn’t think it suits her style. “MA style and my style are totally different.” I wonder if her designs have always been so colorful, and surprisingly, they have not. “Before, I would’ve done something very girly; not much color. It was a lot of embroidery and a lot of textiles. This is the first time that I’ve gotten in touch with menswear.”
During her placement year, Angel has worked for Marchesa, which fueled her strong interest in bridalwear. Thinking back about the experience, she says that it was a lot like going to school. “There were different graduates from Central Saint Martins working there; there were a lot of British people. We could do whatever we wanted, at the beginning of the research. Then, we’d start draping and detailing; making flowers; embroidery and deciding on colors. I had lots of freedom.”
The experience was very different from her internship at Vera Wang, where “the designers would just be sitting and chatting to each other, ‘how did you get the green card,’ and that kind of stuff. It’s not about design, but about show-show.”
She goes on to talk about interning at Alexander Wang, which she says also gave her a lot of freedom. The difference, however, was that the ‘design’ focus was mainly on the finishings. “We had to try a lot of different finishings, which is something that I hadn’t worked with before. Different fusings; how you do hems; finishing collars, and necklines. You’re not actually designing a whole look, because that’s already been designed, but the finishings.”
“I’m actually a designer, not an artist. I’m more into the business part, and I can’t think like an artist, because I have to build up the company.”
How come she decided to work for those three brands? In the beginning, Angel had planned to just finish her BA, without doing a placement year, until her tutor asked her: “Don’t you want to go to New York? You can pop into an interview with Marchesa, they’ll come.” She agreed, even though Marchesa is more into celebrity, and Angel’s focus was more on real design work. What has she learnt from all these experiences? “I learnt the most from Alexander Wang and Marchesa. I know how to make designs that people will love. They really care about the finishings, and how you wear it, and the feel of it – not just something beautiful.”
We briefly talk about the ‘designing 8 collections per year’-ethic that’s in place with a lot of fashion houses, and she starts to spill the beans about starting her own brand. “I’m so stuck with my new collection. I started researching for my spring-summer collection. I need 21 looks,” she says. Will she make them as crazy as this graduate collection? Angel admits that she’ll have to start making money first. But, how does she feel about doing more commercial stuff, after having studied at Central Saint Martins? Angel’s answer reveals she’s got a flexible mind, “I’m not a person that says ‘oh no no no, I don’t want to do it,’ but I think I can change a way of thinking. I can collaborate with artists and do crazy stuff. I can do an exhibition, photoshoots, and a lot of fun things. I’m actually a designer, not an artist. I’m more into the business part, and I can’t think like an artist, because I have to build up the company. I design clothes that are commercial, but with my own textiles and in my own creativeness.”
When we talk about designers from her class, who made it to the press show, I ask who she’s fond of. The names Quoi Alexander, Harry Evans and Gracie Wales-Bonner come up. Though the latter isn’t necessarily her style, Angel says, “I like her sense. I love her work, I want to wear it! When I was doing the show, it was all about crazy, but now I also look back, and think about the things that people actually want to wear.” Which, is usually a down-to-earth color, like black – the opposite of Angel’s collection. “I’m super happy with what I’ve done, so I’m afraid that I won’t be good next season. I’ve done this collection, and so many people were giving me opinions. Too many opinions. When I’m doing the next collection, I want to stay focused, and I have to satisfy myself first.”
Does she have any regrets? “Yes, maybe I would’ve gone out more, during the first term.”
Thinking about her business-focused sensibility, I wonder what her dissertation was about. The tea has arrived, yet no croissant, but she doesn’t make a fuss of it.
“You guys should feel super happy. The Chinese tutors teach the students to work like robots. They are so stuck up. They only want them to do copies, and to pass the course. It really stops your brain from being active.”
The dissertation was about the Chinese luxury market. After interning in New York, working for a couture brand in China was next up. “They have a creative idea about how to run the business with their clients. Each VIP can buy their ‘fund’ of the company (like a share), and they can get their couture dress done, travel around the world, and also get a yearly bonus if the company grows. So it’s a cool business plan.”
For the rich Chinese customer, luxury is about service. “They want someone to come and clean their clothes, and someone to come in and design clothes for them. It’s about experience.”
What’s the future of the Chinese market? “I think that the big houses, like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel, will still own the market. But, a third of the population in big cities (Beijing, Shanghai, etc) is starting to change their mind. They don’t want to be ‘logo people’. The aesthetic changes. China is changing, too. Before, China’s mass production was the best. We hired people super cheaply, and worked very fast. But, we would have bad quality and do copies and things like that. Now, nobody wants to wear copied thing. People want to wear something unique. The people who only come to China for production, are making less and less profit, because Chinese people want more money and less sewing. So, the production is probably changing to Thailand or other countries. It’s developing. It’s like Japan in the 70s: it’s booming.”
Though the production-side of fashion is changing, the fashion education in China still seems to be pretty rigorous. Angel showed the course director of a Chinese Fashion school around the college, and he said, “You guys should feel super happy. The Chinese tutors teach the students to work like robots. They are so stuck up. They only want them to do copies, and to pass the course. It really stops your brain from being active.” Apparently, if a student would do something creative, they would stop them and shout ‘stop it, think about reality!’
Now that we’re talking about education in China, I ask her, what was your education like before your went to Central Saint Martins? “I was in high school for two years. In middle school, I was always flicking through magazines. Then, I saw Galliano and I thought: he’s what I want to be in the future. So, at that time, I said ‘mom, I want to be in that school.’ When my family had a better financial situation, they said ‘maybe we can try and migrate to Australia,’ and I was like ‘No! Fashion can’t be there!’ So, my mother said, ‘ok,you go to the UK.’ It all started with Galliano.”
With Galliano, a university degree started, developed, and ended. Let’s hope it will persevere and continue to stay in Angel’s future collections. Once a Galliano devotee, always a Galliano devotee. It’s a religion.