For many, studying in London means living away from home for the first time: crossing the ocean and setting foot in a country where you don’t know a single soul. Luckily we are all in the same boat. The friendships we forge in foundation year, all the way through to the end of the BA, become solid ground. We go through the all-nighters together to make the deadlines, buried underneath calico, embrace after soul-wrenching crits, grab kebabs at 3am. Carmen Chan’s collection is an ode to all these memories of her time at Central Saint Martins, captured over the past five years. “It’s strange and amazing how we were all raised in such diverse cultures and have such layered backgrounds, yet ended up studying at the same school in the same city,” Carmen reflects. “This collection was an ode to the people around me at this point in my life and about us growing up…all the sassiness and silliness!”
“Graduating is scary! You’re the busiest you’ve ever been in final year and suddenly you’ve got not that much to do at all. There’s a lot of thumb-twiddling and ‘What’s next?!’”
How do you create a visual narrative out of an abstract concept? Is it a challenge to translate a very conceptual idea into something practical?
Even though it isn’t how I always work, the concept for my final collection was very personal and based on what was happening around me. A big part of the visual narrative was very attainable, in the sense that a lot of the imagery that informed me came from photographs that I had taken during my time here at CSM: School lunches, crits, drinks, birthdays, night outs, nights in, kebab shops, sleepovers, holidays… The list goes on! This method felt like the most organic one in order to produce a visual narrative given the feeling I wanted to achieve.
How did your collection develop during the course of the year? Did you face any serious challenges during the production process?
There were a lot of design changes throughout the year. My pre-collection was dramatically different to the collection I presented at the end of the year, but the concept was consistent. As for production, it was the first time I had ever tackled swimwear, so I had a lot of learning to do! Thank god for Esme Young – pattern-cutting tutor extraordinaire, queen (sewing) bee and owner of quite a covetable collection of vintage bras and swimwear. I had the privilege of carefully examining them, and some of the finishings were just fantastic! They were amazing for research and stirred up my curiosity in the realm of stretch fabrics, which also fed them into my textile fabrication process.
Do you get inspired by every brief? If you don’t, how do you make projects work for you when you get stuck?
The course is set up so that students take on a range of projects designed to expose us to new skills, techniques and methods of working. It’s to suss out the things we like or don’t like, especially in the first year. It’s all a learning process, though by final year things are largely self-directed. For each brief, I try to find elements that I relate to – things, words, images or ideas that tickle my curiosity. For me, a brief is an excuse to learn more about the world and my relationship with it, and so it just happens that the outcome of all this learning is garment-design oriented.
What do your design ideas mostly revolve around, do you have a certain theme that you usually return to?
It’s different for every project, though I quite like the idea of ‘presence’. Interpret it as you wish… I’m still trying to figure out what it means myself! I also like to laugh a lot. So I enjoy working in humourous ways, even though I feel like I used it in too crass a manner in my graduate collection. Self-critiquing right here.
What does your development process usually look like?
It varies from project to project. Sometimes I drape. Sometimes I peek into my own wardrobe for pieces to inform construction. Sometimes my research does the directing. But I always draw; drawing is so important to me. Most of the time I do a strange combination of them all.
How does the conversation between 2D and 3D work for you, how much does one inform the other?
I would say both print and the 3D aspect are equally important and deserve equal attention. Fabrics excite me, as does a garment that is well cut and well-made. But being a print student, I’ve always intuitively tackled 2D fabrics and materials before anything, since it can really affect the 3D outcome. A lot of the time, the 2D feeds into the 3D. It’s a dialogue that pulls back and forth.
Do you feel that your collection somehow reflects who you are as a designer?
I feel like my collection represents my spirit as a designer to some extent, yes. I like the atmosphere and the energy that my collection emanated, and it’s definitely something I want to hold onto into the future. But I can’t say I’m entirely pleased with the outcome of my collection as a collection of garments. I feel like I could have done a lot of things differently and improved on quite a few aspects. Yet I can’t say I’m totally disappointed with how it all turned out in the end.
What did you do during your placement year?
I put on my big-girl shoes and worked at Lanvin (when Alber was still around) and Burberry, doing art direction at both and then assisting womenswear at Ashish.
Did your experience in the industry give you a better insight into how the business of fashion actually works? Is there anything CSM didn’t prepare you for, or did you learn anything you wouldn’t have learned in school?
I think it’s quite interesting to work at companies of different sizes. You really learn about how they operate as a business, about the dynamic, the work-flow and the many, many, many different jobs there are that make up a design house! There are lots of intangible things too, like how to conduct yourself in a professional environment. When you’re at school you don’t see any of this, so it’s quite a change. Placement year is a dabble in the real world, and it’s rather eye-opening. There’s so much to learn and it actually feels like working ‘for real’. And, in a way, it sort of is!
Do you think you will stay in fashion? If so, how would you like to be working professionally as a designer?
I’d definitely like to be involved in fashion primarily, yes. But I think I’d like to be more open-minded and operate as a ‘creative’ that covers a wide range of projects, jobs and collaborations in the future. Be it art, interiors, product design, books etc. Multi-disciplinary design is the way I want to go, though fashion is where my heart and my boyfriend’s wallet is. Jokes.
What are your plans for the immediate future?
To continue to take at least one shower a day. Doing the MA at Saint Martins.
Do you have any plans for the not so near future?
To continue to take at least one shower a day. To be happy, whatever that means.
What does your Oscar speech sound like?
Probably wouldn’t turn up. I don’t particularly like speaking in front of large audiences.
Words Matilda Söderberg
Photography Gareth Wrighton