It started with a moment in the movements of a dancer. Then, there was the body, elastic yarn, and tensions. The result: the beginning of a boundless connection between art and fashion in the hands of Fengyi Tan. Somewhere in between dance, film, art, science, architecture and technology, she is bored with books and into real experiences. Spatial and emotional experiences that transform the body in motion with abstract shapes and holes, asymmetrical elastic structures and vibrant colours. Counting three collections already, Fengyi Tan is based in Shanghai and developing her homonymous label, launched shortly after she graduated from the Royal College of Arts in 2015. We talked with seven hours and several time zones apart.
How was your creative experience at the Royal College of Art?
It was very good, and inspired me a lot. I was very lucky to have Wendy [Dagworthy] there, the previous head of the department. The second year was the first time for Zowie [Broach], our new head of department. So the way of teaching was very different. I was inspired by both of them, especially by Zowie, because in the second year we started to do a lot of experimentation, and that was quite new to me. I collaborated with dancers and it was from my collaborations with them that I got the inspiration for my final graduate collection. I was trying to capture the movement and developed my pattern cutting from that. We also created a scene and did a performance, and that’s how my final collection started.
What you mean by different teaching methods?
We didn’t focus only on garments. Some people made films, some made performances and others made instruments or furniture, so we had to look and think about garments from a distance and from a different angle. It was really about exploring myself and asking myself what I wanted to express through my garments. I think it was very important to me because I developed my first ready-to-wear collection from my final collection. I regarded it as the foundational spirit of the brand, so I wanted to continue to develop the brand from that. It didn’t come from that inspiration you find in books and in other resources, it was based on my experience. We explored a lot of different ways to develop fashion, and I started to think about different ways to present the collection. I mean, not just focused on shows. I did presentations, and for the second collection of the brand I collaborated with dancers again during Shanghai Fashion Week. I invited an English dancer to come to Shanghai for that, and we also did a presentation and a film. Later on, one of the shops invited us to do a video installation.
To me, every season is like a little chapter of a book. It’s all connected, and I want to develop them one by one. So the next collection might have some sort of connection with the previous one. There is always something more you can do but then there are time limits and deadlines, so if there is something you haven’t done enough for one collection, that can inspire you for the next one.
“To me, every season is like a little chapter of a book. It’s all connected, and I want to develop them one by one.”
You mentioned in an interview that you think the industry needs to find other forms of showing fashion besides catwalk shows. What are your thoughts on this?
I am still thinking about this. I don’t want to give a definition, like all brands have to be doing something similar. Maybe I’m saying this because of technology and the Internet, it’s developing so quickly! I’m now collaborating with some photographers and scientists and we’re trying to see if we can do a 3D video to think about people’s lives in the future. I think technology is good but you have to find a reason why you want to use that same technology, otherwise it’s just showing the technology and not your work.
Was launching your own brand after graduating something you had planned?
Yes. I had those thoughts a long time ago, but then there was a tutor here that recommended me to go to the Royal College of Arts, so I had a chance to develop my work more deeply over two years. And that was a really good experience for me.
And how is the business going?
It has just started. It’s only one and a half years old, so it’s a very young brand. I mainly sell in China, and the market here is developing quite quickly, so my brand is gradually growing. I have been selling in other cities across China as well. Sometimes there are big fashion companies that want to collaborate and find some young designers, so I think it’s a good experience to examine your design in the market. You can’t just do something conceptual, you have to also think about the market. For me, I really want to develop more conceptual work, but you need an economic foundation to help a brand to survive, and then you can continue to do something you like.
Do you think Shanghai is the best place for you to work at the moment?
I think at the moment, for me and for the brand, it’s good to keep a relationship with the factories and the resources. But if I have a chance and it’s stable enough here, I would probably want to move my design team back to London. Those are my thoughts at the moment, but I don’t know how long it will take to happen.
“I really want to develop more conceptual work, but you need an economic foundation to help a brand to survive.”
Let’s talk about your first collection. There are some very interesting pictures of the SS 2016 collection on your website that show the clothes in invisible bodies, giving it a completely distinct perception whilst putting it into the field of visual arts. Tell me about this.
I tried to create this abstract and geometric space on the body with the strings of the fabric.There are lots of designers exploring the relationship between the body and the clothes, but I like to explore the tension in the movement. In my final collection you can see how the clothes restrict the model or the dancer’s movements. It feels like you can’t move, or there’s something like a limiting shape. I think it’s very interesting to explore the elastic fabric because it has tension but also limits. And I like to explore those limits. For those knitwear pieces you see, the yarn is very fine, thin and transparent. I collaborated with a factory to make it a laced texture. This Spring Summer collection was inspired by shadows. I always really liked elastic materials because they have a lot of possibilities and tensions, and I like to explore the tension between the clothes and the body, which I did for my graduate collection.
It seems that your clothes were designed both to be worn and to be displayed as an art form. Is this what you aim for your designs?
Yes, I wish the clothes to be perceived like that (laughs). For the next collection, maybe I’ll have a few pieces that are more conceptual or artistic, and most of them probably more wearable. But it depends on how you display them. I think designers will always look for the balance between art and wearable pieces.
What do you think is the relationship between art and fashion? Can fashion be art? And can art be fashion?
I think art can be fashion, but I don’t think fashion can be art. If you don’t need to think about the market, maybe it can be art. Well, I think I’m still exploring it. If you ask me this question in three years, my answer will be different. A lot of designers try to find a balance, and I’m trying to find one as well, but I don’t know if there should be a boundary between these two.
Are the models wearing your clothes living sculptures?
For the final [graduate] collection, I think so. ‘Living sculptures’… I think it depends on how you wear them, because you can always style them. In my new collection I have elastic strings inside the clothes, and you can wear them in a normal way, but you can also play with the strings and their shapes.
Your work has the characteristic of being part of an installation, inseparable from the environment they are inserted in. What captivates you about the space that surrounds the garments?
I think that for each collection I try to express a kind of emotion through the shapes, as I told you about the tension and the limits. Maybe it doesn’t sound very positive when you restrict your movement. I want to express my own emotions through my own experiences. When you study your own thing and do the design, you meet a lot of problems in daily little things. I want to transfer that to abstract shapes, and express my own experience, my own feelings. I also wanted the brand to be a little futuristic, maybe a little sporty. I’m thinking about what the futuristic means to me, maybe there’s some connection to the technique.
How do you transform the moments of movement and tension into fashion?
Because I did the collaboration with dancers, it has already a strong relationship with body movement. This made me think about sport elements and sportswear, like jersey and knitting. So I started with those fabrics, which have elasticity and more possibilities in relation to the body. The transparent knitting is made of a very fine and thin yarn that took a very long time to manufacture. So before that, we needed to do a lot of tests and little samples to find the right tension and the right pattern. I didn’t study knitwear, I studied womenswear, and since this is new to me, I’m still learning a lot of techniques. But I think there are some similarities. I like knitwear very much, so it’s very interesting for me to know a new area. In the beginning, the form of the fabrics was very simple, and I started to think about different materials and different textures. For example, I developed my first ready-to-wear collection from my final collection because that was an Autumn Winter collection. I added wool, elastic strings and stitches to make it warm, so it’s very thick, but it also has elasticity.
The accessories give the garments the look of belonging to an installation. Tell me about their importance in your designs.
When I was designing them, I started with very big shapes, trying to create a development with the dance and the model. They play with the accessories, and I wanted to make a kind of installation. While the fabric is very soft, the accessories can be made of harder materials, and the shapes can change as well. Yes, I was thinking about sculpture when I was developing the pattern and also the accessories. In the working progress I was trying to put accessories into the clothes, so they become connected. But it didn’t really work at that time, and I was trying to find different ways to develop the accessories. For the second Spring/Summer collection I actually developed some accessories from my graduate collection. I It’s not about doing one thing at the right time. You might do something you always wanted to do, something you haven’t done before, but you can always go through it again and when you look at it now, you might discover something new to develop.
I know you are very interested in the relationship between space, movement and the body. What do you expect and actually find when these three elements come together?
Obviously I am not the first one to explore this, there are a lot of famous designers like Issey Miyake and Hussein Chalayan who experimented with that as well. Hussein Chalayan is one of my favourite designers. A lot of designers or dancers already have this kind of expectation about space, the body and clothes. I was just thinking what is my way to do this. So, like I said to you about me trying to add my kind of emotions into the shapes, I am not just creating the shapes. I want to use the material and the shape to express the emotion.
Is this relationship crucial to understand your designs?
Yes, I think so. For my new collection Autumn/Winter 2017 I’m also trying to explore time in these three elements. So you have time, space, body and clothes.
Your designs have a kind of slowness that stands out from fashion that is driven by trends. Where does your work stand in the current market and its demands to be focused on trends and ever-increasing paces of production?
I definitely think about the market, and I am still exploring it. Trends change quickly, so you can’t change yourself with the trends all the time, it won’t be successful. Maybe because I present my collections and make it look slightly slow, it looks like I don’t care but I do care. I want to find my own language but it has to be strong. I need time to develop, explore and also weigh the market reactions. Now I have a few stockists in China, but the market in China is different from the one in Europe or the American. So I want to give myself some time to develop the brand. I always ask questions, like, ‘is this what you want’ and, ‘is this the right direction?’ When you interview me, you ask questions, and maybe what I answer now will be different from what I could answer next year. I’m just learning things, because if you want to do something new you have to find your own experience, you can’t just work from previous books or something.
Words Maria Lopes Images Courtesy of Fengyi Tan