“Let’s spray paint the flowers a little more!” It’s Friday afternoon and team of Susan Fang can be heard working busily throughout our phone interview. The London-based designer will be presenting her Spring Summer 19 collection the next day and final touches always take more time than planned.
That doesn’t keep Susan from speaking enthusiastically about her work leading up to the event. Inspired by the beauty of nature, the Central Saint Martins graduate aims to capture the algorithms that shape the world around us. Images of natural stone in Brighton, ripped vintage magazines and flowers from the designer’s family garden create a game between the two- and three-dimensional. However, work experience at Stella McCartney and Céline taught her not to forget about practicality. She chose polyester for its ease in use and developed an ‘air-weave’ technique to create both voluminous and compact (“easy when you travel, I hate ironing!”).
You graduated from CSM in 2015. What is something that really stuck with you from your time in the studios there?
It was great how we were given a lot of freedom. We weren’t given direction, so we had to think independently. It was nice how our grade didn’t really count until the final year, so we could do what we wanted, as long as we didn’t fail, of course. It gave me the courage to experiment. I took each project as an opportunity to learn something new. That really made me bolder. That’s what stayed with me. I’m not afraid to take risks and find new ways to express myself.
What inspired you to start your own brand?
I really enjoyed making my final collection and wanted to have my own brand. But I knew I needed more experience. During my placement year, I just spent at places I liked personally, like Kei Kagami, which taught me about design, but not really how to run a business. I had never been to high fashion places, so I did an internship at Céline after I graduated, which taught me a lot about construction. After that, I did a short-term commercial project, for a high street collaboration with the university, and I realized it’s great to learn about the commercial market. Afterward, I did Stella McCartney as a graduate trainee in womenswear. I did a lot of the catwalk line. That was interesting because I was constantly pushed to create simple, but interesting design. I needed to have a commercial mindset. That wasn’t easy, a good challenge.
I was on a work-holiday visa, which expired. So, I decided to use my experience, and the vision I developed at Central Saint Martins, by launching my own brand.
Going from your graduate collection to your first commercial one, how did you adapt your work?
Practicality and innovation are really important to me. My fabrics never wrinkles and they can stretch to any size. That way, it’s really compact and easy to take with you when you travel. What I learned from my experience at Céline and Stella was that I needed a product that would be attractive to customers, but still embody the brand value. That is why we started the bubble accessories. It was still related to my work with garments, with the transparency and dimensions, but at the same time, it’s easy to wear. It can be easily developed season to season while staying recognisable.
Originally, they were produced by my art teacher from high school. We were asked to produce them for a few stores in Shanghai and they are made to order. Now, they are so popular that even my mom is helping.
What was the inspiration behind the collection you will be presenting in Paris?
It’s a continuation of my work since the graduate collection, which was based on fractals, nature, and geometry. How everything is a repetition of itself. I wanted to show the beauty of repetition through the textile. That’s why I started “AIR-WAVE”, our first collection, to create geometry trough movement with the bode. I wanted to push it with colour and prints, print images onto the fabric, which is why I made them myself this time.
Some of the visuals are scanned rocks from Brighton, surface waves from the rocks. Another one was ripped old magazine paper, scanned so it looks flat. A third print was based of florals. In Chinese, a “floral print” is called “print a flower” so literally stole my mom’s rooftop garden. I took her flowers, and literally spray-painted them onto fabric. I combined these different types of printing with a lighter, polyester fabric, which is more suitable for a spring summer collection.
I read “The Grammar of Ornament” by Rick Owen, which was very much linked to my original concept. The most beautiful prints are always linked to nature.
I saw you worked with a new “air-weave” technique. Could you explain what that is?
I first developed this for my first commercial collection. You have to weave it 3D and add layer by layer. Some are very tiny weaves – the smaller it is, the better it moves. Last season we did everything by hand, which was crazy. This season, we still did it by hand, but I invented a board with needles upside down, which makes the distancing of each weave much more accurate. We lay the strips of fabric onto the board, and on the pinned locations, we hand stitch each layer. It’s easier because we can work together. For one dress, we’ll have seven people working together.
Do you develop the fabric first, or do you start with the silhouette?
The first season, because the fabric was so special, it was really difficult to make the garments and keep the movement. This season, we purposely kept all of our patterns square and we are careful not to waste any fabric. With the leftover strips, we made hats and added flowers. Those are our headpieces. We call the bouquets.
If I understood correctly, this technique involves a minimal waste approach. Could you explain more about your vision on sustainability?
My mom grew up in the countryside and her seamstress taught her to cut fabric, and how to keep all the cut-outs and make shoe soles. When I was studying, my mom would force me not to throw anything away. Keep every bit calico and every pin! It was very intense, and annoying, but somehow it stayed with me. Last season we used all the strips to make ribbon bags, this season we did the hat. Because you can add the flower, it looks different every day.
My approach to sustainability comes very organically. I will be honest,… I would be hesitant to call myself a sustainable brand because I know how much knowledge you must have before you can be truly sustainable. It’s so hard, sometimes I feel like it’s impossible to create ethically, but I try to improve myself constantly.
I saw you describe the Susan Fang brand as “pure” and “design-focused.” Could you explain why that is important to you?
I always ask myself – what makes something beautiful? I realized, beauty already exists in nature, so I just have to backtrack to create something new. It’s about having a simple mindset. I don’t look at what’s currently in trend. The most beautiful thing is already there, in this world.
How do you approach the communication of your brand? For example, the lookbook images, how did that happen?
For my most recent lookbook, we wanted the garments to speak for themselves because there was already so much detail. One of the flower prints inspired us to look at a herbarium, which we tried to replicate with the plastic. The shoot was done in my flat! Ever since I was studying I was working in that flat, so it’s an important space for me.
Can you say anything about what will happen at the presentation in Paris? (I saw some beautiful flowers pop up online!)
We actually had a lot of ideas, but in the end, we wanted to do something simple, just to show the garments. There won’t be models and the guests can walk in and out. We will spraypaint the floral print onto the ceiling and position the flowers on the floor. The rooms and accessories will float in-between. At night we will put flashlights at the bases of the flowers, which will project their shadow onto the ceiling.
Who did you collaborate with for the presentation?
We found the florist by chance! Flowers were really important to me, the exhibition needed to look perfect. I asked my friend who works at See by Chloé and she told me that one of the fitting models now started her own flower shop. The girl is Marta, and she only has the best seasonal flowers.
Images Lin Weiqi
Words Aya Noël