Representing the creative future

PONDER.ER on fashion in Hong Kong and crashing cars on the runway

The design duo in a conversation about the differences between London and Hong Kong

For their PONDER.ER SS22 collection, Alex Po and Derek Cheng had models walking on treadmills while cars were crashing in the background. “Love for Speed” is the duo’s latest sartorial output of their genderfluid label, founded in 2019. Chequered prints, an array of colours, and tight fits that leave little to the imagination meet accentuating belts, symmetrical patterns, and dynamically shaped sneakers.

As with all their work, the two designers question what the relationship between gender and fashion is. In order to understand their vision and find out where their inspiration comes from, we spoke to Alex and Derek about their respective backgrounds, their roles within the brand, and what menswear can and should be.

Lucile Guilmard: Congratulations on your collection. We’d love to know the inspiration behind it, how did it all come about?

Derek Cheng: PONDER.ER is really based on me and Alex. We are not very masculine boys based on traditional social standards. For every season, we look for a concept that focuses on some stereotypes of masculinity. The latest season is looking at the relationship between gender and speed. We feel that a lot of the more traditional concepts, especially in the media, link men to things that are risky and fast in terms of speed, like car racing. Engaging in sports or anything that could potentially be dangerous is often a way to show off masculinity. Our theme is based on that, and we looked into vintage car-racing suits, venues, and colours. We try to use our old methods by reinterpreting those elements into something soft and genderless. Throughout our career, that is what we have been playing with.

“We are from Hong Kong which is not a free place like London. Our families are quite traditional, so what they taught us is that men should be masculine.” – Derek Cheng

LG: There is so much to talk about. So, you’re addressing toxic masculinity here, right?

Alex Po: That’s the starting point of our brand. We wanted to create a menswear brand that is suitable for all kinds of boys. We don’t fit into that category of wearing masculine suits or very tailored clothes. We like it really soft and elegant. It doesn’t have a structure, it’s very neutral.

LG: Where did the desire to go against the grain come from? I guess it comes from personal experience. Have you ever felt any aggression against this concept personally? Any rejection? What’s your experience with toxic masculinity and its expectations?

DC: We have had these experiences since we were little. We are from Hong Kong which is not a free place like London. Our families are quite traditional, so what they taught us is that men should be masculine. My mum sent me to have Kung Fu lessons when I was very little to be a man, you know. Those lasted for two months. I just didn’t participate, so my mum felt like it’s a waste of money and I could stop going. There were also moments in school where a teacher would say something like, “He’s too soft.”

AP: I remember when I was around ten years old, my teacher spoke to my mum about how I was very well-behaved and academically really strong, but that I should learn how to man up a bit moving forward. That was quite hurtful, even though I was still very young. Looking back, it’s obviously really bizarre for an adult to say something like that in front of a kid. In both Asian and Western culture, I feel, men are being pushed to be a certain way. Our experience in Hong Kong, or other places in Asia, is really tainted by conservatism. Also, speaking about gender-specific issues is not very common. So that all is kind of the start of our journey.

SS22 Textiles

LG: Would or could you imagine a genderless world? Do you think that’s where we’re headed or should be headed?

DC: We should. Clothes represent a character. I don’t think it should be defined by gender. A guy can also wear a dress. Clothing is definitely traditional, but it should also fit your character and not be limited by gender.

“Fashion should certainly not be limited by gender.” – Alex Po

LG: For example, in French, we genderise language. A chair is feminine, and a ball is masculine. Do you think the concept of gender should disappear?

AP: I don’t know much about language, but fashion should certainly not be limited by gender. Underwear, I feel, should be gendered, because it has a function and needs to fit your individual body. In terms of decorative pieces, they should not be defined by what you identify as.

DC: I feel the system of differentiating genders can sometimes have more influence than we’d think. For example, the signs for restrooms. It’s a pink lady wearing a dress and a blue man in trousers. From a young age on, you see that kind of imagery and those colour associations. I think that in today’s Western culture, it is discussed more than it is in Asia. It’s not really a taboo, but people don’t really see it as an important conversation to have. With our brand, we wanted to tell these stories from an Asian perspective, even though the idea itself is universal. In general, our experiences are based on that.

LG: Your work is always very textile-based. Is there a new technique that you’ve started to explore this season?

DC: We have been doing smocking for quite a few seasons. It’s a technique usually used with womenswear, but we think it’s interesting to use it with menswear. At first, we’re smocking whole shirts, so a big piece becomes really fitted to the body. What we like about this process is how it can transform one object into another. It works well with our brand DNA. We also used a lot of prints this season to create pleats. A new technique we used this time is called nylon-knitting. We cut leftover fabrics that we still have into stripes and use the nylon to crochet bags and vests. Next, it’s being pressed, so that it becomes flat, and then it also gets a print. I think we will explore that more in the future as well.

“We are using our leftovers for sampling, and doing a proper production with leftovers is difficult.” – Derek Cheng

LG: How could you produce something like that in factories?

DC: It’s not super sustainable in terms of production. We are using our leftovers for sampling, and doing a proper production with leftovers is difficult. What we do is that stripes are cut from fabric and people crochet them into vests and bags.

AP: We’re trying to work with factories that have a bunch of leftovers already because every factory must have excess materials. That’s what we’re looking into at the moment. I think it would be perfect for the technique we’re using.

LG: I’d love to talk about you two as a design duo. How did you meet? When did you realise that you have to start something together?

DC: We met at school, we both went to Central Saint Martins. We were the only two from Hong Kong. There are not many fashion people from that city anyway. At first, we weren’t really close, because we are not from the same foundation course. I was hanging out with my friends, and he with his. Later, we ended up meeting through mutual friends and found out that we had a lot in common. It was during placement year that we started living together. Not romantically, by the way.

AP: Our tutors thought we were a couple.

“We always gave each other really honest feedback. That way, we started to have this collaborative relationship.” -Derek Cheng

LG: You wanted to make that clear, like, “By the way, we are just really good friends!”

DC: Exactly. We just worked really well together. Even when we were working on our final year collections individually, we just had a good time together working alongside one another. The collections themselves were very different, but what we both love are textiles and pushing boundaries of what menswear can be. We know that the work of the menswear students is more – and I don’t want this to sound like a diss – on the traditional side, usually. So, we want to push that and see what menswear can be. That’s the biggest common trait we share. We always gave each other really honest feedback. That way, we started to have this collaborative relationship. After graduation I went back to Hong Kong, while Alex went to the Royal College of Art to do knitwear. This is why knit is a crucial part of our work and why there are many interesting net-like structures in our products.

AP: I think it was 2017 when we both went to Shanghai Fashion Week and met a lot of other people from different pathways, and they had started brands. Most of our friends are designers showing there, but nevertheless, we were a little disappointed, because there isn’t much menswear. When you’re young, and you start a brand, it should be forward-thinking, and not just in terms of gender. So, we thought that we could create something different. That’s how our brand started.

Photography by Oscar Chik
Photography by Oscar Chik

LG: It was a reaction to the feeling of disappointment, but also wanting to fill a gap?

AP: We were proud as well, but we felt this need for softer menswear.

DC: I think there was some great work shown at Shanghai Fashion Week. Today, they have even some international brands participating, but there is still space for genderless fashion. And brands also didn’t address gendered topics. So that was definitely a trigger for me.

LG: How does your practice look like? How is the work divided? You mentioned knitwear, so does Alex take care of that and maybe also outerwear?

AP: Every season, we come up with a theme, and we decide on the base of the collection together. What kind of textile do we want to invest in, which pieces would look great, what colour palette, all that. I would say we have 30% knitwear, which is all done by myself. Basically, we choose all the details together, but the execution is done more by me. Prints and dyeing are done by Derek, who’s also more business.

DC: When it comes to the structure of the collection and the launch, we discuss that heavily together. But with designs, Alex does most of the work, because he’s really obsessed with garments. He knows about construction and how to produce to a high standard. For me, I am more into branding and marketing both the products and the brand.

LG: The roles have been divided naturally, and you both do what you prefer. I think it’s always helpful to have a business-minded person on board. I would also love to talk about the set design of your show, which was quite epic. The car crash, models walking on treadmills – who came up with it?

AP: The development started with our short film. We launched during Paris Fashion Week, and the film itself is about gender, speed, and also aggression. We really wanted to continue with this theme for our Shanghai Fashion Week show as well. Obviously, we had a lot of help with executing the set-up, but the curating we did ourselves. We have a set producer, who helps us to make it happen.

“We are always looking for new, interesting, sustainable practices that can be incorporated into our work.” – Alex Po

LG: Where did you find the cars you crashed?

AP: They were from scrapyards, just some abandoned cars. We had to pay for them, and for the Shanghai show, we actually bought the car. Not expensive – 400 to 500 GBP.

LG: Could you drive the cars?

AP: No, they didn’t have engines, if I remember correctly. Lifters needed to bring the cars to the show space.

LG: Insane. We quickly touched on sustainability before in terms of the technique you’re using and how that works with production. Could you talk about how you look at sustainability in general?

AP: A lot of our work is very experimental in terms of textile and garments. At this stage, sustainability isn’t a top priority, but obviously, we think about it when creating pieces for our customers. Sustainability is about not overproducing and having designs that are well-made, considered, and customers can keep them forever. We try to work with sustainable materials and see what options there are. For example, with nylon or, more recently, cloud wool. It’s a new material developed by two Brits based in Germany. It’s a non-woven wool material, that saves a lot of energy in the production process. We discovered it at a fair in London. We are always looking for new, interesting, sustainable practices that can be incorporated into our work.

DC: When we’re choosing yarns or fabrics, we always look for sustainable options. But with our techniques like smocking and heat-pressing, there are a lot of limitations when it comes to fabric choices. Nevertheless, we try our best. For example, we don’t use any plastic bags. For our packaging, we use bags that can be dissolved in water.

AP: Considering all the yarns and fabrics we’re using, we definitely aren’t 100% sustainable. Yet, we always try to make sensible choices. And I think there are many things that people don’t even know exist.

DC: Once the pandemic is “over”, we would like to explore more options. Right now, we’re stuck in Hong Kong. We did our best to choose wisely, but I am sure there is more outside – Europe, Japan, places like that.

“I think we had never really realised how many creatives and possibilities are in Hong Kong.” – Alex Po

LG: I wanted to ask how locations are influencing your practice. You’ve been in London, you showed in Paris, now you’re in Hong Kong. Would you want to be based anywhere else?

DC: We’re based in Hong Kong due to our families.

AP: Without Covid-19, Hong Kong is actually quite convenient. It’s linked to many actors and actresses from China. It’s right next to mainland China, but very open and connected to the rest of the world. It was an interesting time for us being stuck here because we could see which local creatives we could collaborate with. We just finished a project with the Hong Kong Ballet, designing their costumes. I think we had never really realised how many creatives and possibilities are here. Obviously, London is fantastic, and we learned so much there. I think Hong Kong is often seen as this overly commercialised place, even for us. Due to Covid-19, we had to be here, and I think we managed to connect with a lot of great people.


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