Representing the creative future

Derek Cheng: how to market your final collection while designing it

The line-up deadlines of final year BA Fashion Design students approach sooner than they probably desire. In a tumultuous time of daily Shepherd’s Bush fabric shopping, pattern cutting appointments, managing helpers and trying to organise a table top covered with empty Waitrose coffee cups, a crop of students needs to simultaneously contemplate what the visual communication of their collection will be beyond just the garments. Welcome the Fashion Design with Marketing section of the studios. Where course names womenswear, menswear, knit, print are pretty straightforward, FDM often appears to be more of a free-floating pathway, essentially aiming to prepare to start your own brand after graduation. We spoke with final year student Derek Cheng to find out how the marketing side is incorporated in his design processes, why he thinks it’s a smart decision not to start a brand right out of college, and the reason you should try to collaborate with other courses as much as possible while still being in the same building.

What are the main references that you are basing your final collection on?

I have always wanted to make my final collection based on Hong Kong, since it’s the city that influenced me so much, and we (as in Hong Kong people) often say we live in a cultural desert — a place where everything has to be practical and about money. The umbrella revolution was a very unique thing in our culture, because protesting for our rights is not something that’s very common in our city, and it was really a defining movement for our generation. The fact that the meaning of the object umbrella completely changed after the event, was probably the beginning of my collection’s development. I was determined to collect all these images of objects in Hong Kong that reflect people’s lives. I saw a collection of photos by a German photographer Michael Wolf, who captured all these ‘informal arrangements’ of objects on the streets, in the alleys and different unexpected spots within the city. I was very inspired by his work and when I went back to Hong Kong during summer, I really looked at the city quite differently, and I took a lot of my own images of interesting objects, colours and textures that reflect Hong Kong.

As you’re in FDM, how does the marketing of your fashion design work come into play?

I think the marketing side of the project comes very naturally for me, as it’s really about my own cultural background with an underlying political message. It’s very straightforward in terms of the aesthetics, the message and presentation. I think the great thing about Fashion Design and Marketing is that it’s like a taster course for people who want to start their own brands. I have worked with a few new designers and they really have to handle everything, it’s really not just about the clothes! However, I think one thing that I keep on telling myself is: don’t be restricted by this ‘marketing’ thing when designing. I feel like BA is probably the only time you can interpret a theme to its fullest, without really worrying about how the clothes would sell.

What have you seen your classmates work on that you are enthusiastic about?

I love the fact that we are all doing things that are so different. I personally think it really helps when there isn’t a ‘womenswear’ or ‘menswear’ label on your course; it allows you to do whatever you want. I have seen someone using vacuum forming to create body parts; someone who is designing for a whole market of cool shorter girls; a collection with bouncing knit… We really get along and there’s a healthy level of competition, probably because we all have such different themes and directions that there are really no clashes at all.

Which techniques are you using?

I have been very into exploring ways to interpret textures from my images. I am combining felting with hand-weaving, which is done on a big loom. I am using laser engraving to create textures, and I am melting plastics onto fabrics. It has been a really fun process creating all these textiles!

What has proven to be the most difficult thing about creating a collection so far?

I would say that creating the textiles is easy, but thinking about how to incorporate them into the designs, and getting the balance between textile development and design development, have been my biggest challenges. It’s difficult, because you want to showcase the textiles in the most effective way, but then you really don’t want people to think that that’s the only thing you can do. I am still working on that!

Did you research any marketing strategies of other brands?

I did, it’s part of our course to produce a marketing report. I researched a few designers like Craig Green, Henrik Vibskov, Walter van Beirendonck and Aitor Throup. I think they all have created their own worlds through their work; they are all very graphic in terms of designs and presentations. I have also interviewed a few people, including an editorial associate at Business of Fashion, as well as a buyer and a salesperson at Dover Street Market, about their observations towards contemporary menswear brands. I think this also comes quite naturally for me, as I do like to read about the business side of fashion, and I am quite interested in consumer culture. One thing that’s quite interesting, is that the salesperson at DSM told me that a lot of people came in to ask for Craig’s bigger showpieces, almost like they are collecting them for an archive. The hype surrounding Craig is very different from other short-lived hypes many other brands have. And Aitor, I interned there before, and it’s amazing to see what they are doing inside the brand, and how a brand can survive for ten years through doing collaboration projects without producing seasonal collections. That’s very refreshing in this industry!

How do you decide what the right communication is for your brand?

I think because I produced a lot of my research, the communication part is again straightforward. What I am working on right now is how to bring out the political message, as it is a part of the project that’s too important to lose. I also work with Ollie Vanes, a fantastic second year Graphic Design student. We meet at school from time to time, to discuss how we can make a strong presentation for my work. I feel like a lot of fashion students, especially in CSM, might think that they can do everything better than the guys from other courses, but the truth is a lot of us can’t. And it would be a shame not to collaborate with other people when we are all in the same campus now.

Do you want to stay at CSM longer and do the MA, start your brand straightaway or work for a company?

This might change over the next few months, but I really want to gain more experience in this industry before considering applying for the MA or starting a brand. Again, I have worked with new designers before and I have learnt how tough it is to start a brand when you have no financial support and not enough experience and connections within the industry. I think probably the term ‘brand’ sounds much easier than the word ‘business’, but starting a brand is starting a new business and you really have to ask yourself questions like: “Do I have something new to offer to this already very fully occupied market?” That’s why I think it would be beneficial to actually work in big or small companies to learn more about the business first. But this is really something I try not to think about for now!