Angel Chen: How to get into Forbes 30 under 30, two years after leaving fashion college
Perpetually positive, Angel Chen knows nothing of limits. About to showcase her fifth collection since graduating in 2014, Chen is already thinking about what she will do next. And we’re not talking about next season or even next year, but in the not-too-distant future where she is already planning on taking a break from her eponymous label (once her team is strong enough, of course) to create an initiative to help promote textile designers during the different fashion weeks throughout the world.
“I’m thinking of building a platform that is beside ready-to-wear. It’s going to help textile designers get to production. It will be on the Internet, connecting them to vendors and factories,” Chen explains. Just two short years out of the BA Womenswear course at Central Saint Martins, Chen is considering the bigger footprint that she wants to make on the ever-changing fashion industry. “Every season, I have so many really cool textile designers working with me and nobody knows them. They have to hide in these big companies, probably doing something that they don’t think is that cool. It’s a really big dream for me, and my buyers tell me it’s a good idea.” This is the biggest – but not the only one – of Chen’s ideas. Another is a line of menswear for women and a line of womenswear for men, standing stringently against the gendered separation of fashion weeks. For Chen, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
“EVERYDAY I TAKE A NEW RISK, AND EVEN IF SOMETHING IS DIFFICULT, I STILL SAY YES BECAUSE I BELIEVE IN MYSELF. WE ARE THE ONES TO CREATE THINGS FOR OURSELVES – NOT OUR MOTHERS, NOT ANYONE ELSE – WE ARE THE MOST CREATIVE.”
Chen’s positivity is tangible and infectious from the offset. Having previously mentioned in an article with Wonderland that her general approach to life is to say, “yes,” to every single opportunity, it is evident that she still lives by this mantra. Not only has it led to a wide array of collaborative opportunities with the likes of Sony, Swarovski, Lane Crawford and H. Lorenzo (to name a few), but it has also just helped to land Angel a spot in the lucrative Forbes ’30 Under 30: Asia’ list. “Everyday I take a new risk, and even if something is difficult, I still say yes because I believe in myself. We are the ones to create things for ourselves – not our mothers, not anyone else – we are the most creative. I can get anything and I can achieve anything. I’ve believed in myself for a really long time,” she explains. But don’t misinterpret her confidence as arrogance, because she remains humble in her many cumulative successes. Commenting on the ‘30 Under 30’ list, she says, “I’m definitely so proud. I feel that I have to do even better now, because there are so many people watching me. The pressure is even higher. I have gone through the rest of the list and they’re all doing really well in their areas. I feel like in my own area, I’m not doing that good.” With a level of palpable confidence that supersedes her years, we could all stand to learn a lot from her self-belief system.
Currently based between London, China, New York and Los Angeles, Chen is always on the move. The heavy travelling, however, does not dampen her sprightliness. What captures this perfectly is that she likens herself to Joy, the character from Disney Pixar’s Inside Out: “I am 100% positive.” Alongside her travels, the average day for Chen is just as demanding, but she remains consistent in her glass-completely-full approach. “Everyday I wake up at 8am, I go to the studio at 9am and then I work through until 1am. It’s a really long day, but I always really, really enjoy it.” Having won the Fashion Scout award for her AW15 collection and being featured by the likes of British Vogue, i-D, The Times and The Evening Standard (again, to name a few), it makes you think about the positive ramifications of a positive outlook. It boils down to the uncomplicated example of doing something that you love. For Chen, it’s that simple.
“EVERYTIME I SHOW MY COLLECTION, I WANT IT TO BE FOUR DIMENSIONAL, INCLUDING TEXTURE AND MOVEMENT. I CAN HEAR A VISUAL. I CAN HEAR A SURROUNDING ATMOSPHERE.”
Unlike the simplicity of her optimistic outlook, Chen’s designs are clustered, playful and bold with a “rebellious character.” A creative powerhouse, Chen and her collections always begin with a very strong concept. “I don’t think I’m that good at ready-to-wear,” Chen reveals. “I’m more into art, design installations, textiles, something with more of a concept or idea,” she goes on to say. Last season’s ‘Youthquake’ – a concept coined in the 1960s by then-Vogue editor-in-chief, Diane Vreeland – has developed in its punky and playful adolescence into the next stage in the process of growing up: the angsty teenager. So, AW16 is inspired by Chinese Kung-Fu fighting, and in true Angel Chen style, she walks me through her decision from the day before to shave her entire head, leaving just a few strands of long hair, which she attributes as being characteristic of the Chinese Kung-Fu fighting aesthetic. “Recently, I’ve been pretty violent in that I’ve been watching lots of violent movies and listening to strong Punk and Indie Rock,” Chen resumes. “Because my last collection was about Punk and Youthquake, it’s continuing that but in a different story. It’s also about 80’s and 90’s subcultures in Japan and China.” Given that, moments before, Chen had just described her collections as, “definitely a reflection of myself,” the question is asked as to whether or not she was feeling angry or angsty during the design process. Before having finished being asked the question, Chen’s very quick response is: “Oh, no, no no! Definitely not angry. I’m not an angry person.” Like she said, she’s Joy from Inside Out.
In keeping with the strong concepts behind her collections, Chen’s catwalk presentations follow suit. For AW16, she proposes Kung-Fu boxing rings and trained fighters sparring with each other, instead of models walking passively down the runway. “Everytime I show my collection, I want it to be four dimensional, including texture and movement. I can hear a visual. I can hear a surrounding atmosphere. I can even see the place in my head. It just suddenly appears to me,” Chen explains. It’s a relevant topic of discussion given the currently fluctuating reality for the fashion show today. It’s no wonder then, that, with regards to design collaborations, Chen also previously said: “the further from fashion, the better.” Alongside working on the Angel Chen label, there are also a number of projects with Uber, Airbnb and H. Lorenzo. For Chen, like many others, it’s no longer enough for the fashion show to simply parade the most recent collection. Perhaps, this is exactly why Chen was featured in ’30 Under 30’; the scope of her design abilities aren’t confined to the parameters of one industry, but many.
In the same way that Chen plans on helping the fashion industry with her platform for textile designers, she also welcomes the ‘See Now Buy Now’ approach. “For the customer, it’s definitely a good thing. They see it and they want to chase it. That’s the quickest way for the customer to get the clothes,” she reasons. Despite a relative newcomer status, Chen is not scared by this change. “I think it’s a really good thing for the industry to think about taking a new turn. It will help us think what customers really want right now. Every time I release a collection, I hear from customers asking, ‘can I just buy it now?’ and ‘Where can I buy this now?” Chen does, however, admit that it’s far less possible for smaller designers like herself to proceed in this way, due to being unable to produce the units that quickly. A firm believer that a strong team is a necessity in any designer house, Chen attributes the size and strength of these teams at huge companies like Burberry for being the reason why these instant turnarounds are possible: “big designers have the team to help them produce. They also have such strong promotion ability and can just click a finger and be ready. It’s different for each individual market.” The Burberry-sphere is a different game altogether.
Having smiled profusely throughout the hour and a half, Angel Chen is a resolved optimist. Even just writing (and hopefully) reading this interview, it’s difficult to not come out of it thinking the world’s your oyster. She is unapologetically forward thinking. To be talking, at this point in her career, about the Angel Chen brand functioning without her is testament to that. And to her proactivity. The road from graduation has been full of opportunities, not that have been handed to her, but that she has seized.