The story behind Chinese designer’s stunning knitwear, a London Fashion Week stand-out

Zhi Chen’s knitwear for her i-am-chen label made waves in London. She recalls the moment that turned her on to knitting, and how David Hockney’s art inspires her

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 7:11pm

Zhi Chen is producing clothes under her i-am-chen label that will make you sit up and pay attention. Her designs stand out for their sheer beauty, originality and vibrancy.

It’s quite a feat to break through the ennui that can overwhelm onlookers during London Fashion Week, but that is exactly what the native of Xiamen, a coastal city in southeast China, achieved.

Silk, chinoiserie and old-world silhouettes

Chen spoke to the Post in London to reflect on the hectic days surrounding her showing at Fashion Scout, the UK’s largest independent showcase for emerging and established design talent during London Fashion Week, where i-am-chen won the Fashion Scout SS19 Merit Award.

The accolade was created to develop new designer businesses on a global level, and previous winners include Eudon Choi, David Koma, Han Wen and Xiao Li.

Her striking, superfine knitted pieces are already stocked in more than 30 stores globally, including Browns Fashion, Lane Crawford and Desperado. Next year will see a push into the United States market.

Chen said her eureka moment occurred quite late in her design training when she came across an old knitting machine on the Shepherd’s Bush campus of the London College of Fashion, where she was studying for her master’s degree.

A helpful technician showed her how to use it and she was intrigued to see the speed with which a swatch of fabric was produced.

She realised this was what she was looking for, and ever since, she has been pushing the boundaries of knitting technology. This season, she is using the finest silk knot, produced on an 18-gauge knitting machine.

The clothes look fluid and effortless and her mixing of chunkier yarns with delicate silk adds interesting texture to each piece.

She loves the precision and efficiency of the machines, but has to work with several factories, as no one outlet is equipped to produce the diversity of yarns she uses.

Chen did not set out to study design, even though she had a flair for art. In the classroom, she was always the student chosen to illustrate subjects on the blackboard.

“In my parents’ opinion, in line with most people’s thinking at that time, fashion design was not considered a ‘proper’ job,” she said. “They came from a generation that didn’t have a lot of choice in what they wanted to do – the first priority was survival. My mother was talented in calligraphy and my dad was also very artistic, but their jobs were in software and engineering. In fact, my dad was the first generation to do coding with computers as he majored in maths – and I think that is why I love technology so much.”

Thus, in line with expectations, she set out to study engineering in Xiamen.

However, she quickly realised that her heart was not in this subject. “I was really bored and felt if I kept doing what I didn’t like I would regret it for my whole life,” she recalled.

She made the bold decision to quit and start again. Chen attended drawing classes for six months and then, after passing the university entrance exam, enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program for fashion design at Donghua University in Shanghai. In her second year, she had the opportunity to study in London as an exchange student at the London College of Fashion.

The year in London, she said, was “the darkest time in my life”. She had to master technical skills such as making patterns and sewing, which many of her fellow students had already learned in foundation courses. She was also working on her English and studying for the IELTS exam.

“During that time I slept for just four hours a night and didn’t even have time to enjoy the city,” she said.

I want to break the stereotypes about what knitwear can be and push the capabilities of the machine to the maximum
Zhi Chen, fashion designer

But she got through, and after completing her bachelor’s degree program, Chen won a place to study at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York.

There she found she was more suited to being a hands-on designer than a conceptual thinker and so, after 12 months, she decided to do her master’s in fashion design and technology at the London College of Fashion.

She found when she was studying fashion that she had a natural ability to use colour, but it wasn’t until she did her master’s graduation collection that she started incorporating colour into her designs.

In her latest collection, blocks of flaming orange or brilliant deep red juxtaposed with intricate wavy lines and stripes works in very dynamic, spontaneous way.

Chen describes her flat knit designs as “a combination of the complex and the simple” and her approach as minimalist. The bulk of the work is in the preparation stage.

She writes computer programs for machines to create densely knitted fabrics that can be manipulated like woven materials.

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“Usually, the development time for one piece is two months”, she said. However, once the program and shape is set, the actual making of the garment is quite fast and simple.

She recognises that her early study of engineering has shaped her appreciation of the technology and technique that go into her intricate designs.

She is inspired by the work of British artist David Hockney, known for colourful pop art.

“When I look at his work, I feel pure delight. I know he puts a lot of serious thought and effort into his art but when you look at it you just feel really happy. When people look at my designs I don’t want them to think, ‘Oh, there’s so much going on’ – I just want them to feel lighthearted.”

For the spring/summer 2019 collection, she took inspiration from Xiamen.

“I remember the summer I spent in a fishing village when I was studying drawing at art school. Outside the window was a huge green papaya tree and I clearly recall the dappled sunlight. At this time I also saw a film called The Scent of Green Papaya, and all these memories went into my designs. Each collection comes from part of me and is related to my experience,” she said.

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Asked about her vision for the future, she said: “I want to break the stereotypes about what knitwear can be and push the capabilities of the machine to the maximum.”

Chen is making her mark internationally.

Commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to create a pencil skirt for its exhibition “Is Fashion Modern?”, she was honoured to have MoMA curator Paola Antonelli wear her design.

She won the Business Potential Award at Shanghai Fashion Week this year and is a finalist for the 2018/19 International Woolmark Prize, which will be awarded in February next year.