What’s the concept behind Social-Work? Qi Wang: “Back in the ’60s, in China, everyone wore uniforms. Uniform meant unisex – everyone was the same. Living during the Great Cultural Revolution also meant that you weren’t looked at as an individual: you worshipped the government and you were employed by the government as a group. The concept of not being defined by gender, in particular, is rooted in all of our designs.”
Why call your brand Social-Work? Chenghui Zhang: “We put a lot of emphasis on workers’ rights and production transparency. Each of our garments has a specific label and code that you can search on our website and it will tell you who made it, where it was made and how long it took. The name also bears a connotation of China and reflects that we are part of a movement and conversation about our culture and community.”
What was the inspiration behind the spring/summer 2019 collection? Zhang: “We referenced two contrasting social and political changes: the youth-oriented counterculture movement in the West and the Great Cultural Revolution in China.
“We were fascinated by how they both happened at the same time in history on opposite sides of the world. In the West, there was freedom, a boom of new lifestyles and fashion. In China, the importance of individualism was undermined and there was a national right, enveloping the people in a kind of terrorism.”
Wang: “We also took a lot of references from George Orwell’s book 1984. The main character is censored and controlled, and eventually persecuted by his own individualism.”
Referencing the Cultural Revolution could be deemed as controversial. What do you say to critics? Zhang: “Our parents were born during this time, and our grandparents were alive and worked for the government. One of the reasons we were inspired by our country’s military and political history was because our families were present in this environment. We understand that our concept is sensitive in China, and that some people won’t like or understand it.”
What China-specific details have you incorporated into the collection? Zhang: “We used a range of industrial materials, like rubber, and recognisably Asian, kimono-style silhouettes to drive home our concept. We also used a lot of ‘China Red’.
“It’s the red that’s in our national flag, and was used in a lot of propaganda posters in the 60s era. It’s also the colour of the scarves that followers of Chairman Mao wore around their necks as a sign of allegiance.”
Wang: “Our national flower is the plum blossom, so we used that as a graphic throughout the collection, too. It represents our spirit and is a reminder that we are – and will always be – Chinese designers.”
Why launch the brand in New York over Hong Kong or Shanghai? Zhang: “It’s easier for us to talk about controversial subjects and connect with audiences in America. I think from there, it’s more likely that we’ll be understood in China. Many people at home, even our own families, don’t understand the importance of what we’re trying to do yet.
“In terms of political references, I think we are more free to comment and see certain situations in China because we don’t live there. History books in every country only tell a part of the story, and you often don’t see the bigger picture until you leave and interact with other parts of the world.”
What are the biggest obstacles facing Chinese designers? Zhang: “The trade between China and other countries is really limiting for young designers, because the tax is very high and makes it hard to afford the best materials.
“As a country, we’re famous for knocking off other designers and copying things, but right now we have a lot of emerging and new Chinese designers, too. Many of them have studied abroad and then are coming back to work in their home country.”
Wang: “We see ourselves as part of that movement too. Presenting in New York gives us the opportunity to share our story and Chinese heritage with a larger community.”