The unethical practices of the fashion industry are quite known by now: from child labour to massive environmental pollution, the issues pressing our industry are growing in number. And consumers, once blind to these problems, are now reclaiming more respectful and ethical practices and conditions for both workers and the planet. Social-Work, originally founded by two New York-based Chinese designers Chenghui and Qi, is answering those needs: from codes in the garments that reveal the sourcing of the materials and the workers who’ve made them to other transparency-oriented practices, it is what fashion should be about in 2020 – sustainability and respect for human beings. Today, we speak with the current creative director, Chenghui (aka Helen), about ethics and fashion as a tool for change.
Chenghui, you founded the brand together with Qi after graduating from Parsons. What made you start Social-Work right away?
We started Social-Work because we have always been inspired by people who work behind the scenes in the fashion industry. As immigrants in New York, I feel like we have a strong perspective on showing a nostalgic story that is missing in the industry. Secondly, we have always been inspired by vintage workers and the story behind historical pieces. Social-Work can be a good representation of both.
Right now though, it’s only you at the forefront of the brand. How do you face the challenge of being on your own? What pros and cons do you find?
I think it’s actually a good challenge for both me and the brand. I get to do most of the decision-making and I have more freedom when it comes to design and creativity. Sometimes it’s harder to face the challenge, but I’m not on my own; there are people in our small team that help me and the brand. For the brand, I’d say it’s better because, in the future, we will have a more singular and clear vision.
Your work is embedded in political and social opinions. How does fashion help you to express yourself, your ideology and way of thinking?
Fashion to me has always been a platform for art, emotions and storytelling. Everything you do shows part of your identity. I think fashion is a very poetic way of finding your identity through the characters and story we are building.
Fashion, especially high-fashion, is often linked to social and economic elites. However, your approach is pretty horizontal and looks after the workers’ rights. How do rebellion, counterculture and even labour union movement inform your work?
We started Social-Work because we wanted to bring democracy into the industry, which is very hierarchical. It is more interesting to create a different dialogue. Fashion should not be just about social and economic elites, everyone has the right to appreciate it.
According to you, Social-Work aims “to bridge the cultural connection between customers and makers. It raises a social dialogue on who, where and what is behind our products.” How do you achieve so? What concrete actions do you take to do so?
We shot our Spring/Summer 2019 campaign in one of our knitwear factories with the workers in it. We have created a different social awareness by challenging traditional fashion terms. As we launched our documentary, more people started to pay attention to the makers behind the fashion scene. We want to create more social impact and transparency through the stories we create across social media. We are starting to build a database and a booklet for the customers to access when they purchase the products.
I was just gonna ask about that. The Database section on your website explains the production process of your garments and even shows pictures of the workers who’ve made them. Could you expand a bit more on this?
The Database section on our website is the first stage for building this dialogue. Each garment has a different code, and when customers visit our website, they can find this code and see the story behind the garment they purchased.
Fashion production in Asian countries such as China, Bangladesh or India is often surrounded by secrecy because of dubious working practices – aka exploitation, child labour, or the pollution and destruction of the natural environment, for example. Why do you feel the need to be vocal about these problems and transparent in your own production?
We only work with factories that treat their workers and workspace fairly. It was not about which location we were producing in; it’s more about selecting the right factories and sourcing that fit our beliefs. Therefore, you are also supporting the cycle to make the industry more sustainable. When we are transparent about our production, we are showing a part of the industry that we, as customers, should know about in the first place. It should be part of our rights as customers, so we want to create a culture around it.
For the Spring/Summer 2020 collection, your main reference is Blade Runner. You draw a relationship between the film’s replicants (human-like beings that are bioengineered) and today’s factory workers, who’re often dehumanized and treated as just machines. In what other ways has Ridley Scott’s masterpiece influenced the collection?
We have taken the colour story from Blade Runner and recreated the presentation scene as the story in the movie scene.
About the collection, you say that “the pieces draw on collective stories, evoking ideas of post-world war uniform and oriental military details.” Are you foreseeing a near future, especially in the current times of political and social turmoil around the world?
No, not really. It was more about the utilitarian design we see in uniforms.
In Blade Runner, the replicants are aware of their non-human condition and have metaphysical questions and concerns. How do philosophy and ‘larger-than-life’ questions inform your work and practice?
There should always be a deeper concept in all fashion developments. First, it creates depth to the work and creates more content for people to digest. Secondly, it gives the brand a strong story to convey, so people will remember it. To me, a great concept isn’t just a seasonal story, it’s a reflection of everyday life.
The fashion industry is shifting towards a more sustainable future and is including greener practices, processes and materials. However, there’s a lot of green-washing too. What’s your take on this? Do you feel like big companies and brands are really investing in more eco-friendly practices and transforming the ways they work and produce?
We stand for social transparency and we want to create a culture around fashion democracy. We have only worked with selected companies that produce less footprint and point out their sourcing materials clearly – even if sometimes that means we need to spend more money on material or even on producing it.
Tell us more about your upcoming future. What are you currently working on and how do you expect to surpass fashion’s sphere to create real change in everyday society?
I think the future of Social-Work will be about focusing on collaborating across different fields. We’re currently working on our new season collection and on new marketing strategies to make the brand’s ideas more impactful.