The surreal designs of Susan Fang remind us humans about our deeply instinctive connection with nature. Sourcing her inspiration from broken flowers, sliced fruits, water droplets and so much more, she has innovated techniques that not only give a liberating touch of nature but are also future-forward and sustainable. The immaculate world of Fang's designs consists of soft pastel colours and airy constructed architectural silhouettes, that tenderly move and melt away with the wind. Having graduated from Central Saint Martins not long ago, the young designer runs her brand between Shanghai and London, adding hints of both cities in the DNA of her brand.
How do you think you have changed as a creative since starting your first steps into fashion and after graduating from Central Saint Martins? Did you happen to have any life-changing experiences or lessons that shaped the Susan Fang we know today?
I think deep inside I don’t feel changed at all, I interned at Celine and was a womenswear trainee at Stella McCartney after I graduated because I really wanted to experience something entirely different from how I always was at CSM, which I enjoyed most to be entirely conceptual. Celine and Stella were extremely successful brands especially in 2015 when I graduated, I learned the importance of having a strong vision to create a unified collection, and the importance of commerciality. I learned so much and in the end I realised I missed what I loved the most and what I always sustained at school, to have that sense of freedom to create, to be experimental and conceptual.
You always manage to find inspiration in the most interesting and exciting things such as movements of the warm Spanish wind, Alexander Calder’s work, mathematical concepts, studies of I-Ching, the law of nature, Chinese pictographic words, fractals, Josef Albers’ colour theory. Can we more talk about these influences?
I think they are innate because I grew up in multiple countries, before going to CSM I only got to stay in one city or country for 3 years max, often for just 1 year. And because of the cultural differences I experienced a lot of misunderstanding and being misunderstood. Then I found the beauty of it, [the need for] simple perception and perspectives and [navigating this] became a consistent inner outlet for me I expressed through multimedia and art. Then arriving at CSM the tutors there give you trust and complete freedom to express yourself. Everyone was finding their style, we were very diverse but many times unified in what we felt was beautiful. And that really interested me, what causes our attraction to design and what makes an illusion of an appearance. Looking at Josef Albers’ colour theory it answered that everything is relative, it's a combination of harmony and balance to create meaning, looking at I-Ching it gave a serene answer of how Nature is continuously changing but through a pattern. And it was when I stood infront of the Plane tree in the garden of Alhanbra in Spain, the leaves shimmering through the light and warm wind, I became mesmerised and realised the answer to beauty is Nature, because we are all born from Nature and nothing can surpass the beauty of nature. Thus this became the beginning of our entire brand vision, since my graduate collection Air-Flip, a collection with each look designed through different movements, each collection begins with Air. Just how Fractals the formula for nature connects us all invisibly, and like Alexander Calder’s mobiles, creating the calm influencing wind, we are all connected invisibly together. Each of our collections is a exploration of that, whether it is the current emotional time during COVID, or a surreal understanding of time, self-love, what we do is explore and try to understand the beauty of the invisible.
What do you think your clothes tell about you as an artist?
I think our clothing has a sense of freedom, it's gentle but has a rhythm, just like our campaigns, our process, our themes, we go with the flow. We hope everything feels alive. It can have movement, it can have space. It is very 3D and creates a space to invite imagination. For example, our air-weave the textile I invented for my first collection is a 9 layer hand weave, allowing it to flow form 2D to 3D, it is ever-changing to the wearers body, and one size to fit all. It allows the wearer to feel very free, when she twirls the dress enlarges with her. Our bubble accessories, which are the beaded crystal glass jewelry that’s entirely transparent, allows the involvement of its surroundings and of its contents if it's a bag. Its transparency makes it undefined and only becomes defined temporarily, when worn. I hope the item is always unique for the wearer and owner, whether is is our handmade layered organza feather embroidery dresses, or hand stitched airflower dresses using prints drawn with flowers and vegetables, every piece is layered with emotions and stories. They carry the energy of our hearts through our hands that we create with. We hope there is a strong feeling of life.
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Can you tell us about your creative process when you are starting to create a new collection? How do you start building a certain concept of the future collection?
Each collection is quite different, but we try to allow chance to impact our process, just as the changes in nature can never be controlled, we follow a generic path and welcome surprises to come to us and guide us to completion. For example, our most recent collection Air-Love, is about self love, a reminder the strongest love should be self love. Covid is a very emotional time for us and many may experience breakups or loss of important love. Thus I began with the print, using broken roses as paint brushes I drew more than 50 paintings made by roses, to represent broken love. My mum and I then used cut open vegetables as stamps, such as onions, peppers, potatoes, lotus, to create numerous large canvas paintings. We played with the pattern created by natural shape of the vegetable. We photographed and then printed them on soft tulle, we cut into strips then hand tacked gathered and layered the material to look like balls of flowers. In the new technique we call air-flower, a sustainable design technique to create different geometric voluminous forms that look like clouds, gardens or trees and feel delicate and soft. When we make these air-flower dresses, we can only plan a generic colour and shape, then we have to make them like sculptures, we have to follow the flow of the geometric pattern, and design through the making. It is very organic and we can create the best results through this. Then considering the show as the way to show our brand world and main message of the collection, I created large heart clouds, they were 9 metres tall and 12 metres wide. The three heart clouds made of water mist, vanished every 5 seconds like our beating hearts that can be felt but are ungraspable. It was to show a balance of sadness for this ethereal state but also a happy fantasy of its changing soft colours and gentle feathery appearance from the super fine water mist. Even for the finale, which was not so obvious for the audience, the models walked in an heart shape.
How would you describe the character or archetype of your typical wearer? How do you want them to feel rocking your outfits?
I think they can be anyone, that’s why we create transparency and space, as well as playful elements like in our knitwear's heart shaped fastenings. I simply hope they feel special and happy when they wear our clothing and most of them really do. They feel extremely special and really so happy that many of them wear our handmade dresses as their wedding dress.
Can you please tell me where does this admiration of the instinctive allure of nature come from? Even though you mostly grew up in big cities, your designs tell a completely different story.
Oh yes, as mentioned above it first started from standing in front of a Plane tree and watching the beautiful rhythm of the flow of sunlight, leaves and wind. Our bubble collection was first inspired when I first dived underwater and saw millions of air bubbles shimmering under sunlight flow and disappear towards the surface. It was so beautiful yet vanishing and I hoped to make it to something that lasts forever. So each bubble accessory, whether body accessory, bag or earring is a piece of our imagination in nature. I think it comes from all this movement when growing up. I find healing in Nature and my hometown being full of mountains lakes and bamboos, is a big part of that. Even though I haven’t stayed there long, only till the age of three. It's the same for my mum, her favorite thing is being in nature, with flowers, in the forest. We often get to eat vegetables grown in our hometown from relatives. During my childhood in Vancouver we would explore a different river or mountain every weekend, that maybe planted a seed in me for what I now find as a harbour. Maybe that is why naturally we like to go to the most natural locations in China, where there are beautiful minority people. It's both very magical and healing for us to meet new strangers in such beautiful scenery, they teach us a lot and we feel a lot of their strong energy, happiness and love with their families. It's very emotional that I sometimes forget when being in a city and I remember again when I was closer to nature during childhood.
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You have many accomplishments in your career so far, from winning the Fashion Scout Ones to Watch award to being shortlisted for the LVMH Prize, as well as collaborating with Bloom. What has been a personal high point for you? Do you have any lofty goals you'd like to achieve in the near future?
I think I am super appreciative of all the opportunities I was given and all at the the most important times. Having Fashion Scout in our first season, allowed us to have our first catwalk in London fashion week, which got us invited to catwalk in Shanghai then we got into our first three stores just three months after our show and in between we got stocked in Selfridges and contacted by Dover street market, right before our LVMH prize shortlist, which brought us to even more opportunities such as Browns, worldwide Dover Street, all the top tier stores. It was so encouraging for us as we always stayed authentic whilst challenging our own crafts. [We produced] through a small team of hand makers. Now we can involve charities in our creations working with Bloom to bring more hand making income to Yi minority mothers in poverty to support their families. I think LVMH was really something that brought us a lot, whether it was the opportunity to meet Sara Maino from Vogue Italia who provided us with the opportunity to have a sponsored catwalk during Milan Fashion week and collaborations with Swarovski. We continuously pushed ourselves to created innovative techniques and pieces every season, and were named twice for 2019 and 2020 for Forbes 30 under 30, then the Piaget Yu Prize 2021, and we had a collaboration opportunity with Instax global campaign, Oppo phone, and P&G sustainable project, we feel we are continuously learning through these opportunities with the amazing people we can meet, and also from collobarations with huge corporations. I’m not sure which is a personal high I think LVMH really brought us a lot, but we still look forward to challenging ourselves every step.
For the future one dream would be to be a creative director for a fashion house, I love handcraft and hope to be able to create collections and bigger surreal dreams through an amazing and experienced team of couture people.
Your creations are your interpretation of nature and its allure. Your accessories remind me of water drops, they’re airy and softly colourful. Can we talk more about how your fashion voice and perception of beauty were shaped? Has it changed since you became interested in fashion seriously?
Oh yes! Our accessories are exactly inspired by the air bubbles in the sea. I think nothing is more beautiful than nature and to create something of pure beauty we always have to go back to that. To sense the invisible and move forward with new creations. I feel like this never changed since my graduation, and gaining experience in different fashion houses only strengthened what I truly love and believe.
How do you balance the commercial and creative sides of your brand?
I think this balance began by chance, in the beginning our commercial product was our bubble bags and accessories. They came out just in time for the shift to people not really needing anything except their phone and our bubble bags where like unique jewelry pieces that emphasised one’s phone, and it was the product that got into all our biggest dream stores. We were able to be as creative as we wanted with just enough support from our accessories line, until around season three we slowly gained customers for clothing, then we decide to start with more apparel items lacking in the market instead of an entire range, as we felt eventually our accessories trend might fade, so we needed to slowly introduce fun new apparel creations for this transition. So we first started with some feather embroidered dresses, which were very couture and our knitwear that uses spray paint to allow each knitwear to be similar but unique in colour, and hand beading to include our brand signatures. Our knitwear slowly grew to be one of our key commercial products. Then we also felt puffer jackets are a great rare item from independent designers so we created extremely light and transparent puffers with colored feathers that link with our air-embroidery dresses. These puffers instead of enlarging ones silhouette, lengthen the body and makes it more appealing. We try to balance and inject new pieces for an entry into the market but for the majority we still keep our creativity for each new collection.
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What do you think about the digitalisation of fashion that has been currently pushed by the pandemic? How did this experience impact the future prospects for your brand?
I think because of the pandemics it really pushed us to focus on our website as well as Instagram shop which is really great for us. Because we have a lot of fun campaigns where we go on road trips in many rural places in China and this way we can tie in the brand story with our products as well. This also allowed us to see clearer our core customers, instead of through wholesale we can only kind of glimpse or guess what our customer is like from the shop's aesthetic. I think for the future, physical feelings make us feel warm, such as physical shows, but we will also focus on how it will look digitally, and if it can stand out from the rest. For example for our last season for digital London fashion week we created a video using wet collodion photography on glass, we made a story of our making process, its quite an antique way of photography black and white on glass, and felt quite surreal and our theme was the abstraction of time. Which allows the audience to see something fun and new but with a nostalgic vibe that they can relate to. Or our recent collection show, we knew we really had to bring the brand to the next level, and we just had to create an immense show set design and it really took us 3 months experimenting just the show installation for it to feel very impactful in real life but also strong in photos for social media. I think for the future we hope to build a team of strong members to work on social media, online stores and apps, to make this brand more structured and complete.
You are extremely conscious about potential damage caused by the production of clothes, you use fabric waste from previous collections, therefore minimising waste and putting to use new technologies, one of which is your own Air-Wave technique. Is it reasonable to say that one of the biggest aspirations of your brand is sustainability? How do you think the industry might evolve in the next 10 years and how do you see your brand as part of it?
I think this is strongly influenced by my mum's huge recycling habit in very small practical ways everyday, such as whenever we receive a package she makes sure everyone cuts the package on the top so it can be used as a trash bag (laughs). Our idea for sustainability really is from how we can maximise our time and effort into creativity and lessen as much waste and stock from collection 1, so we created air-wave a textile only using strips, and we chose ribbons at first, then second season was 29 prints on the same fabric also using strips, then we used yarn etc. And from this collection we will heavily move our materials not only our technique into more sustainable contents, such as sustainable puffer, sustainable leather, sustainable faux fur etc. In the past we have been including a lot of TPU material in our shoe soles, recycling dead stock marbles into customized bags, or donating fabrics for our charity project material and up-cycling within our brand to make new items, we have been moving forward with more sustainable movements in a steady and healthy way for our brand growth. I think we really think of sustainability as a push for fun and creative designs. I really think in the next 10 years, maybe all the materials the industry uses will be sustainable. I feel it will become more accessible and convenient instead of a challenge or notion people need to choose to find ways to do it, I think it will become a natural way of being, and in 10 years I think we will continue to be even more sustainable and creative.
You are quite an innovative designer; the production of your creations includes a lot of new technologies. How do you implement cutting edge tech into work? Do you have any favourite techniques you would love to use in the future?
Yes! This is really a psychic question, we actually have been contacted by a few companies for collaboration related deeply with tech, which got us thinking, and a planned fun project for end of next year will be a strong involvement with cutting edge tech but still very in line with our brand vision. This season we might also work with a 3D designer to play with some experimental tech designs. Right now I love the idea of metamorphosis, it would just be amazing one day for all our souls to be free so we can change into different beings, maybe water, maybe a flying bug, then fashion itself will become more borderless, and maybe in a way we will be more empathy. This is quite pure imagination, but I feel somehow eventually perhaps technology will reach there.
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Your textiles are the perfect blend of cutting-edge technology and serene nature, with a dash of cosmic energy. How do you strike a balance between creating soft materials that are inspired by nature while still being substantially underpinned by innovations?
For now we still rely heavily on handcraft and our recent collection we have incorporated some 3D printing designs, still resembling many elements from nature but in a surreal way. Technology made [rather than hand made] sometimes can feel a bit distant and cold, so we try to create a sense of warmth by linking it with elements more related to our brand, such a as a transparent bag with bubble handles that looks like flowing water, or a chrysanthemum bag with the leaves to hold as a lipstick bag. Each season our new fabric techniques use soft materials like organza or tulle. We try to always keep the technique innovation from the use of strips, to think of how to use something flat in different dimensions, to play with an illusion of depth in dimension and keep sustainable in technical making for strips to avoid cut off waste.
Have you ever thought about your contribution to the global heritage of the fashion industry? How you want to be remembered as a designer?
Building a fashion brand is like creating this imaginary world, and we try to build that through all sensory aspects. Now at a more unsettling time, I really hope our creations can give a sense or feeling of healing, surrealism through innovation, the warmth of our campaigns and fun of our shows. I hope we can touch people’s hearts from our work and create a bright energy.
What's next for Susan Fang?
Coming up we will be launching many collaborations with different brands, one that is a luxury accessories brand, one is one of the biggest commercial brands, which we will also show menswear and kidswear with. Also a collaboration with one of my favorite shoe brands and I hope to have many more. It's a very different mindset from what we do but very inspiring to work with and it allows us to branch out our creativity into different materials and audiences, it allows our imagination to run even wilder in a totally new direction and allow us to create in ways we can’t exactly in a small team of hand makers. Also for most of the collaborations we push a strong emphasis on sustainable materials, so we are very excited to see what happens.
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