A CONVERSATION WITH ZIGGY CHEN
by Marlo Saalmink
Across the sea. The others gesticulate. It ain’t far, sweet sailor. It ain’t cold. It takes so little. Just reach out. Extend your slender arms. As our fingertips interlock, the world seizes to turn. Arrested in its perpetual motion. Slashing rains crusade the towering waves. For a moment, we belong. Together. The sea as our silent witness. Lifting us into the seasoned salty winds. United. Lost. Until found again.......Our world is changing. And as Atlas truly shrugs, we wonder what is left of it. To instill some order in the chaos, we must remember our own heritage. You cannot speak of what is to come, if you are unaware of the journey that led you here; today. Amidst our contemporary technopolis, Ziggy Chen mans a remarkable bastion of quiet creation. Inside, we find a driven man, polite, sincere, outspoken, with a sense of truthful purity. Ziggy walks at his own pace, opens the doors he likes and follows his instinct. His creations are singular in their precise finishes, yet maintain a raw sense of bewildered hunger for thoughtful craftsmanship and honest sartoria. From his Shanghai studio, the following conversation unfolded over the past month...
Layman. We all have taken elements from our past, in order to reconstruct our future. What lessons did you learn as a youngster?
I grew up in the 1980’s, the period of my Primary and Secondary school, after which I worked for a year before enrolling into university, back in 1990. The 80’s is the period that remains as the most special and memorial for me. As the government introduced the policy of reform and opening-up, the country was suddenly flooded with countless of fresh things such as rock music, jeans, Sci Fi Movies, the Walkman, martial arts novels, Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud... The stimulation and energy back then, simply is unforgettable as has deeply influenced me on every aspect, naturally helping me to form opinions on a variety of things. This kind of massive stimulation completely surpassed so-called ‘‘education’’. It wasn’t until becoming more middle aged, that I suddenly came to realize that by only embracing these stimulations, we thought so little of our own culture and tradition. Now, we need to embrace the traditional beauty of China with our entire hearts.
Heretic. We could not be here, without history. Is there a particular dynasty that inspired you?
Song is the dynasty, I particularly admire among all different dynasties in China. Each dynasty represented a distinctive understanding on beauty. I’d rather not discuss this matter from a historical nor philosophical aspects as the aesthetics speak for themselves. To me, from the reserved and implicit way of paintings to simple and elegant porcelains, the aesthetic of the Song dynasty represents the truest beauty of China.
Pawned. Fashion is the one of most re-cycled universes. How do you see this?
Personally, I do not think this is such an important matter. To me, garments and fashion are two different things; Fashion as an commercial industry requires a constant update, it tells us that we need new trends, new design, new stimulations etc.. But on the other hand, the very bodies of ours that wear the garments have not changed at all, which surely makes it challenging for designers. That is precisely why this industry needs a concept, stories and styling in order to drive sales. During past few years, I have been thinking; there is such an excessive amount of clothes in this world, trends are changing faster than ever, which results in even more garments. Essentially, we do not need that many clothes, but maybe people need fashion? So, therefore it would be great if you can find a piece from a decade ago that is still wearable today. I never followed trends and I still do not. Instead, I am always fascinated by things with traces of time, because the beauty that is created by time is exquisite. As a matter of fact, a garment can be worn for decades and it obtains a certain kind of beauty. Hopefully, the garments I create will be worn for a long time too.
Plafond. To speak is to listen. Is fashion part of a sincere conversation?
People tend to judge things by appearances and that is part of the reason why garments have become important in the society. Having said that, it may be true that dressing would lead you to a conversation with people around you, but I personally doubt the authenticity of it. I often have such contradicting thoughts; my job is to create clothes, but there is always a part of me questioning the importance of fashion, because obviously there are numerous things that are of more importance. Besides, judging something/someone only by its appearance is far from enough. I think fashion is not so important after all, a person with a strong heart does not need an externally added value. As for aesthetics, I believe everyone has different tastes and interest. These are the only things that can be represented by the clothes you choose. So I find it a little strange to see people who think they can represent fashion, in other words, so-called fashion ambassadors. Just to give you an example, I like Steve Jobs and Marc Zuckerberg for their attitudes towards fashion.
Tangible. If we turn to the actual garments, if we look at your process, how do you approach your change of path and the initial research required?
Well, I decided to create garments only after turning 40 and at that time I realized I had forgotten much about pattern-making and sewing techniques as it had been too long since I left school. The only thing I had, was a strong desire for creation. So I had to start over when I finally made up my mind to pursue this path. I went and researched intensively on a vast amount of antique garments, from European men’s coat in 17th centuries to Chinese long shirts in 1920’s, then Japanese boro to British military wear during WWI. The process was extremely intense and satisfying at the same time. Also, spending a lot of time with patternmakers and seamstresses provided me with another angle to look at garments. For a fashion designer or a garment maker, techniques like construction and tailoring are like the language by which they express their ideas and attitudes towards garments. Therefore I wanted to find my own way of expression through a continuous process of trial and error, by implementing/testing different techniques and methods.
WWW. Quickness, instant instigators, fast-paced livelihoods, where does time go...Do you feel that we need to relate differently to the world around us?
It is not just the fashion industry.....The whole world is going way too fast. Everyone is waiting for the new things, but what are the new things? Everyone is waiting for a so-called trend, but is the trend more important, or are personal identities? I do not have the ability to change the world, but I can surely walk at my own pace, because I believe that everyone should have their own personalities and fashion belongs to people’s identity. Everybody should have and develop their own way to contact with and relate to the world around us.
Origin. ‘Made in China’. What does this symbolize today?
Personally, I have not given too much thought about it. If we look at our garments, where they are made is not really that crucial, but it has more to do with the convenience for quality control. Our textiles are developed and produced in Italy and Japan because we know the people who aesthetically speak the same language and it is easy to communicate my ideas to them. On the other hand, both the sample and bulk production are conducted in our Shanghai studio, because I live here and it is convenient for me to check the quality on a constant basis. Besides this, I have developed a deep emotional connection with all my staff here and they have a vivid idea about my standards and what I want to achieve. As a matter of fact, we tried to produce some garments in Italy once, but it did no work in the end as I was not able to be around and check.. To be honest, I am not concerned about where its made, but how things are made.
Logic. In architecture each line has a function. Do you feel related to this dogma?
In the process of pattern making, I have only one goal – to follow the lines and shape of the human body. When it comes to the actual construction of the garments, there begins a dialogue between all these lines and the human body. That being said, each line surely has a fuction and I do feel related to this dogma.
Male. How would you curate a sincere menswear wardrobe?
I would simplify it and improve the efficiency. Before my 40’s, I had all kinds of clothes in my wardrobe, then one day, I suddenly realized that I had too many and that majority of them were not worn so often. Furthermore, it was highly time-consuming to find the clothes I wanted to wear. Then I decided to pack up everything that was less necessary and kept only the frequently worn pieces. As the years passed by, I must say I am most content with the result. All you need to do is to understand your own style, simplify the color palette and minimize the types of clothes. My own wardrobe is categorized into 3 types: daily-wear which includes coats, blazers, shirts and pants; roomwear such as hoodies, t-shirts and pants that are mostly made of washable jersey fabric; and active wear for running and exercise. The basic color palette is limited to black with a hint of grey, white and blue. The various types of garments are very much minimized so it saves me a lot of time when selecting. Thinking of this, it would also be a great idea to have couple of pieces of the same exact garment that you like so that you can wear them in rotation.
Revisit. Sudden changes in life, politics and history, make our world a most dynamic place. What moments have had a profound impact on your life?
Thinking back, as I mentioned, the decade of the 80’s made a profound impact on my life. I still remember clearly the scent of freedom pervaded the air, as well as all the aforementioned stimulation and shock that all those first time experiences brought me, the skinny jeans, western rock music, and the scenes of the Shibuya pedestrian scramble in Tokyo on TV, and “Futureworld” - the first Sci Fi movie I ever watched. When I go to Tokyo, I tend to stay at the Excel Hotel Tokyu in Shibuya. What I like about this hotel is, from the elevator you can have a view of these hundreds of pedestrians crossing at the same time, recalling the scene from the TV that I watched as I was a child. I think the 1980’s will be with me for my whole life. It gave me freedom of thought and a profound sense of consciousness and most importantly, these years helped me become who I am today.
Palindrome. If we consider democratic design, it being a story told, garments speaking for itself, no framework is needed. What is your relation to the pieces you develop?
The pieces I create essentially represent my understanding of beauty. They show me the embodiment of my taste and transmit my emotion and mood. I want my garments to carry my emotions and to have the ability to let others feel them too. Creating garments season after season is in fact an act to record emotion and it is also a challenge to my ego. As I start working on the new collection, I approach each step full of expectation. During the process, a kind of mutual-dependence between me and garments develops. Finally, at this realization, I calm down and keep some distance as I finish up the creation process. This process goes round and round. To me, every collection is a process of recording, researching and self-exploration.
Hail-mary. Go long, find everything you need and see for yourself what time will bring. Have you give the future much thought?
Of course. There are still plenty of things that are waiting for me to do. Those are not necessarily related to fashion, but it is about experiencing things in the world and finding out more about this intricate planet of ours.
Incapsulate. Ziggy would not be Ziggy if it had not been not for....?
I have always believed that everyone, including myself, is special and I think each person’s personality, individual taste, senses and opinions are gradually shaped by our experiences, living environment, social influences and heritage. So it is difficult to answer this from a single aspect, however, if I must choose one thing, that would be my curiosity. This is the key element that keeps me moving forward.
All images selected for S/T Magazine, courtesy Ziggy Chen studio, Shanghai, China.
A special thank you to Mr. Hiroki Osuka.