Every fashion designer has their raison d’être. Some set out to reimagine our unconscious bias of fashion, while others come to define a movement.
Kai Ting Chen is a Taiwanese designer who dares to embrace our humanity through fashion. Her collections serve as self-reflection, tackling subjects as diverse as the Nan King War of 1937 and our own vulnerability. Her award-winning collection, Fit & Vulnerability, combines Asian streetwear with New York flair and puts Chen’s personal philosophy at its heart.
We sat down with Kai Ting Chen to find out what inspired her latest collection, the importance of embracing vulnerability, and where her next design inspiration might come from.
Your most recent collection draws on the concept of exploring vulnerability through fashion. What does embracing vulnerability through fashion mean to you?
What kind of clothes will make you feel vulnerable while wearing them? As a fashion designer, I use fashion to show my artistic statement. I want to explore the subtle relationship between clothing and vulnerability.
My inspiration is Taleb’s book ‘Antifragile’, with its philosophy not to fight against our vulnerabilities but to accept them. Accepting our vulnerabilities will eventually make us stronger.
I found a quote while doing my thesis research that sums it up well, that “clothing is the closest object to our bodies, if without them, we will feel a sense of vulnerability”.
It took some trial and error to bring this concept into design. Storytelling plays a vital role in bringing our vulnerability to light.
The whole collection focuses on four stages – birth, wrecking, mind-changing, and integrity. My personal experience is integrated into the DNA of this storyline. It reflects the vulnerability I saw after a health scare with my grandmother. I turned a fear of losing someone I loved into a source of inspiration. Radiographs that had scared me to look at were seen through the lens of potential material options.
Embracing vulnerability turned this collection into a healing process for me. The white skirt collapsing into a blend of dark printed suits acts as a metaphor for accepting vulnerability and moving on. My grandmother’s radiograph became three different prints, making her a part of my design journey.
My favourite part of designing this collection is that it serves as self-reflection. I conquered my fears during the pandemic and grew with the development of this collection.
I am not afraid to reveal my vulnerability and let everyone know my story. I’ve chosen to embrace my trauma.
Do you think the intersection of human emotion and fashion produces more creative designs than superficial trends? How can exploring emotions through fashion lead to more meaningful designs?
Designs that create fashion through emotions and stories will resonate with people. If you’re touched by your own design, people will be touched by your work. We can’t underestimate people’s intimate perspectives.
My personal stories and experiences are my inspiration. I’m a storyteller. I’m willing to share my stories and my scars. The pandemic has brought us all face to face with our vulnerability as it has touched every aspect of our lives. I’ve experienced the deepest sense of vulnerability.
Consumers are more likely to hold on to garments that have sentimental value or to which they have an emotional attachment. Do you think this insight could move the industry away from fast fashion and toward more meaningful consumption?
I really believe that.
If a garment evokes good feelings and memories, which one is more likely to be purchased than a fashionable piece? This is why there is always a market for bespoke and handmade products. The artisan has made it themselves and has gone on a journey with the garment or product – a journey that engages the consumer on a more intimate level. That creates a bond.
Clothing takes us on an emotional journey. Is the cliché “wearing your heart on your sleeve” still relevant in a culture where social media drives fashion trends?
The most important thing is to stay true to yourself and express that in the right way. There’s too much advertising that panders to sentimental values to get the audience’s attention, but the truth is – if you’re genuine, people can see that, and they can engage with it.
When we’re willing to share our weaknesses and even make them fashionable, it creates a stronger bond with our audience and brings meaningful and positive energy to the society.
In your earlier collections, you focused on emotionally charged historical events, particularly the 1937 Nan-King war. Is this a motif you plan to revisit in future collections?
I’m very interested in historical motifs and focus on events like the Nanjing Massacre. I’m willing to explore other historical events with controversial themes, such as Taiwan Transitional Justice. Although these motifs are heavy, I believe they raise awareness of anti-war and humanity.
I consider fashion design as a medium of transmission and want to convey contemporary social issues to make people think differently. My last collection was about anti-war. I wanted to make people think about the paradoxical aspects of war and how we need to empathize with others, respect them and cherish peace.
I plan to explore contemporary issues – perhaps the negative effects of technology, climate change, or the modern plagues of hypochondria and anxiety. Do people live healthier and happier lives when capitalism is rampant? The ambivalence between the two sides deserves further exploration.
I strive to infuse my designs with deeper cultural thinking. The next collection will show my uniqueness as a designer and make people think about contemporary issues.
Chen Defines Her Design DNA
Every designer has their hallmark. Chen defines her design DNA with a focus on humanity and emotion at the forefront. This comes at a time when society and the fashion industry are facing new challenges – from sustainability to ethical production to addressing socio-economic issues.
Kai Ting Chen is a designer for our times, confronting us with the vulnerability of our humanity.
Written by Aine Lagan