Forget knit one, purl one, Chen Zhi’s clever and colourful collections take knitwear into the future

"Although i-am-chen is a womenswear brand, its audience is not at all limited to women. In fact, a menswear boutique placed an order for the AW18 collection,“ says Hong Kong-based designer Chen Zhi of her bold, breath-of-fresh-air knitwear brand. “I believe whoever likes i-am-chen has a young heart. My customer is a bit childish, clever and courageous,” she says. “The brand can have many identities but it is certainly not solemn. Just chill!”

In February, this fresh talent showed at London Fashion Week with Fashion Scout (the UK’s largest independent showcase for emerging designers in association with Toni&Guy) where she was selected for the Ones To Watch AW18 group show. It’s there that she sowed the seeds of her relationship with the Toni&Guy team. “Toni&Guy’s Artistic Directors listened to my thoughts and incorporated them into the hair styling for the show,” she says. “Their work not only complemented the collection but elevated it too. I never had to worry about the hair and could totally focus on the show itself.”

Zhi has continued to work with Toni&Guy and label.m. With an exclusive collaboration in the pipeline, her brilliant knitwear has been used to style some of the images in Toni&Guy’s forthcoming campaign and will also appear on the catwalk at the Mainstage show. With her head firmly screwed on, there’s no airy-fairy fashion fluff with Zhi. Her aim is plain and simple: to make clothes that are both commercially viable and pleasurable to wear.

“I strive to balance creativity and marketability,” she explains. “Today’s fashion is a bit too obsessed with the stories behind the collections. It seems the works by designers must be profound and significant. I lose the initial joy of creating a piece if I have to impose a concept on it. At the end of the day, I am making garments that I believe should be worn by people.”

In today’s competitive marketplace, which often sees independent designers unable to survive, Zhi’s approach is standing her in good stead. The young graduate’s pieces can already be found in cool London boutique, Machine-A. While Zhi might make use of a colour palette that wouldn’t be out of place on a bouncy castle, and brings a “playfulness and light-heartedness” to her work, do not let her seemingly innocent approach fool you. A semi-finalist in this year’s prestigious International Woolmark Prize, Zhi is making a name for herself for the strength and precision of her knitwear. Inspired by the treasures she sees when visiting museums and galleries, it’s artist Alexander Calder’s pieces that truly resonate with her. “Calder’s works might appear somehow naïve at first glance; however, I am deeply impressed by how smart they are. Calder’s ‘Mobile’ sculptures maintain a delicate balance and are cleverly crafted. When I look at his art, I feel happy, relaxed, and also intrigued.”

Much like the Pennsylvanian sculptor’s work, there’s a lot more to Zhi’s designs than pretty patterns and bright colours. Woven into every piece are lashings of technical nous where the near seamless construction is matched in ingenuity only by the intricate fabrics, which she too develops. And people are taking notice: one of her knitted skirts is currently on show as part of The Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’ The New York Times reported, “The structure of the pencil skirt is considered. It usually had 20 components, making assembly laborious; Chen Zhi’s Lycra-angora prototype has only three and is wrinkle-resistant.” Growing up in Xiamen, China, Zhi was lucky enough to have a creative left side of her brain that was as strong as the logical right side.

“Ever since I was a little kid I’ve compulsively gone after beautiful things, but I happened to be fairly good at maths,” she says. “I never really thought about going into fashion as it was seen as unconventional.” Initially studying engineering at university she dropped out after a year to pursue fashion, studying at Parsons School of Design in New York and then the London College of Fashion. She graduated with an MA (distinction) in Fashion Design Technology Womenswear last year and immediately launched i-am-chen to explore her love of cutting-edge knitwear. “Nowadays, I like to spend time in the factories to learn about the machines and discuss knitting with the technicians. I enjoy creating new textures and combining them with the i-am-chen aesthetic,” she explains.

“I love the precision that the machine enables. Though I also like handmade garments, I hope that my works are made differently from the past.”Now, after what has been a rollercoaster year, Zhi is trying to settle into relative normality. “I finally started reclaiming some life recently,” she admits. “I got a cat, and a gym membership that I actually use!” However, it’s the calm before the storm of London Fashion Week SS19, where she’ll enjoy her first solo catwalk show. Zhi also has ambitious plans for the future.

“I want to reveal the capability of knitting that has never been fully appreciated... and be a pioneer in the application of knitting not only in clothing, but also in accessories and furniture.” We think the treadmill might just have to wait.
  • Words: Miriam Bouteba