[EXCLUSIVE] Designer Angel Chen On Her H&M Collab And Staying True To Her Roots

The Swedish fashion powerhouse H&M has taken a bold step working with a young Chinese fashion designer, Angel Chen to set a new milestone establishing a stronger foothold in China.

Image credits: H&M



The fast fashion giant, H&M has recently collaborated with the Chinese fashion designer, Angel Chen and this is the first time the brand has worked with a Chinese designer. The H&M X Angel Chen collection was revealed in Shanghai in an event held by Tmall.com in conjunction with TMALL Super Brand Day in September at Ming Contemporary Art Museum (McaM).

The Chinese supermodel, Liu Wen fronts the campaign for the first collaboration collection H&M has with Chinese designer, Angel Chen. Image credit: H&M

The theme for the night was Kung Fu where elements of the Chinese martial arts were seen, from the decorations of lanterns in the ancient Chinese dynasty to door gifts which were fans and name tags, those you would see in those Chinese martial arts movies. The drinks were also served in the old fashioned Chinese wine jug.

One of the event highlights was the shadow act where performers were dressed up in Chinese traditional wear and performed the martial art dance. Image credit: H&M

The show started off with a series of cultural performances such as lion dance, Chinese traditional Kung Fu dance infused with modern elements which was performed by a group of Hip Hop dancers, rap performed by Chinese rappers including Dough Boy and a Kung Fu live DJ sessions. The night then went on with the showcase of the collection, which featured the signature upbeat modern styling from Angel Chen. The face of the campaign for menswear, Lay Zhang, one of the members from EXO, was present at the event and it was one of the most anticipated segments as he has a humongous followership in the country and he is the face of the campaigns of every fashion brand (almost) that you can see in the malls.

The H&M X Angel Chen campaign starring Lay Zhang, one of the super famous celebrities in Mainland China where his presence is seen everywhere. Image credit: H&M

This H&M X Angel Chen collection features Angel’s symbolic design ethos which are extremely colourful and visually loud as well as the “east meets west” which could be found in most of the pieces that are versatile with strong Chinese elements in saturated colours such as bubble gum pink, bright yellow, red and luxurious fabric velvet. The oriental embroidery details are also one of the key elements of the collection which highlights a lot of traditional dragon and Chinese floral motifs.

To Angel, this is her very least effort to make attempts to shed light the beauty of Chinese cultural arts to the world. Besides that, you can also find the the word “kung fu” in Chinese through the beautiful Chinese calligraphic strokes on sweatshirts and denim overalls.

The models paraded out and lined up on stage by the end of the runway. Image credit: H&M

A Shenzhen native, Angel Chen was born in an artistic family. Growing up playing with colours since her young age, she was heavily influenced by her father who is a colour engineer for a paint company and from there, she developed her love for arts and fashion. At the age of 17, she left home to pursue her fashion degree at Central Saint Martins in London. As a young girl from China, she blossomed into a successful young designer and constantly to be producing works that is captivating and vibrant.

The Creative Advisor of H&M, Ann-Sofie Johansson (left) and Angel Chen (right) at the event. Image credit: H&M

Upon returning to her home, she started her own eponymous label in 2015 presenting her graduate collection the year before and began her journey as a fashion designer. Her design aesthetics are known as colourful and youthful, with a cultured touch. Angel is currently based in Shanghai with offices and production studios in different major cities in China.

#TeamCleo had the privilege to catch up with the designer, Angel to talk about everything on the collection and her passion for fashion as a Chinese.

So excited to have caught up with Angel Chen (left) to talk about fashion and how it’s like running a label.

Congratulations on being the first Chinese designer collaborating with H&M!
Thank you so much!

Honestly, did you see it coming?
Not at all! How it happened was like this, on one fine day, I got a phone call and it sounded like this “Hi girl, we got this opportunity to collaborate and are you interested?” and immediately I answered yes! This is a true story by the way! But frankly, we were not getting any notices before this about the collaboration and it just came like that. Personally, I think they must have researched on which Chinese designers are resonating better with the younger audience and they were somehow led to me.

Also, what does this collection mean to you?
It definitely means a lot to me. First, I feel that it’s a complete honour to be chosen to be the first Chinese fashion designer to be able to collaborate with H&M, a well known global fashion brand, despite the fact that they have worked with other Asian designers before this. This, to me, somehow it shows that global brands like H&M starts to pay attention to the Chinese market as it is getting more and more important. Secondly, I feel that this gives me a perfect opportunity as a designer who has only been in the market for only 5 years. Through this collaboration, we get to discover new market segments and explore more business opportunities.\

“I was very attracted to the spirits of martial arts, the amazing costume designs and the sets; all these influenced me to vigorously translate that fleeting love for Kung Fu into the collection but injected with a modern energy.”

Tell us about the story behind the collection. Why did you choose kung fu as one of the key themes, is that something that is close to your heart?
When we were having discussions on the design ideas for the collection, I eagerly told them that I am hoping to explore on the themes Chinese martial arts or Kung Fu. The main reason was because that was the period where I was very obsessed with the Chinese martial movies such as The Grandmaster, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero. I repeatedly watched those few movies, where I was very attracted to the spirits of martial arts, the amazing costume designs and the sets; all these influenced me to vigorously translate that fleeting love for Kung Fu into the collection but injected with a modern energy.

If the theme was not Kung Fu, would it be something else?
Yes definitely, you probably won’t be able to find many Chinese elements or references in my own ready-to-wear line, just take my recent SS2020 show presented at Milan Fashion Week. It’s very contemporary and modern, despite the fact that there are definitely having other minority cultural design influences throughout the collection. Because H&M is a global brand and this is an international collaboration, I wish to infuse a sense of Chinese vision into it.

How would you describe your aesthetics for Angel Chen, your own label and this capsule collection with H&M?
So, when we were starting the label, we gave ourselves 3 rules to go by:
1. No black and white. Mainly because I come from a family where we specialise in paints and colours, my dad is a colour engineer artist, and his daily work is just staying in the lab inventing new colours. Hence colour is in my DNA since young.
2. I just love the juxtaposition of west meets east, with all the cultural references from across the globe which people don’t know about.
3. We hope the label will set no gender boundaries/be genderless, where everyone can dress in Angel Chen. I want the brand to be basically having no boundaries for everything; anyone can be in Angel Chen.

You can of course see these elements in the collaboration with H&M where there are bold colours, almost no gender boundaries and a very strong element of orientalism throughout, which somehow fulfil the aesthetics of my brand and H&M. Of course, there is one difference which is for my own label, I get to design all sorts of showpieces which are mainly meant for runway but for this collection I would have to consider what the mass market wants and making the design more accessible.

Would you think that it’s a challenge for you to marry designer labels and fast fashion brands?
I don’t think so. But I do feel that it’s something new for me to learn especially on the needs of the mass markets, in terms of silhouettes, fabrications, colours, pricing strategy which I could apply to my own brand in the near future.

RELATED: What Do You Know About Allsaints, The British Brand With An East London Essence?

Did you face any other challenges when designing the collection?
There were for sure. One of the biggest challenges was the timing. The entire timeline, from sealing the deal to final stage of production, the whole process only took 6 months. By right, normally, working with big brands, there is at least 24 months from zero to hero where 6 months will be taken up for just negotiation for the deal and 18 months of production. Moreover, this collection requires a total of 45 to 50 SKUS, which is quite a number in terms of production. On top of that, I was also in the mid of preparing for a few collections for different fashion weeks and invited to be in a reality show in LA, hence the timing was splitting me up, completely. That said, it was a good training ground for all of us, especially me and my team. There was no time given to fool around and we really had to deliver what was promised previously. It really made us to be very discipline now, which in a way is very beneficial for us.

What are the must-haves from this collection?
What I am currently wearing now: a full Kung Fu suit in velvet, which the sample was just something that I bought in a thrift store in Japan and I was in love with it, hence it is part of the collection. The kimono, the sequin dress, the denim jumpsuit with embroidery, all these are my super favourites. I also have a thing for embroidery where I used to pick up when I was interning in London before this.

One of Angel’s personal favourites, this sophisticated sequin dress is a must-have from this collection. Wear it with a pair of chunky moutain boots for a quirky mood. Image credit: H&M

From a designer’s point of view, would you mind to share with us on the current state of the fashion industry in China in terms of consumer behaviour and aesthetics?
The Chinese consumers, especially the younger generations, are very individualistic and opinionated. But their loyalty is constantly being put to test, they are not going to stay loyal to a brand for long and they tend to change brands consumption frequently. They are also very social media driven and like to be different. With the emergence of multichannel retailing, they are constantly exposed to the sea of brands and products where they are spoiled for choices. They are also quite self-oriented where to them, the world is revolving around them, unlike the older generations. Therefore in order to speak to them, we need to be very different in order to catch their eyes.

“We have incorporated a lot of innovative fabrics and materials, which a lot of them are sustainable, … biodegradable and water soluble.”

What are the sustainable measures or elements that have been taken when designing this collection?
Yes of course! Right before the collaboration came about, we were just busy preparing collection to be submitted to the International Woolmark Prize 2019 and in that collection, and we have incorporated a lot of innovative fabrics and materials, which a lot of them are sustainable, such as biodegradable and water soluble. Hence, I initiated the idea if we could infuse some of these new materials into this collection with H&M. So quite a few of the pieces from this collection are made with recycled fabrics and nylons and the beauty of it is, it doesn’t feel very different in terms of the touch and feel, and the pricing is affordable too. For example, the bubble gum pink furry sandals, the faux fur we used is fire resistant. Through this, we hope to convey the message where everyone should start showing some love to our mother earth by wearing sustainable garments.

The faux fur used in this collection is fire resistant as one of the sustainable materials being incorporated into garment making. Image credit: H&M

What are the new things you have learned from this collaboration which will benefit you in your future collection?
I have learned so much from this collaboration honestly. The way big brands like H&M works, to me, is a complete eye opener. They have created a system of working to ensure utmost efficiency. For example, when we do fitting for my own label, we will take a few rounds and we did not have a very strict system for it but when we do fitting with H&M, we were only given a day to fit all SKUs and that has really trained us to have extremely good discipline and work efficiently. We have to work systematically and organised everything in an organised manner, which is something new to us.

What are your future plans for the Angel Chen?
We are definitely hoping to open a new store in Shanghai and also expand our collections from 2 seasons to 4 seasons in a year, spring, summer, fall and winter. Simultaneously, we are also hoping to split the lines into womenswear and menswear more visibly in the near future. In terms of collaboration, we are carefully handpicking brands to work with, especially brands that can bring the label out of its comfort zone, in terms of styles or product categories, or even artists, it doesn’t necessary have to be a brand. But we will be unveiling a new collaboration very soon with a sportswear brand, beginning of next year.

You can now shop the collection exclusively here and H&M, Lot 10.