Mexico. We hadn’t expected our discussion with award-winning Chinese designer Susan Fang to start in such a geography. After all, this is the London- and Shanghai-based designer of impossibly airy, artful and diaphanous clothing, more typically accustomed to taking road trips through parts of China that connect with indigenous peoples and highlight a less visible side of the culture than seen in mainstream or couture fashion. And she’s also just fresh off showing her spring/summer 2023 collection at London Fashion Week, for which she created the mise-en-scene over a swimming pool. But the surprise seems shared and almost typical of Fang’s counter-intuitive approach to just about everything she does.
“I was meant to be going to Mexico back in 2019, but then Covid happened, and so we postponed,” she says. “A friend of mine asked if now was the right time to come and explore and do some campaign shooting for that collection, and it just seemed like a great idea.”
Born in Ningbo, Fang moved to Shanghai when she was three and Canada two years later, before returning to Shanghai to maintain her Chinese level. Subsequently, she grew up moving every two or three years, which included schooling in the US and the UK, so she’s not unaccustomed to being on the road, and indeed almost craves the stimulation. “I think one of the reasons I like travelling so much is to push myself to explore more culture. I don’t want to be stuck in one place, because you start to feel dry and you’ll be more deeply influenced by a one-sided kind of voice.”
Susan Fang Focuses on Sustainable Practices
In a Chinese market where Fang describes competitor brands as being “more practical and business driven”, her abstract, ‘handcrafted’ and sustainable style has become something of a cult hit with expectant and demanding Gen-Zers. “We try to do more handcraft stuff, collaboration opportunities, from which we can learn,” she says. “We’re not crazily wasteful, we don’t burn money, and all our sets we do by hand, with friends who’ve helped me from the beginning.”
Fang focuses on sustainable practices within design and production; she works with her mother, a retired artist, and together they make every bag Fang sells. The Mexican trip consists of Fang flying on her own to meet the photographer who helped shoot both her graduate and inaugural collection.
As such, Fang’s ecosystem and vocabulary is decidedly singular – bubble air-flower and butterfly dresses, bubble pearl veils and beaded headpieces resembling splashes of frozen water, 3D-printed flower basket bags, and her trophy “bubble bags” (most recently seen on Chinese icon Liu Wen). She’s produced crystal-glass beadwork and beaded sandals with biodegradable thermoplastic polyurethane soles, along with bags made from marbles, and also pioneered a technique called “air weave”, where as many as nine layers of material are laced together in a form of three-dimensional grid pattern. And all of Fang’s collections take the prefix “Air”; think Air.Light, her current collection, or Air.Free, Air.Time based on Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time and more. Her creations can seem as bubbles in water or leaves on trees.
She set up her contemporary womenswear brand Susan Fang in 2017 after graduating from London’s Central Saint Martins (2015) and following stints with Japanese designer Kei Kagami, as intern at Celine (six months) and trainee with Stella McCartney (nine months). She was scouted by Labelhood for Shanghai Fashion Week and launched in its stores, and then by Joyce, and Net-a-Porter. By her third season she was shortlisted for the LVMH Prize and her innovative textiles and silhouettes saw approaches from Selfridges and Browns in London.
Earlier this year, fast-fashion powerhouse Zara tapped her for its first major designer collaboration in China. The project saw Fang make 22 pieces of womenswear, menswear, kidswear and accessories. She recently collaborated with Crocs, has UGG pending, and there’s also a watch collaboration in the offing.
So dynamic is her process, you can almost hear Fang’s mind “split-flapping” like an airport departure board from one moment to the next. “We always try to think of re-using; and there’s so much we need to improve, and I think organisation would be a key part of that. And then maybe a lot of other things. Sometimes people tell me I need to stop living in my fantasy world and just create more wearable dresses. Maybe in a way that’s true, but we will try to keep that.”
Alexander Calder. “I love Alexander Calder, he was a huge inspiration for my graduate collection,” she says, referring to the American sculptor whose so-called geometric “mobiles” are suspended in mid-air and moved only by the atmosphere’s currents. “I saw a piece of his in an art museum, situated on the fourth floor, and it was only animated by the movement of people walking on the ground floor below. Every movement, everything we do, leads or links to something else. If you keep looking at one of Calder’s sculptures it makes you happy.” She elaborates on how his themes of the universe, the cosmos, geometry, nature and his colours also resonate with her own vibe. “His colours never clashed,” she observes. She’s also got a thing for Rodin. “I always loved Rodin because his work looks like a different artwork from every angle – so that aspect in design, of looking from different angles, different points of view. That’s what we do. We put clothes on a mannequin and then think about how they’ll move, and how that person will feel as and when they’re moving, and how much freedom they’ll feel.”
In fact, Fang never planned to be a fashion designer. Art had been her calling and during her adolescence she retreated to fine art, drawings and paintings to offset her creative urges. “I wanted to be an artist when I was a child but my Mum didn’t like that idea so much. So, I had to express that creative desire in some form of artistic way, like fashion. Then I would feel happy.”
Finding Nemo. Few designers invoke the word “happy” quite so much as Susan Fang. Despite the pending Mexico visit and road-tripping adventurously on her creative travels, this is no Motorcycle Diaries of a spirit. Fang has given ice-creams to people at her shows along with smartphone cases with flower and clover monograms; think flower power over Che Guevara. And as we discuss cinematic influences, she apologises for the lo-brow nature of her references.
“I’m going to answer you in such a non-artsy way,” she says, laughing. “What I like is fantasy, dreamy – actually, I love Pixar and the film Finding Nemo.” But wait. She’s going to Mexico. Does she know Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (filmed in Buenos Aires, Argentina) or Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, for example? “I think the first Zhang Yimou film I saw was Hero, but actually, I was really disappointed because I couldn’t understand the story. But the scenery was very beautiful. I was amazed by Raise the Red Lantern.” And neonscape auteur Wong? “I never understand his films,” she says, “but his imagery is amazing. I remember the images but never understand the story.” She hasn’t seen our recommendation. “Maybe I’ll watch Happy Together in Mexico!”
But she hasn’t finished explaining the Nemo reference. “Do you remember, the clownfish had a damaged fin?” she says, “and actually my ear, when I was born, was a little bit broken, so I used to hide my ear. Its shape is a bit more rounded than my right ear. So I related to him.” Awww. “It was also the first animation I saw in which they didn’t portray the shark as an evil person or animal. And I thought that was really cool. Sometimes, you see so many stereotypes about yourself as a Chinese, and I thought it was great that they didn’t stereotype the shark.” At this juncture my mind’s eye inserts a yet-to-be-created hologramatic standing-ovation emoji into the conversation.
Fang is peace, love and lashings of universality. A lot like Yoko Ono, in fact. And also very Japanese designer Issey Miyake, given his own emphasis on practicality aligned with the beauty of functionality. “I really, really admire how Issey Miyake travelled, and how all his clothes fit into separate places but still embraced everyone,” she observes. “It makes people feel very free and that we’re all connected, and I think that’s a kind of core to our brand, as well.”
Fang’s Collection Had Messages of Peace and Love
Fang’s Air.Light spring/summer ’23 London Fashion Week collection was her reaction to the increasingly turbulent and wicked world we’re enduring. The set was decorated with large inflatables with messages of peace and love brandished inside and out. “There’s a lot of anger, people are fighting each other. But sometimes … sometimes I feel it’s even harder, not to use that anger for physical fighting but just for love, for the greater good of humanity.”
The writer Charles Baudelaire once said toys were a “child’s first contact with art”. Alexander Calder’s artwork is suffused with the freshness of childhood, his mobiles almost like sophisticated toys. Susan Fang’s clothes embody and “etherealize” a kinetic rhythm unique to each piece, or toy, like expressions of joy, making her and their wearers the freest of beings, “airtopians”, living and riding on the wind of dreams, waves of beauty and the shape-shifting energies of an ecstatic cosmos in a constant state of celebratory renewal. Air.Forever.