Hands holding the threads of a white roll of fabric.
Photo: Boe Marion

Using Ancient Craftsmanship, Angel Chang Designs Clothes for the Future

Fashion designer Angel Chang works with artisans in rural China to make her sustainable, handcrafted clothing line.
By Aileen Kwun
September 5, 2020
7 minute read

When New York Fashion Week announced its anemic lineup for this month’s showings, the writing on the wall was as plain as day: Business as usual can no longer fly, pandemic or not. As the journalist Dana Thomas recently pointed out to us on Ep. 69 of At a Distance, the fashion and apparel industry is a known top contributor to environmental pollution worldwide—and, as it grapples with a grand reassessment, many see such instrumental shifts as an opportunity to right the course.

For designer Angel Chang, looking for a better way has long involved looking in both directions: to the tech-forward future and, more recently, to the ancient past. With her namesake sustainable womenswear line, Chang collaborates with ethnic minority artisans from a remote mountain village in China’s Guizhou province to source natural fibers, textiles, and dyes, all made by hand without the use of electricity, chemicals, or fossil fuels. We recently caught up with Chang, who’s now back to work at her studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, to chat about what a new era of couture might look like.

You started your career working with Donna Karan and exploring material innovation in textiles. What made you strike out on your own?

Part of my job at Donna Karan, in addition to design, involved fabric development and trade direction. Through that, I got really into the weeds of fabric development, and started to connect with engineers at MIT and NYU’s ITP [Interactive Telecommunications Program]. It led me down a research hole, and I ended up leaving to pursue those curiosities. I had also been there for three years, which is a really long time in Donna years. [Laughs]

I felt like designers weren’t talking about the future or creating innovative fabrics. That’s what led me to start my own brand. For my first show, I wanted to share a vision of the future, so I incorporated LED lights, conductive smart fabrics, and all that. It was amazing. But after going around to conferences and meeting people working in this space, I realized that it was a fiction of the future. It was projecting stuff that would happen in ten or twenty years, but would never trickle down to what people would actually buy or wear anytime soon. And it’s not only about marketing, but also getting those ideas and materials into the supply chain, and convincing designers to get on board with what was being produced by engineers—who were mostly men, and had no idea what sort of things designers were concerned with, like how a fabric feels on the skin, or what women actually want to wear.

After delving into the future, you had an about-face, and began to investigate traditional artisanal methods.

After a few years, I stopped my line—during the 2008 recession the market fell through. But I also knew that the market wanted something more meaningful, less novel and “out there.” I started going to China, and realized the future of textiles, in our lifetimes, is not what the engineers were working on. I wanted to go back in time and see how textiles were produced one hundred years ago, and start from there.

Nobody who works in fashion is concerned with this starting point—like, if you go to Parsons [School of Design] and ask the students, they don’t know how fabrics are made. Most millennials don’t know the difference between polyester, rayon, and cotton—or even between natural and synthetic fibers. Fast fashion has made polyester the norm, but in truth, it’s only become the dominant fiber within the last six years. Before that, it was genetically modified cotton, which has only been around for the last twenty-five years or so, and comes with its own problems: It requires intensive amounts of water, as well as pesticides and insecticides; it can destroy farmland and create drought.

In going to rural China, I just wanted to make really pretty pieces, and keep the region’s traditional crafts from disappearing. I had seen these beautiful costumes in museums, and was meeting the grandmothers who were making them, and was told they wouldn’t be around in five to ten years. There was an urgency to meet and work with them. I was following my heart, through beauty and the love of fabric.

How did you go about finding these artisans, and establishing a rapport and sense of trust with them?

I decided to move there and live with them. This was around 2009, and I’ve since been back many times. Initially I went with an interpreter, because I couldn’t speak Chinese at the time. He would take collectors from the British Museum to acquire textiles, and they were buying them up because they knew the people and their craft would soon disappear. He advised me to do the same, which took me aback. Why would I do that, when we can find a way to keep it going?

I asked the interpreter, “What if we taught the younger generation to start weaving fabric?” They would learn it from their mothers or their grandmothers, and I would pay them—because the competitor for their time and skills was not other brands, but factories out on the coast that make cell phones, radios, and fast fashion. Seventy percent of the village population would migrate every year to take those factory jobs. So I asked the locals, “Why don’t we pay the younger generation the same amount they're making in the factories, or even more? Wouldn’t it motivate them to stay in the village, with their families, and work outside en plein air?” They told me, “No way. No matter how much you pay them, they're not going to do it.” I kept going back, and after two years, I found I could actually speak Chinese. It just happened one day—a driver took me on a wrong route, and I was so mad that the Chinese words just came out. [Laughs] Eventually, I could speak well enough to ask the teenagers myself if they were interested. They said, “Yeah, of course—we’ll open up a workshop for you and weave.”

What are the most profound lessons you’ve learned from these craftswomen?

Their chic sense of style and confidence. They are among the poorest people in China, and likely cannot read or write, yet they have such a calm, knowing, sophisticated demeanor about them. That kind of physical presence comes from a deep connection to the land. And their ability to match tonal colors—in Guizhou, they will wear four different shades of purple or indigo, along with fluorescent orange ribbons and trims, and balance them all beautifully in a really attractive way. Inherently, natural dyes always match and never clash with one another. I learned later that these are all skills and ways of knowing; that style, too, is part of an indigenous knowledge, passed down from generation to generation.