While most of us were watching Girls and gushing over Kate Middleton’s first baby, Angel Chen was mapping out her destiny. At only 17, she uprooted her life in Shenzhen, China, to study fashion at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins College.
Inspired by John Galliano’s emotive work that spans romance, history and modernity, Chen set out to make a visual impact on the world. After her graduate collection “Les Noces” won the praise of the school faculty, she went on to intern with big fashion names like Vera Wang and Marchesa, launch her own studio in Shanghai and, now, become the first-ever guest designer with Canada Goose.
Smashing gender norms and infusing her work with inspiration from her Chinese culture, Chen is adamant that the Angel Chen woman isn’t gentle, shy, and elegant. She’s brave, cool, independent and expressive, “like a contemporary version of Mulan,” Chen says. Just like the designer, Angel Chen’s Fall 2021 collection for Canada Goose is adaptable and versatile, featuring parkas that can be worn as coats or vests, belted or loose or even inside-out.
We chatted with Chen about her monumental climb through the high-fashion world, her favourite celebrity styling moment (plus: who she’d love to style) and how she hopes to inspire others with her Canada Goose capsule collection.
You’ve been recognized as one of the young designers reinventing the ‘tradition’ of fashion. How do you do that?
I mix traditional and contemporary textures in my design. We’ve actually applied a lot of traditional Chinese elements, fabrics and techniques in our past collections like traditional prints, brocade, ribbon embroidery and gold thread embroidery. However, we’ve created contemporary silhouettes for a twist on traditional Chinese culture and to make it visible and accessible to a larger audience. I really want to present the beauty of Chinese culture to a global audience, and have people see it in a new light.
What was the design process like for your Canada Goose collection?
It is a great honour to work with a heritage brand such as Canada Goose [and] I was looking forward to seeing new chemistry between Eastern and Western culture. The conversation started in October of 2019 and I was lucky enough to visit their headquarters before the pandemic.
As the first-ever guest designer for Canada Goose, it’s a very celebratory moment for both brands. The team was welcoming and supportive throughout the entire process. It was very inspiring to discover such a beautiful manufacturing operation in Toronto, browse through the archives of a 60-year-old brand and learn about how to make a well-crafted down jacket.
The first collection was created during the pandemic which was a hard time. Every part of the process was more difficult than usual for this collection, from design to manufacturing. It’s celebratory that we were able to produce it.
The design process started with a heritage piece – The Snow Mantra — which is the pinnacle of craftsmanship and the ultimate in-element protection. I wanted to ensure I honoured the parka while finding new ways to wear it, including upside down, without sleeves or shortened. With a play on versatility, we combined aspects of both of our signatures. Both the women’s Cropped Snow Mantra Parka and men’s Convertible Snow Mantra are back in new fall colours.
Did your visit to Canada help inspire any elements of the collection?
During my visit to Canada, I was inspired by nature and the beautiful colours as the season transitioned, which became the theme of the collection. This is [seen in] the collection’s colours: a soft green, bright yellow and an impactful blue. These new colours perfectly represent the end of summer, into the beautiful colours of leaves in the fall and finally, to a cool hue for the winter. I want to encourage people to go explore their surroundings while staying true to themselves.
How did your own sense of style or taste impact how you approached designing this collection?
Chinese embroidery has been a signature of our brand. I designed some special embroideries exclusive to our collection, which was inspired by my journey in Canada. Through the embroideries, you will see the story of me travelling to Canada and learning about the amazing craftsmanship of Canada Goose. The characters embroidered represent a curious Angel taking on a journey in Canada and exploring its amazing nature. Other embroidered graphics in the collection show a dragon flying from East to West, an homage of two cultures coming together. I hope this storytelling can inspire people to explore their surroundings along with different cultures and new ideas. It’s telling the story of living in the open.
Is making gender-neutral clothing an important aspect of your work?
I design collections that are relatively gender fluid and contemporary, without boundaries between country, age and gender. The Angel Chen woman is not as gentle, shy and elegant as Chinese women are traditionally depicted. She is brave, cool, independent, expressive and full of thoughts like a contemporary version of Mulan. Angel Chen men are also cool, strong-minded and understanding. However, the characteristics cannot define who they are. They’re versatile and have different sides of personalities, without boundaries. They are contemporary, avant-garde and inspiring, and they create an encouraging vibe to young people in our community.
If you had to pick one, what would you choose as your favourite piece of the collection?
My favourite pieces would be the Convertible Snow Mantra and the Cropped Snow Mantra. You can turn them into a down vest or a short down jacket for different weather conditions. The Cropped Snow Mantra worn upside-down creates a special shoulder line similar to traditional Asian clothing. These two styles are very playful and creative which best represent the collection.
Being stylish in the winter is hard sometimes with all the bulky layers. Do you have any tips?
I had this stereotype that the down jacket is heavy and not fashionable when I was young, but I realized that the down jacket can be cozy and stylish at the same time when I started to explore different ways to wear a normal jacket, like wearing it upside-down and [choosing] an interesting and stylish silhouette. This eventually inspired me to design this capsule collection with Canada Goose, while playing with versatility for function and style.
You’ve worked with a bunch of big-name celebrities. Do you have any favourite moments or looks you’ve created with any of them?
I’ve customized garments for Jackson Yee. My favourite one is from this year, which features the symbolic red colour from Chinese culture. I feel it’s celebratory when people wear bold colours. I can totally imagine Rihanna wearing a yellow Cropped Snow Mantra from our collaboration with a super sexy dress underneath, and walking quickly out of a party.