Kai Ting 'Annie' Chen
Kai Ting "Annie" Chen is a Taiwanese fashion designer, writer and blogger, currently based in New York City, U.S.A. She has set up her own eponymous brand and her designs shown at fashion shows at both NYFW and LFW. Kai Ting has worked her way up the ladder the traditional way through studying fashion design and learning the ropes through working at different established brands.
Kai Ting was very keen to have us showcase her fashion design work and was open in talking about it, the processes behind her work, influences, the meaning behind it. Here's what she had to say...
Solstice: Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? What were you like as a child?
Kai Ting: I'm a fashion designer, writer, and blogger, currently working in NYC. I have multiple experiences with different brands, such as Peter Do, and have also had my work showcased at prestigious NYFW and LFW.
I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. Just like other big cities, it is busy, crowded, has a lot of traffic, but of course it's not a megacity like NYC. We have unique aboriginal culture, warm weather, extraordinary geographics and it is an island surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. I enjoy my life journey in New York, I wrote exclusive fashion design notes and shared my work-life journals on Instagram. In childhood, my parents described me as “bold and boyish” when I was a little girl. The most impressive thing is that I sneaked out from home when I was around 5-6 years old, and my family and neighbors all came to look for me cause they thought I’m missing. At the end I went back home, and I’ve been grounded after all of this, just a hilarious childhood memory.
Solstice: How did you get into fashion design?
Kai Ting: When I was 10 years old, I went to a bookstore after school, I was browsing in the magazine area, and suddenly a fashion magazine caught my eyes, I remembered it’s called In Fashion. I was fascinated by the runway looks and editor comments, that’s the beginning why I want to dive into the fashion industry and be a part of them. Especially I love illustration and handmade stuff when I was a kid, and I usually do the styling from the things I’ve got in hand for my younger brother.
I found myself passionate in the arts and design field, and I am eager to be a storyteller that shares my aesthetic and thoughts via my creation. Since I’ve made up my mind, I did lots of effort to make my dream come true.
In 2018, I graduated with a grade of 99/100 of my thesis project with a bachelor degree in Textiles with fashion design major in Fu Jen University, which is one of the best fashion school in Taiwan; and I keep developing my design universe and pursuing a master degree of fashion design in US in the year of 2019. After all the solid theoretical and practical training in Fashion Institute of Technology, I got my MFA in 2021, and started my career in the fashion industry.
Solstice: Which designers do you look up to?
Kai Ting: I'm always inspired by Vivienne Westwood, my lifelong idol. She's been so wild and energetic in her fashion world for over 50 years. I love draping, and I really love the way she puts the pirate elements and draping techniques to make her dress sexy, smooth, and still elegant. I can always find surprises in her collection and archives. Rei Kawakubo is also a fashion designer I admire. Her irregular pattern making and curved silhouette influenced me to dive more into organic shapes and seek to break the boundaries of body and clothes. When looking up into my collections, you can find numerous draping techniques and complicated creative pattern making in most looks.
Solstice: Do you take inspiration from other things, such as nature or the arts?
Kai Ting: I take any life experiences as an inspiration to my works. Personal experiences such as family and relationships, even traveling experiences can be an inspiration to me. I am interested in street photography and Ikebana (Japanese art of floral arrangement) as well. Inspiration is everywhere. I will go to exhibitions which are different from fashion, such as architecture, interior design, literature, and theories. I collected all my creations and ideas saved in archives and memos during my leisure time.
Solstice: Describe the process from concept to final realised product? What is your favourite part of the process?
Kai Ting: The psychological concept of my collection is too intangible for most people to understand, so I faced many difficulties to connect it to my works. After all, I defined a storyline throughout the whole collection, the four stages “Birth, Wrecking, Mind-changing, Integrity” can be more clear to interpret the process of people encountering the vulnerabilities. My favourite part of the process is that I had been through the exact same stages of my collection storyline, and I didn’t let the pandemic and trauma wreck me, I conquered my fear, and it brought me to the light and healing. I grew as the collection grew, I integrated myself as the collection completed. Just as my concept conveys: “Living with all vulnerability, they are part of us, embrace the peaceful coexistence.”
Solstice: Your grandmother had a bad accident and had to have a number of x-rays taken, tell us how you got the idea to use the images from the x-rays as part of your work? How does this work towards a theme/message behind your work?
Kai Ting: It’s a really personal collection, because the inspiration is all from my personal experience. In 2020, I went back to Taiwan because of the pandemic, and I was just informed by other family members that my 80 year old grandmother fell from the floor. The elderly can’t bear any accident, one little harm can cause huge damage. It started to take a long healing process for my granny, we needed to take turns to give her an injection of medicine, everyone was upset by this accident. At the same time, I was stuck with my thesis collection, and all of a sudden, I saw the radiographs from my grandmother. I asked myself: “Why shouldn't I use it as a material?” It is also my biggest vulnerability–I was so afraid of losing my loved ones, so let’s do this with all my heart. The collection was also a healing process for me to overcome my vulnerabilities. In the end, my grandmother is much healthier than before, and I have grown in the process and finished this collection as well.
Solstice: What are your favourite fabrics and design processes to work with?
Kai Ting: I am really fond of soft and transparent fabrics such as Organza and Silk, as people may know, they are also hard to sew and manipulate with. As I mentioned, I love draping on the mannequin, so I am familiar with these fabrics. Usually I drape to make pre-production samples before sending them to factories, and I will discuss with tailors for more fitting notes and feedback. It's really fun to make a garment from scratch, it is just like giving birth to babies, my work is all my precious.
Solstice: Do you have a favourite of your own designs? If so, which one and why?
Kai Ting: The radiograph prints suits are my favourite design in the collection. Long sleeves printed blazer and trouser featuring radiograph patterns woven in tones of grey. I used the radiograph as the raw material, and I transformed them into three different prints, then printed out as fabric. I am proud and pleased to include my grandmother in my fashion design. To me, it is such a glorious mark in my design journey.
Solstice: Are you already planning your next collection?
Kai Ting: I am planning a ready-to-wear collection with all of my archives about more psychological aspects in subconscious and dreams. During these years pursuing fashion design, I found myself clinging to a unique aesthetic with abstract themes in my previous design, and that forms me and my work. I would love to go deeper and expand my universe with such topics, which resonate with the audience via my life and spirit.
Solstice: How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect you and your work?
Kai Ting: What COVID-19 brought to us is enormous. We didn’t have any runway shows during the pandemic, some brands even held virtual runways during fashion weeks. No shows, no people, then no buyers came, we were lacking more press exposure than usual. The market is gloomy, no one would pay attention to clothes except for the “mask fashion”. However, my collection talking about vulnerabilities is thanks to COVID-19, the pandemic that let me experience the deepest sense of vulnerability, so I can have much inspiration to link with.
Solstice: What do you hope you’ll be doing/where do you hope you’ll be working in ten years time?
Kai Ting: My ten-year goal is to found a fashion company with different kinds of business and collaboration. I will focus on the select shop primarily, some of which will be sourcing from local artists and agents for oversea brands, and I will work on my namesake ready-to-wear brand and accessories line as well.For the venue blueprint, it will come up as a select shop with a cafe bar on the first floor, the second floor will be an exhibition space, and we will hold some lectures or showcases for artists and designers gathering; we do support our clients with consulting services in fashion careers and business. Our vision is to create a friendly and competitive community for arts and design talents. For now, that will be what I can devote myself to enhance the environment of the fashion industry.