For fashion designer Angel Chang, the start of the recession prompted her to change her design focus and put all-but-forgotten weavers in rural China front and centre. Based at the time in the Big Apple, where she cut her teeth at established fashion houses, such as Donna Karan, she was motivated to change course by an exhibition she saw at Shanghai Museum in 2009.
The museum showcased the work of craftsmen from the Miao and Dong tribes in Guizhou Provence in rural China. “I was designing for luxury brands in New York and Paris, but I was obsessed with these beautiful fabrics,” she says. “At the time, I did not know where this passion would lead, nor did I know that I had the power to create change myself.”
It didn’t take her long to get started. The textiles impressed her so much that a few days later she flew to China with a translator to make contacts in the region. The translator had previously helped collectors from a number of international museums acquire pieces from the area, which China, at that time, had largely forgotten.
“Inside China, there are 55 ethnic minorities, making up 8.5% of the population. There is constant pressure, both socially and from the government, for these groups to assimilate into the majority Han culture, so it means that their language, oral history, and unique way of dress are quickly eroding,” she says.
Scattered in villages far and wide, these home-grown artisans work at a somewhat different pace to the country’s vast manufacturing industry, which has also been threatening their existence. Chang sought to change that. Finding the right villages on that first trip, and subsequently, was no mean feat, given there were no phones, sometimes no roads or even village names to help. Electricity had still to reach most parts. But the effort paid off.
Chang had previously focused on developing hi-tech fashion in New York, but the trip inspired her to create a capsule collection using only traditional hand-woven textiles. This took some time.
The process is organic, seasonal and slow and involves collecting fallen leaves and petals at a certain time of year to create dyes, hand-spinning and hand-weaving, and raising silk worms. A jacket can take two years to make, or material can be dyed for 12 months.
Chang found support from Jiang Qiong Er, the creative director of luxury brand Shang Xia, and she established a base locally. “This support gave me the courage to leave the New York fashion industry and move to China,” she says. “Then, I received a generous sponsorship from Pernod Ricard to start a capsule collection and that’s how it all began.”
After making multiple research trips, she based her atelier in Dimen village. She collaborated with the Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop, which was instrumental in tracking down the right people for the job. (It is an eco-museum and research centre that is committed to preserving the indigenous culture.)
"I would say, ‘I need someone to do this’, and they would name a master craftsman,” she says.“This helped. There are certain villages that know how to do certain things, like hand-pleating, or that are named after their speciality, like the long or short skirt. There are villages and tribes skilled in doing traditional, decorative metal work, so some guidance was key.”
Historically, the villagers have made pieces for their own use, as family heirlooms, so Chang’s first job was to convince them to work with her. She has learnt a lot about traditional production methods and they have learnt from her. “Each family is given 670 square metres of land to grow crops. In keeping with the organic process in the region, they grow cotton in the spring to weave in the cooler fall months for family use,” she explains.
Master weavers spin the cotton and thread on a handloom that resembles a wheel from a horse cart, and each family has its own indigo dye vat, and sometimes dye pieces for up to a year. The material is then pounded on a stone slab, using a wooden mallet to retain the colour, and ingredients such as chilli and pig’s blood are used to change the colour of the dye. The villagers usually produce durable fabrics, but Chang experimented with lightweight, fine fabric blends for pieces in her capsule collection, working with traditional techniques.
An airy pleated dress in the collection was hand-dyed in Zhaoxing, then hand-pleated in Giuding village, using an ancient steaming process. The Dong people created a necklace using traditional metalwork. In the past, horse dung would have been used to bleach the hand-woven fabric, but to produce the white fabric pieces, material was instead boiled in water, dried in the sun, and then washed in a mineral powder that naturally repels mosquitos.
Chang had to encourage the villagers to work at a faster pace to get the amount of materials she needed for the collection. In one case, she brought in a master craftsman to teach villagers to weave on bigger looms. She has also encouraged the passing on of skills — her Kickstarter campaign has funded a cottage industry to produce bags using the villagers’ craftsmanship and a programme to encourage the elders to teach their traditions to the next generation.
“Some 70% of a village’s population leaves their family to find work in coastal factories and many children (58 million-plus in China) are left behind and grow up without seeing much of their parents,” she says. “While doing this project, the younger generation tell me about their lifestyle, their experience having worked at the coastal factories through their 20s, and their desire to find work in their home village.”
Chang plans to use these materials in designing sustainable pieces for her new employer Lululemon in Canada and to create a network to help export these textiles overseas.
“I felt it was necessary to bring this craftsmanship approach to the West and into the modern world somehow. I recently joined (sportswear brand) Lululemon, as Head Designer of their innovation incubator Lululemon Lab, to see how to bring these design concepts to a broader market,” she says. She is looking into working these materials into their collections, “or merging this artisanal craftsmanship with future innovation”.
Chang was recently back in Dimen, developing materials that will appeal to the Western market at large. “I am interested in creating items of higher quality and longer use, from all-natural materials that age well and become more beautiful the longer they are in use. For me, indigenous knowledge holds the solutions to our sustainable future.”
She is partnering with non-profit partners Global Heritage Fund and Dimen Dong cultural eco-museum to develop the villagers’ skills to make the fabrics and garments more modern-looking, and thereby help connect these textiles to the global market.
“There are very few opportunities to generate an income in the villages, so weaving fabric allows mothers to stay in the comfort of their own home while raising their kids,” she says.
Chang is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs making such artisan crafts relevant overseas. She says that the global artisanal sector is a US$34 billion economy, and the second-largest employer of women in the developing world.
The government has also changed its attitude. In the last few years, it has been building new roads and the transportation infrastructure has vastly improved. These roads have created an influx of tourists, and it is easier to find places to stay, she says. “On the flip side, it is more difficult to find old fabrics and textiles in the villages. The tourists are not as interested in the local culture, so the shops cater to their demand with new machine-made clothes and cheaper manufactured items,” she says.
Still, she is their biggest fan. “I was driven by a love for these beautiful textiles. There was magic in the way they turned humble materials from the earth into elaborately embroidered jackets and baby-carriers. When I discovered that these traditional fabrics were at risk of disappearing forever, I was determined to find a way to keep them alive.”.