Feng Chen Wang on Heritage, Design and her Latest Sneaker Colabs
Having previously worked with the likes of Jordan Brand and Converse, Feng Chen Wang is no stranger to the sneaker world. Sitting among China’s most celebrated fashion designers, Feng has become one of the most exciting female collaborators in the space, and continues to lead the way with collections that speak volumes. Plus a design aesthetic that is uniquely… Feng!
We recently connected with her to talk about sneaker collaborations, childhood, girl power, and the role that heritage plays in her work.
Born in a small village in southern China, Feng was one of three children in what she describes as a ‘very strong-willed family, where we were taught that being a female was a strength’. In a time when the one-child policy was still being enforced across the country, Feng’s parents were often forced to flee into the nearby mountains in search of safety, and to protect her and her siblings. That early example of resilience has helped to shape who Feng is today.
At a young age, Feng’s natural talent shone through, making a big impression.
’I always loved painting. I just put colour on everything. I studied in my village, and we didn’t have an art or drawing class. When I was in third [grade] a teacher came to our village to teach art for the very first time. I enjoyed the classes a lot, and this teacher was very surprised about how I painted. The teacher even encouraged me to enter my traditional Chinese paintings into a kids art award in Japan, and I won silver!’ explains Feng.
In Feng’s final year of middle school, she swapped the brush for a pencil. Like her painting, drawing came naturally, and she took just months to master techniques that would normally take years to learn.
‘That was a very important moment for me in my life’, she says. And it certainly helped to solidify her calling.
Despite strong encouragement from her school to become a doctor, lawyer or accountant, Feng chose the arts. In a fiery meeting between her father and the school’s headmaster, Feng’s father encouraged her to make her own decisions and follow her own path.
‘He said to me, “Little Feng, now it’s your turn. Please make your own decision." So I did,' she says. 'I made a decision, and it was the biggest decision of my life so far.’
That decision led her to study a BA at one of Beijing’s top universities. There, she refined her craft and, at the conclusion of her degree, secured a fashion internship at a company in Shanghai. From there, Feng took the advice of her senior peers and moved aboard.
‘When you’re younger, you don’t really know who you are. You haven’t had much experience yet, so you listen to the advice of the people who have more experience than you,' she explains, reflecting on her next big decision.
'I took the step. This was the second-largest decision I made in my life!’
Her Move Abroad
‘It was so hard for me’ Feng admits.
‘I started studying MA Fashion Menswear at the Royal College of Art. I was one of 10 people in the course, and I was the worst student! It was my first time studying abroad, I couldn’t speak English very well, and I couldn’t communicate well.’
But those early lessons in resilience held her in good stead, and she persisted in enhancing her craft. She proceeded to teach herself English while studying fashion, and despite some first-year struggles, she became a standout by the second year.
'There was something I knew through the whole journey, and that was that it’s not so much about proving myself to anyone, but actually knowing myself more and more through the journey, and surviving.’ she says.
As the first female designer out of China to focus menswear, Feng's inspirations came from deep within.
'It’s hard to describe why you love what you love. It came from the heart. You feel you love that and, when you’re doing that, you’re just enjoying it a lot, you can’t stop. It’s kind of like when you love a person. You love that person, but you can’t always tell exactly why you love that person.’
Working on what she loved, Feng established her own label in 2015. Despite reaching that milesone, her goal to that was much, much broader.
‘As a female designer I wanted to inspire more women to know that they can do what they set their mind to! It’s all about Girl Power.'
Alongside this mission, she also gave herself the task of helping shift the perception of ‘Made in China’ being mass-produced, low-quality product. Part of that mission was to celebrate Chinese culture by highlighting the unique techniques that had been used in her home country for centuries. As a designer, her process starts by looking within.
‘I started my own label with the mission as a designer to look at the inside world – the people I meet, the places I visit, and my own experiences’.
This story-telling often informs the techniques that she chooses to use.
‘Sometimes it’s really hard to describe something as one technique when it’s about a story I am trying to tell or share. My SS19 collection, for example, was called My Half. People always describe that reconstruct/deconstruct as a technique. For me, it’s not that way. It’s merely about telling a story on the other side of who I am. There’s so much story and detail to share from behind the scenes. The craftsmanship seen in the work of artisans in the village is what I saw growing up, and is something that I bring into my work as an independent designer. I collaborate with these people by combining these old techniques with a fairly new brand, to give them new life.’
Feng has used these techniques across many of her collections, most recently seen in her SS20 collection, where she used Resist Dye, a thousand-year-old dying technique used in the Fuijian Provence where she grew up.
Since 2017, Feng has been able to tell some of her stories through footwear, collaborating with Jordan Brand and Converse across a range of silhouettes, including the Air Jordan 1, Chuck 70, Pro Leather, and now the Jack Purcell.
Feng’s work with Jordan Brand saw her customise the iconic Air Jordan 1 for her AW18 collection, where she told a very personal story entitled ‘The Way Home’. Through this design, she explored her journey from childhood to the present day, using references of key events and places to extend the narrative. As she described, inspiration was taken from subtle nuances, like numbers referencing the address of her first house, or the materials of a garment that related to fond memories of friends and family.
Another milestone moment was Feng’s reinterpretation of the classic Chuck 70 in 2018. That design set the path for her ongoing relationship with Converse, informing many of the collaborations that we are still seeing to this day.
Earlier this year, Feng took to the Jack Purcell, which hit the runway at London Fashion Week Men’s as part of Feng Chen Wang’s AW20 presentation. Here, she introduced her third capsule with Converse, which featured layers that shone a light on the past with a vision to the future. As Feng explains, ‘What you see [in the Jack Purcell] isn’t a pattern, but actually a graphic. This graphic came out from my name in Chinese characters. People might see that as a pattern, but it’s actually a graphic.’
Feng’s approach to the Jack Purcell included an adjustment to the form and dimensions of the upper, altering the iconic and normally slim profile. Through a material combination of suede and leather, Feng exaggerated the contours through layering, while embedding personal design nuances throughout – like her namesake ‘Feng Chen Wang’ in three Mandarin characters, 王逢陈. With each character serving as a pattern piece, the result was a conceptual take that jointly celebrated the heritage of both Feng and Converse.
The Feng Chen Wang x Converse Jack Purcell collaboration is also complemented with five unique garments and a set of accessories. Each piece in the collection has a strong focus on material, structure and reflectivity with the aim of revealing the silhouette’s unique design elements – like asymmetrical hem lines, blended fabrics, and reflective and textured nuances.
The Feng Chen Wang x Converse Jack Purcell and apparel are available from August 6 2020, online at fengchenwang.com and Converse.