Adhering to The Norm
ROSEN has never followed fashion cycle nor seasons, nor any pre-determined rules of the industry. A typical industry cycle begins with showcasing collections at one of the major fashion capitals, followed by a showcase to press and buyers. Orders would be made, clothing manufactured, then shipped to various stores around the the world. There has to be enough window between delivery and sale season in order to give the maximum time for goods to be sold at full price. End of season sale usually begins - as the name implies - at the end of the season, but thanks to American retailers, they are now shifting ever earlier. Ten years ago we could expect sales to begin in July in order to make way for autumn/winter clothing. Closer to the end of the season, liquidity is needed to cover looming invoices and overdue liabilities; liquidity which is held up in excess inventory due to overbuying, mismanagement and intensifying competition in the e-commerce space. Today, we can expect North American retailers to begin its sale season in May, when summer has just begun. Whoever is taking the risk to slash and burn earlier gets the first mover advantage in generating buzz and hungry consumerist money. This practice is forcing brands to manufacture and deliver their goods faster than ever, just so they can generate revenue that will cover their expenses and costs of manufacturing.
Defying Common Practices
Designing is only a small part of making a collection. Ideas, sketches and fabrics can be easily conjured. Most of the effort in producing a collection goes into making samples, which include muslin and intermediate prototypes. A muslin sample is much easier to produce as it does not require finishing. However, it may require more than one round of production in order to ensure that the basic design drapes correctly on a human body. After the muslin is finalised, a prototype is made in the final fabric. It is considered a miracle if the first round of prototype is perfectly made. At this stage we will find out if our chosen fabric, finishing, trims and hardware work harmoniously with the design. More often than not, we find out that they don’t. If the issue is minor, such as using the wrong trim or hardware, fixing it would take a few days. A medium-sized problem would be a rogue panel or two that have to be removed, recut and restitched. A major issue would be picking an unsuitable fabric, which means we would have to redo a part or the whole of the garment.
Once in a while, we would face the most serious setback of all. The garment’s construction - which include seam placements, panelling, darting and interfacing - does not support the fabric’s tactility and weight, therefore it does not drape, stand and/or move according to how it is designed. In cases like this, we would have to go back to the drawing board and make massive changes to the pattern.
These are all laborious and time-consuming efforts. The smallest tweaks in the shape of a lapel, shift in the seam, an adjustment on the length, begins with a change on the pattern. Pattern-making itself is a tedious work that requires mathematical precision, which not many people enjoy. I’d like to think of pattern makers as engineers of clothes.
Having completed the entire collection, other matters of the business would need to be tended to, such as product, editorial and lookbook photography, followed by marketing communications strategy and getting the online store ready for launch. Rushing through any part of the process, especially in production of samples, will result in sub-optimal end product. In order to make the best clothes that we possibly can, we take our time to figure out solutions, work through our mistakes, while giving our manufacturing partners adequate time to complete our samples. In choosing not to follow the conventional fashion seasons, we do not have to push factories, workshops and tailors to work under unreasonable time frame, an unhealthy norm that is widely practiced in the fashion industry,
Taking our time to complete each collection leads to an indefinite time frame of production and release. It is the reason why ROSEN launches collections only when we are ready to do so.
Takeshi Kitano and Wong Kar Wai
Many of my design ideas stem from a lifetime of personal experiences, interests and immediate surrounding. For example I would never make a corseted floor-length gown because it is incongruent with my lifestyle and personal values. On the other hand, my interest in Japanese and Hong Kong cinema of the 90s has sneaked its way into my recent collections.
I am a firm believer in the continuous evolution of design, as opposed to a complete change every season. I don’t necessarily care for abstract nor lofty ideas. I make clothing that can be worn everyday, hence I would prefer to approach the design process from a more humble, mundane perspective. Modern uniforms are one such source of inspiration. They are designed to be worn on a frequent basis which typically has to be made as comfortable as possible.
When it comes to designing ROSEN (as opposed to ROSEN-X), I would look at the supply of fabrics available for immediate order in the early stage of planning. They influence the general mood of the collection concurrently with the designs, sometimes influencing the design itself.
A Love for Outerwear
When I first started making my own clothes, they were very simple. A-line silhouettes, classic patterns, conventional construction methods. What you see is often what you get. I was expecting to not deviate too much as I was limited by my own experiences.
Fast forward three years later, the Alexandria and Earhart were born.
The Alexandria was first released last December in a heavy wool version. This time I decided to take it to the next level by doing a multi-panelled, double-layered collar and lapel construction.
The idea first began from this quilted fabric that I’ve found from my usual vendor. I had been mulling over it for several months after seeing it for the first time, not quite knowing what to do with it. Having designed this new Alexandria, I decided to put the fabric to test. I took the plunge and sent it off to the workshop for sample-making. It turned out to be a challenging fabric to work with. Despite its medium-level thickness - no thicker than a typical wool cashmere fabric any seasoned tailor has worked with - the yarn of the fabric was so densely woven that it broke the workshop’s industrial sewing machine. Luckily they were understanding about it and did not reconsider our business relationship.
And then there was the Earhart.
The design of the Earhart was first conceived in autumn last year. I headed north to Beijing to work with a studio whom I have collaborated with previously. Unfortunately they closed their doors due to financial difficulty very soon after - a common occurrence in fashion startups. Fortunately for me however, they promised to deliver the first muslin sample. After it was made, I engaged the defunct studio’s tailor directly to create the first sample piece in the same fabric as the Alexandria. The garment was so complex that it consisted of over 80 panels.
The first attempt came out a little on the underwhelming side. The construction and the fabric did not complement each other well, and some of the panels that were made in a different fabric were incongruent with the rest of the garment, so together with my newly-hired patternmaker, we went back to the drawing board and overhauled the pattern. A miniature muslin was made so we could save time in assessing the construction.
As the Earhart grew more complex, the 80-panel pattern increased to almost 100. Seams were shifted, lapels adjusted and re-adjusted, panels added and removed. Then we gave the job to the workshop that made the Alexandria. When working with this many panels, a small change would create an avalanche of shifts and nudges that ripple across the garment.
In the end, our persistence paid off. When the prototype came back after the last round of changes, I first felt relief, followed by elation. The Earhart was ready.
ROSEN has always been a big proponent of using deadstock fabrics as part of our sustainability efforts. For us to order fabrics directly from a factory, we will be adding another 100 meters - 100 meters being on the lower end, the average that I’ve been quoted is 500 meters - of fabric into the market, along the way extracting even more resources for production while dumping more chemicals into our waters. It is my hope that ROSEN can always rely on using these beautiful excess fabrics so as to avoid worsening the overproduction problem that this industry is facing.
Some of these excess textiles that I’ve come across recently is Xiangyun silk. Like the bubbly drink that has a specific provenance, Xiangyun silk can only be made in the southern region of China around the Pearl River Delta for its mix of climate, abundance in tuber plants, and the iron-rich mud from the Pearl River.
The production of Xiangyun silk is a 16-step process that is extremely time- and labour-intensive, as well as season specific. Raw silks are spun as jacquard, often with seersucker-like texture. The finished raw fabric can be left blank or printed with motif before being sent to the dyeing factories. The finished plain silk fabric has to be cut to 15-20 meters per bolt as they will be handled manually from this step onwards.
In contrast to the typical modern textile factory, Xiangyun silk factories consist largely of rudimentary buildings and vast expanse of well-trimmed green grass. Other than improvements in machineries to grind tubers, the dyeing process has not changed much in the last few centuries,
The dyeing season begins around early April when the wet monsoon season has given way to high summer. Every factory has a dyeing shifu (or master). Decades of experience has taught him how to adjust the intensity of the dye according to the depth of the colour that is requested, as well as the amount of silk that has to be dyed. The dye is made purely from tubers like yam and sweet potatoes. They’re ground into dry pulp before mixed into giant vats of hot water. The silk fabric is submerged fully, one meter at a time, to let the tannin in the dye penetrates into the fibre. They are then wheeled to the field where workers will unfurl every bolt of fabric and lay them flat on the grass.
Upon exposure to the sun, the tannin begins to oxidise, creating permanent brown tones in the silk. The temperature has to be around 28-30 degrees Celcius so that the dye penetrates into the fibers. Once they’re dry, they have to go through several more cycles of dyeing and drying, sometimes as much as 15 times. If the fabrics get caught in a sudden downpour, that particular cycle has to be repeated. At this stage, the colours of the fabric have turned a rich hue of brown and copper. They are then ready for the next important stage of the dyeing process.
Under a shaded area, lean, weather-beaten workers use heavy giant brushes to coat the upper side of the fabric with mud; mud which has been harvested from the Pearl River. The iron-rich content gives the silk its unique black overtone, while leaving the brown underside uncoated. Coordinated, laborious teamwork is needed to carry the heavy coated fabrics to the river. The fabrics have to be agitated in a specific manner to wash off the mud efficiently, letting it return whence it came. They are then left to dry in the sun once more before they are kept in storage for three to six months. A final wash is required before it can be ready for clothing production.
And those giant vats of dyes? Once all the fabrics have been soaked, workers would save them aside for a hot bath at night to soothe worn out muscles. The dried up remnants of the tubers would then be collected as fertilisers, thus completing its natural cycle.
Amidst the quest for ever speedier production and ready-made consumer goods, this centuries-old tradition clings on as best as it could for survival. There is no substitute for patience, hard work, human expertise, sun, water, and natural chemistry. The success of every batch of Xiangyun silk ultimately depends on Mother Nature and her benevolence.
While ROSEN has always worked with deadstock fabrics, Xiangyun silk is harder to obtain on a commercial scale. The silks we use for the Kitano is not quite like other types of silk - similar to a combination of linen and organza, imbued with a signature copper tone, a mark of painstaking perseverance by men and women who have been working on their craft for decades.