Angel Chang on Building Resilience Through Centuries-Old Crafts
To make her namesake womenswear line, New York–based designer Angel Chang had to forget everything she knew about fashion. Her label’s clothing is made using age-old techniques developed by China’s indigenous Miao and Dong ethnic minority tribes, whose procedures are at risk of disappearing because a younger generation has, in recent years, largely been indifferent to learning them. Chang, who was born in central Indiana to Chinese immigrants, first encountered Guizhou Province’s garment-making methods while visiting the Shanghai Museum, where she saw traditional costumes—vivid, elaborately detailed attire akin to haute couture—and spent the next 10 years developing a supply chain to make them available to a global market. She tracked down artisans (many of them grandmothers) in far-flung villages, learned Chinese, and even moved to the region, immersing herself in its way of life. There, she discovered a distinctive relationship with time—one that depends on nature in lieu of a clock—that informs the slow, faithful process by which her clothes are constructed.
Chang never set out to run a sustainable fashion label. But the system she created, which involves waiting six months for cotton seeds to grow and a weaving process that yields barely 10 feet of fabric a day, produces zero-carbon clothing. Each piece, from “seed to button,” as she puts it, is manufactured within a 30-mile radius, without the use of electricity or chemicals. It’s too complicated for fashion companies to become “sustainable,” Chang says on this episode of Time Sensitive; they need to build new supply chains from the ground up. The one she devised serves as a model alternative to fast fashion.
On this episode, Chang describes the journey of patience and persistence that forged the infrastructure for her brand, talking with Spencer about persuading high fashion houses to preserve these traditional garment-making techniques; the prolonged, enlightening process of befriending Chinese artisans; harnessing wit and WeChat to build supply chains for her collection; and why indigenous knowledge is key to addressing climate change.
Chang explains why research and development for her brand took nearly 10 years, and how a Parisian fabric fair enabled her to educate high-end fashion houses about imperiled indigenous crafts.
Chang recalls her first encounter with ethnic minority costumes and her subsequent trips to China, which involved negotiating with grandmas, circumnavigating deceitful translators, and a fortuitous outburst in a taxi.
Chang details the process of building a supply chain in the remote Chinese villages of Guizhou Province, beginning with one she learned about in a National Geographic article written by Amy Tan, and how she helped artisans adapt their time-honored techniques for high fashion.
Chang describes how working with ethnic minority tribes, often through the messaging app WeChat, transformed her relationship with time.
Chang talks about the wide-ranging properties of indigo, the advantages of organic cotton, and why indigenous knowledge can help solve the climate crisis.
SPENCER BAILEY: Today on Time Sensitive, we’ve got the womenswear designer Angel Chang, who’s working with ethnic-minority artisans in rural China and recently launched her eponymous collection. Welcome, Angel.
ANGEL CHANG: Thanks, Spencer. Thanks for inviting me today.
SB: So I wanted to start with the fact that you spent a decade of research and development working toward the launch of your collection this year.
SB: When it comes to going slow, at least in modern-day fashion years, that’s like an eternity. [Laughs] So why was it so important for you to take your time this way?
AC: Well, at the beginning, I actually did not intend to take so long. It’s a long story. [Laughs] How long do we have?
SB: We have time. We have time.
AC: Let me start from the beginning. In 2007, 2008—I had my own collection back then—and then the recession kind of halted all that activity. So, it took a couple years for me to figure out what to do next. I was working on the future of fashion, but because of the recession, I knew I had to create a new business model. I had never been to China, really, before. I had when I was little, once, but I grew up in Indiana, so it was a whole new place. And for some reason, I was just fascinated by these ethnic-minority costumes that I had seen. So I just went on a trip to Guizhou Province. It’s in the south of China.
Over two years, I kept traveling, and thinking I would just continue my collection, but I realized that it just took longer and longer to make the fabrics. And so, three months turned into six months, turned into one year, and then, turned into nine.
SB: Yeah. And then you started this textile line called Village Embassy, which is part of this journey. These fabrics are previously museum-level. Like you’d only find them in museums, but now you’re making them available to the public.
AC: Right. So all these costumes and fabrics were always at the museums. You can go to the Met[ropolitain Museum of Art] in New York or the British Museum in London or the [Musée du] Quai Branly in Paris. They’ve been around for centuries, but never commercially available. That’s the reason why they’re dying out now: because the next generation doesn’t want to take the time to learn them. There’s no value, monetary value, for them. They would rather go work in the factories.
So, while I was developing fabrics for my own line, many of my designer friends were asking if they could buy the fabrics. Instead of me hauling them back in my suitcase, I thought, “Okay, I’m just going to do a dedicated textile line.” At the same time that I was thinking that, the jury at Première Vision, the big fabric fair in Paris, they invited me to apply to Maison d’Exceptions, which is this special section [of the fair] where they invite twenty-five artisan workshops [from] around the world [to present their work]. It’s highly curated. They had been following me for ten years in my journey, and so we were the first group from China to be invited.
SB: And from that, you get in front of brands like Hermès, I understand, Dior—
SB: What was it like to get these powerhouse companies to help you in your journey? Because in a way, this is like building an economy for these villages, but it’s also helping you get your collection going as well.
AC: Yeah, absolutely. The initial reason why I went there is because I wanted to keep the traditional craft from disappearing, and I knew [that] as one designer myself, I wouldn’t be able to order enough quantities to do that. I would need the help of other brands with more financial resources to place big orders. One of my clients, Visvim—they’re amazing—they just kept ordering fabrics as an ongoing order of all these different patterns, and they were able to revive many patterns that even the local people had not seen in decades. Some of the dyeing techniques—the people who originally knew how to make them, they were too old to dye, so then they had to explain it to the younger people—and the younger people, meaning those who were in their fifties, right? And so it was this organic way of passing down the tradition.
I’d worked for big brands before, so meeting them at the fairs is more like meeting my colleagues on the design teams. And so there’s this really great synergy because we all share the same value of wanting to keep this craftsmanship alive.
SB: Yeah. You understood both worlds. You understood the small village and you understood the Paris fashion house.
SB: Tell me more about living with these indigenous Miao and Dong ethnic minority tribes. I understand that on your first trip to China in 2009, you went to Shanghai, where you stopped by the Shanghai Museum and saw these traditional costumes that they had made, behind glass. What happened after that? I understand you were surprised by that. How did you befriend these artisans? Could you talk about what it was like to learn to not only communicate with them, but also help build a revenue stream and a network of things happening around the village in relationship to this craft?
AC: On that first trip to the Shanghai Museum, I was just going as a tourist and by myself. I went to the top floor, [and] I saw these beautiful costumes. I started my career at Donna Karan, where part of my job was meeting all the fabric mills—the best fabric mills and the best embroiders in the world. When I saw those costumes, I was so surprised because it looked like haute couture. It was so meticulously done and in detail, and my thought was, These costumes are from two hundred years ago. But the little sign next to it, it said, “Made in 1990.” At that time, like twenty, thirty years ago, I knew the grandmothers, or the artisans, were still alive, who could make it. I was coming from New York then, so my mentality was, “Oh, okay. I’ll just fly down there and order some fabrics.” That clearly didn’t work, which is why you asked why it took so long.
I went down there. I couldn’t speak Chinese at the time, so I had a translator and a driver. They had accompanied the collectors of the British Museum, who had been going door to door buying textiles. He told me, “Yeah, I can introduce you to all the grandmothers who are doing this. But you should do what those collectors did, and buy up everything you can, because this tradition will die out in the next five to ten years.” And I thought, Wow, that was so sad. Why would I buy them all up? Why can’t we find a way to keep it going? So he said, “No way. No matter how much you teach the younger people, they’re not going to want to learn. They just want to go to the factories and have these easy factory jobs.” So, I was suspicious. I was, like, “No way. You just pay them and they can do it.”
Over the next two years, I kept going back and speaking with grandmothers— I don’t know if you’ve ever negotiated with grandmothers. [Laughs] It can take four hours, and you have to sit there and eat with them, share a meal, learn about their daughters and their grandkids, and then learn over the whole process. At the beginning, I would say, “Oh, can you grow some cotton for me?,” or, “Can you weave some silk?” And they’ll go [on] for like an hour about how they can’t do it, or two hours about, “Oh, that was our lives back then. We were so poor. We couldn’t afford anything, so that’s why we had to grow the silkworms. Oh, what a horrible life.”
The more they told me not to do it, the more interested I became—obviously, right? They’re like, “Oh yeah, we grow the silkworms between the months of April to June, when the mulberry tree leaves are fresh and can be fed to the worms. But you don’t want to do that. You just want to go to the market and buy some factory-made silk jackets. It’s cheaper to do it that way.” And I’m like, “No, that’s not what I want.” After four hours of talking with them, then they kind of give in, they’re like, “Well, okay. We’ll plant the cotton, or we’ll grow the worms, but it’ll take six months.” So then I’m like, “Okay, I’ll be back in six months.” [Laughs] So, I had to negotiate that. And then, they’d never sold it before, so I had to negotiate the price with them. And then, I do come back in six months, and then they may not have it. They may have forgotten about it.
Part of the nine years was understanding how to work with these villagers and these farmers, who have probably never met anyone who’s not Chinese, never met an American, never been on a plane. And so it’s this whole different world. And they live really closely in touch with the cycles of nature. So if I was to say, “I need a hundred meters of fabric in four to six weeks, and I’ll pay you in thirty days,“—these terms that we’re used to in New York—well, they wouldn’t get it, you know? So I had to learn how to adapt to their expectations.
SB: And a different time structure.
AC: And a totally different time structure, yeah. If I gave them a deadline, it would be weather-dependent. So, I could be like, “Okay, I need this in two weeks.” And they’d say, “Okay, we’ll try.“ And then, of course, at two weeks, it starts to rain, and it rains for five days, and [they’d] say, like, “Hey, it’s delayed now [for] five days.” And then, because there’s so much humidity in the air, the fabric will not dry properly. So, all of that just adds together. I just don’t do deadlines anymore.
SB: It’s fascinating to me to think about our clothes [as] closer to something like food or wine. I think we’ve become so used to thinking about them, especially in a post–Industrial Revolution society, as something that’s factory-made, not something that’s connected to the earth and to the seasons and to these other time cycles. We talk about wine in these revered terms, like, “Oh, 2012 is a great year.” We don’t really talk about clothes that way, unless we’re talking about, “Oh, this designer had an interesting runway season.”
AC: Right. We’ve gone into fake seasons in fashion, not real seasons. When I’m in the village, it is a lot like wine, because the climate on one side of the mountain can affect how the embroideries and color is developed on the other side of the mountain. So because all these villages were not accessible by road for centuries, you had to walk from one village to the other on a small farmer trail through the woods, through the mountains, through fields, and [it] could take you half a day to get to the next village.
Think about how your village of four hundred, eight hundred people would have seen the world and developed culturally over four centuries. Your language is going to be different, your songs are going to be different, the way you dress, your hairstyle, the colors in your costumes. All of these different villages, they all have their unique identity in their clothes.
What’s consistent, actually, is that there’s pleating in many of them. They all have pleated skirts. But some might have white jackets, some might have square embroidery, some might have triangle-pleated embroidery, some are called the Black Miao, some are called the White Miao, some are called the Four Seal Miao. They’re all separated by how different their costumes look.
SB: I think it’s interesting to go back to your early time there learning Chinese. I understand it took you two to three years to get fluent. Could you talk about that process, and what it was like for you to learn the language of your ancestors?
AC: Yeah. I grew up in a small city in Indiana, in Muncie. We were probably the first Chinese family to be there. And so growing up, I didn’t know anyone that spoke Chinese, besides my parents. I probably was fluent when I was four years old, but then after that I forgot all of it. When I was in college, I was in New York, and all of my friends who were Asian American—they also spoke English, obviously, because we grew up American. Part of it also was, it was hard for me. It wasn’t just learning another language. It was, like, the guilt of not learning this ancestral language that was added on top of that pressure. I was the only one in the family who couldn’t speak it. That was kind of embarrassing when we were on family trips, and my parents would introduce me to their Chinese friends.
When I went to China, I had a translator. And I would ask questions to the villagers, but I wouldn’t get the answer that I wanted. And so I knew, “Okay, this guy is not translating it in the way that I want.” So I knew that I had to start learning because I had to talk directly to the artisans. There was just too much time being wasted with someone in the middle. And so I spent some time also living in Shanghai, and they have these taxi drivers [who] only speak Chinese. If you want to go anywhere, you have to give them directions because now many of them are from outside of the city and they don’t know the roads.
My mother is Shanghainese. So when I’m in Shanghai, I’m like, “Oh, this is my town. And these guys don’t know the roads.” But I couldn’t tell them in Chinese. And one day, I was so mad that the Chinese just spewed out of my mouth. [Laughs] I was yelling at them. And then, it was so much fun. Because after all of that built in, after two or three years, suddenly, I could speak it. The same thing happened when I was in the villages. I would get so frustrated that the villagers couldn’t produce the fabric that I wanted, and then one day, it just all came out. Once that happened, things became really easy. I could start traveling to China on my own. I did not require a whole entourage of people.
I did meet a 16-year-old girl once. Her grandmother had this beautiful silk jacket costume that she had hidden away in a trunk in her home. She probably hadn’t brought it out in twenty years. Her granddaughter saw it, and was really amazed by it, and I asked her, “Would you learn this technique from your grandmother?” She said, “Yeah. If you paid me to weave it, I’ll open a workshop and I’ll do it,”—which was the complete opposite answer [from the one] that the translator was giving me. And so I knew, Okay, that’s the answer that I want. So I got rid of my translator.
When I was living there, I was doing these sketches of all these dresses and shirts that I wanted to design, and these teenage girls—well, they probably were, like, preteen, 12 years old—they would surround me and choose which sketches they liked. All girls love clothes. It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from. They were all excited. I told them I was going to make them out of their grandmothers’ fabrics. You could just see this shift in their eyes like, “Oh, really? We never thought about that.” And so it was rebranding. It was rebranding their own culture back to the younger generation. And so I was able to ask them, “Okay, if this skirt was in your grandmother’s fabrics, would you wear it?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, sure. Yeah, we can make it, too.”
SB: Could you describe these villages? I know you spent most of 2012 there. You’ve been going back [for] much of the last decade, working closely with women in the village of Tang’an. But you also went to the village of Dimen first, which you discovered from Amy Tan, who had written about it in a 2008 National Geographic story. How did you come to know these villages? And could you elaborate a little bit on the distinctions between them and what it’s like being there as an outsider?
AC: Yeah. So, adding onto why it took a decade. [Laughs] I started going to China after seeing the costumes. However, I could not find this village called Dimen and Amy Tan had written about it in 2008 in National Geographic. So I knew it existed, but I just did not know—I couldn’t find it on Google Maps.
SB: It was almost like, mythical in your mind at that point. [Laughs]
AC: Exactly. The translators and the drivers, nobody knew where it was. And so I was just going to the other villages, doing my research. And then two years into it, someone in New York told me to go meet a friend of a friend, out in Brooklyn, for coffee, a total stranger. At the end of the meeting with that person, he said, “I know the goddaughter of the owner of this place, [the Dimen Dong Cultural] Eco-Museum, in Dimen village, and she lives on the Upper West Side. Do you want to go meet her for coffee?” Okay, whoa, that’s really weird. So this whole time, she’s been here.
So I met her, and she said, “Oh yeah, I can introduce you to the owner.” A few months later, I ended up in that village. In these villages, there’s no indoor heating. So when it’s forty degrees outside, it’s forty degrees inside. They walked me through this Eco-Museum, which was a pilot project at the time, which basically means the Chinese government was—well, they were getting rid of villages and trying to get people to move into the big cities. Big, rapid urbanization. But then, what this Eco-Museum said [was], “Look, we can keep this village the way it is and we’ll show that you can still invite tourists and bring in revenue without destroying the local culture. So just let us do this pilot, and you can see how it goes.” So that’s how Amy Tan ended up at the Eco-Museum.
Dimen is a small village of, I think, two thousand people. And so, when I went there, I was the only one there. It was super cold, and they gave me this tour of the facility. One of the outdoor spaces was for dyeing fabric, and they said, “We’ve been looking for a designer for two years to use this and dye fabric.” And I thought, “Wow, I’ve been looking for you guys for two years and I’ve been looking for a workshop to dye [in].” And so we decided to work together. So I moved out of my New York apartment, moved straight to this little village, Dimen, and I spent the next few years there training artisans to pass down their knowledge to the younger people, making fabrics. I made my first pilot collection there in 2012, which I presented in Paris in 2013.
SB: How did you begin exploring these other villages around Dimen?
AC: Yeah. So Dimen was really difficult to get to. From New York, you’d have to fly to Shanghai, overnight, and then fly to Guiyang, which is another two hours, and then drive another five hours to get to the village. So the travel could take you two or three days, and you’re wiped out from jet lag by the time you arrive.
Some stuff was happening in China at the time with all this rapid modernization. There was all this infrastructure the government was building: roads, freeways, and the high-speed rail system. So within three to five years, there was suddenly a regional airport, like, two hours away. So I started to fly there. At the same time that there was an airport, there was a highway, so it was no longer these meandering, scary mountain roads. It was a straight shot. So that cut driving in half. Then, two years later, we had high-speed rail. It cut my travel down like five hours, five or six hours.
Most of the fabric-making artisans are in another village called Zhaoxing. It’s the biggest Dong village in Guizhou. Before, it would take me nine hours to drive there, but now, with the train, I could get from the nearest airport to the village in one and a half hours. So I started going there. The Eco-Museum at Dimen, they had created one up in Tang’an, which is at the top of this mountain next to Zhaoxing. That’s a lot of village names. [Laughs] But basically I went there, the government liked what I was doing, the Eco-Museum liked what I was doing, and so they offered to build a dye studio for me and create a workshop building.
So that took another two years to finish. When they did finish, I received a grant from the Smithsonian [Asian Pacific American Center] to create a small training program there. Before, the fabrics could be woven and could be made, but my dream was to hand-do the entire process, from the hand-spinning to the hand-weaving to the hand-sewing. And so with that grant from the Smithsonian, we were able to create that whole training program.
SB: You were building kind of a support network along the way, too, that got stronger with each step or introduction.
AC: Yes. As a designer, I want good materials. Before, I would just buy them from the textile mill and not know where it was made. But in this situation, I wanted fabric, but no one would sell it to me. And it didn’t exist, so I had to make it myself. In order to do that, I had to figure out how it was going to be grown, the cotton, who was going to spin it, who was going to weave it, who was going to dye it, where we were going to get the indigo, and then who could sew it. The villagers couldn’t sew high-quality clothing. I mean, they could sew their costumes, but it wasn’t finished in a way that anybody would pay over a few hundred dollars for it in the U.S. It just wasn’t matching the quality standards here for the time that they would spend on it.
So I had to create the patterns, teach them the finishes—just tweak them a little bit, so they looked [to be] at the quality level that their price could ask for. Yeah, I guess I created this whole supply chain and a local infrastructure, local economy for this.
SB: Yeah. Well, I think it’s worth noting, it takes a minimum of six months to make your pieces. You describe your line as “seed to button,” which I haven’t heard. I’ve heard “farm to fabric,” I’ve heard “farm to label,” but never that. So tell me about the production process.
AC: Yeah. So I had to add “button” because buttons don’t exist in nature. They don’t just grow off of trees. You have to make them, and you have to make the buttonholes, right? At that point, I wanted everything to follow the traditional process and not use any plastic or metal, because that would mean that they were machine-made and they would have to be shipped from somewhere else, and we couldn’t wait a month for them to be shipped.
So the villages figured out a way to create a buttonhole. Oh, they were very inventive. They took one of their embroidery techniques, and they made a hole with that. And then they did these hand-knot buttons, which are these traditional Chinese buttons. So that’s the button process. I feel it was my biggest accomplishment, creating handmade buttons, because yeah, you just don’t see them anywhere in the market. You actually do see them on Savile Row, with those men’s tailored suits. That’s the only place I’ve seen them.
SB: What’s it been like for you—slowing down, working closely with these artisans, not to mention living in these villages for long periods of time—how has it shifted your relationship with time? What is village time like, versus, say, New York City time? Do you think it’s been really helpful to you and your process, having this slowed-down view?
AC: Yeah. I realized time is really a mindset. In the first two years that I would go from either New York or Shanghai into the villages, I’d have this weird experience where I’d be in this plane, and suddenly—it was like being in a scene in a novel—where suddenly the air would start to get foggy and blurry and you would feel like you’re entering this time warp. When you land, you’re in this tiny village where time has stopped. It’s as if time stopped a hundred years ago. And so it would happen every time I’d fly there.
I remember the first time I experienced the electricity [going] out. And the electricity goes out whenever it rains, which is like every few days or two weeks, in these villages. I mean, it rains for days. And I was freaking out because I had my laptop, my cell phone, all my electronic gadgets. But the villagers just kept carrying on, because they’ve only had electricity since 1995, so their whole lifestyle is based on these manual processes. So life just keeps going at this handmade pace. And because they don’t use electricity, then things are dried out in the sun, they’re farming—the plows that they’re using are actually the water buffalo that are just, you have a stick that’s attached to the back of them and the farmer is just guiding them in the rice paddies.
So time is definitely slower. And then, when I would come back to New York, it would be over this three-day return travel process, so my mind would get adjusted. I do remember, in that first year, thinking on my return that I was coming back … how should I say? Before, city life to me was like the real world, like [the] modern world, and the village is like “village world.” But now that village and mountain life is like [the] real world, and for me, city life is like the artificial, man-made world. So it’s totally flipped for me.
You asked me about time. During our isolating-at-home period [during the pandemic], I was not able to travel to China. And so what happened here in New York was, time expanded, right? So one day could seem really long, but then one week would have gone by really fast. And so time, for me—I realized I can manipulate it. If I felt like I was short on time, I would just have to change my mindset, be in a super-quiet room like this, and then suddenly, time feels like it expands. So even though we’re chronologically—the hours and the minutes, they’re going by—it’s more about our experience that we have at the moment that really determines how we think time is moving. Is time moving fast? Is time moving slow?
SB: That’s so how I want people to be listening to this podcast, by the way. [Laughs]
AC: Great. This is why I loved being in New York during quarantine because, sure, I could not travel to the village into the mountains, but I realized living there was just a mindset. So I could feel the same kind of calmness, serenity, and slowing down of time in my one-bedroom apartment, just staring at the wall. Right? It’s just a shift. I don’t know how one does that shift, but when we’re forced to do something, our body learns. So that was really cool. So now I know, when I’m in the village, I can be super stressed like [when] I’m in New York and time can go really fast, and when I’m in New York, I can expand time and make it feel like I’m in the mountains. So I actually don’t need to travel to either place to feel the rush and excitement or the calm and serenity. It’s just all in my mind and how I am shaping how I view time and space.
SB: I understand WiFi finally came to the village. How has that helped or shifted how they operate in terms of working with you, not necessarily being there all the time, in person, also having this operation that is global, is outside of the little village in China?
AC: Yeah. You know it’s funny because Hewlett Packard—I guess they call themselves HP now—there was someone on their innovation team and he met me at the TED conference. He was so fascinated by how I worked with these villagers. I was like, “Yeah, they all just got WiFi in 2017.” Then they got it in their homes in 2018. Their internet service is fifty dollars a year, and the cheapest cell phone plan is like two dollars a month. I know because I was on that one when I would travel abroad and not use my phone. So every farmer, even the poorest farmer, can afford this, and they’re all using WeChat. And so the guy from this HP innovation team was like, “Wow, that’s amazing. Can you come speak to our executives who are going to China? And can you present the way you work?”
And so I was like, “Okay. Well, sure. This is how we work.” Everyone’s on WeChat, everyone’s got a mobile phone. I’m traveling all the time, so I can’t physically be there knocking on doors and driving from village to village, transporting these fabrics or coordinating. So now, on WeChat, I text them what I need. We can do voice messages—because I can’t read Chinese yet, I can only speak it and understand it. But if I write in English, then they can respond in Chinese and it will be translated on both sides. I had a French production person and she would write in French, and that would also be translated into English on my phone, and then to Chinese for the artisans, in real time.
Once the production order is put in place, now I’ve got to pay the villagers. They need to be paid up-front. So, instead of paying them cash, by hand, I can pay them now on WeChat. I can even buy them watermelons and bananas on WeChat, and then pay the driver to send it to them or the seller. This is all happening while I’m in New York.
SB: Through a single device.
AC: Through a single device, right, and I’m twelve hours behind China. So while I’m sleeping, they’re getting all this stuff done. So that’s the production side.
Now, on the client side. Let’s take, for example, my client in Japan, and they’re on WeChat, too. And they say, “Okay, how’s the fabric going? Is it going to be delivered?” And I say, “Yes. Here are pictures and videos of it being made.” I send it to them directly on WeChat, and they say, “Okay, looks great. Oh, can you make this color slightly different?” And I say, “Okay,” and I send that message back to the villagers, and they do it. I go to bed. When I wake up, it’s all done. Now we have to coordinate shipping. The client approves it, so I go back onto WeChat, and I go to FedEx—FedEx in China—I say, “Okay, we want to ship to Japan.” I go online on FedEx’s website and I create a shipping label. From my desktop on WeChat, I send that shipping label to their WeChat at FedEx in China. They get it, they print it out. They put it on the box, and it goes to Japan. That’s it. And then the client, they pay me, and then I pay the villagers back by WeChat.
So it’s all on one phone. This HP innovation executive was like, “Whoa, that’s insane. You’re creating a global business just with a single smartphone.”
SB: And all the middlemen, and the different people that would have been involved in that whole system and chain of things previously, just wouldn’t.
AC: Right, they wouldn’t. Well, actually they didn’t exist at all—it was me. I had to figure [out] a way to do it, because we couldn’t wait another nine years. We just had to get it done.
SB: Right. Well, and that efficiency seems to be not only in the midst of a pandemic, but even as we come out of this and we look toward the future, like such a modern way of doing business.
AC: Yeah. It’s really weird. So much time was wasted just in transporting things and waiting for things, and now you can just collapse all of that through technology. What’s amazing is that these villagers have only had their phones for two or three years, and yet they don’t flinch when I say, “Okay, let’s ship this to Japan all on our phone.” It’s not like, “Oh, we can’t do that.” It’s like there’s no preconceived notion of what a phone can and cannot do.
SB: Yeah. I mean, some of these are grandmothers who literally have been holding a phone for three years.
AC: Yeah, and they can’t read on top of that, which is great because I can’t read either.
SB: I wanted to also bring up the fact that you have this production process where it takes the months to grow the cotton, the months to spin the yarn, months to dye it. Could you talk about the process? Specifically, I wanted to bring up indigo, which is such a special tradition of the region. Could you talk about how these families all have these indigo divots in their homes?
AC: Yes. Chinese history goes back five thousand years. So the Chinese say indigo has been around for five thousand years, but it’s actually probably been around for longer. They did find it in Peru five thousand years ago also, but the plant itself is so strange. It’s like, in my mind, like ayahuasca. How did people from all these different cultures around the world know to take this green leaf, soak in water, and add wood ash to it, and ferment it, and then dye fabric and turn it blue? How is that possible?
When I first went to China, I was not a meditator, I was not spiritual. I did not have any kind of practice like that. But as I was living in the villages, I had these experiences where I felt, “Oh, my gosh, that plant is talking to me.” It would happen over and over [again]. Amy Tan actually has a TED Talk where she’s talking about the magic, about what’s happening in these villages. So I know I’m not crazy. It’s happening to other people, too.
Indigo is one of those things—the Miao say [that] it’s the only dye that has a soul. It’s kind of like it’s part of the family. So they keep it. It’s a cold water bath. You can have it in your home without doing anything to it. You have to feed it with rice-wine alcohol. That rice wine, they would grow because they’re growing rice, and then they ferment the rice wine. So they’re not buying anything. It’s just they’re all making it. Then every day they have to feed with that alcohol to keep the pH level where it needs to be, and then to oxygenate it by stirring it and it stays alive. So it’s kind of like a pet. [Laughs] If it’s doing well, then the fabric that you are dyeing is this vibrant blue color. If it’s suffering, it will turn to a more dirty blue-green.
Indigo is really special because it is an antiseptic. All these natural dyes have medicinal qualities to them. They actually evolved alongside traditional Chinese medicine. In the villages, if you had a cut, you would take a piece of cloth, dip it in the indigo dye and then wrap it around the cut, and then it heals [it] like a Band-Aid. If you had skin problems, you would take some of that fermented indigo and put it on your face or the skin. Kids do that a lot.
You can also use it to bake bread, I’m told, so it’s edible. It’s taken on, also, a spiritual nature, because they would give indigo-dyed fabric as gifts to people and wrap it around the beams of their homes for protection so [as] to keep the bad spirits away. Indigo is also cooling. If you look at traditional Chinese medicine, it has cooling properties. So when you have a jacket dyed with it, it will cool your skin down, cool your body down, which is really important when you are a farmer out in the fields, because the sun is hot. On top of that, it’s a natural insecticide, so it keeps mosquitoes away because of its subtle scent.
Now, the difference today is, one of the farmers, who’s 70 years old, told me [that] their kid is now working at a factory, a fast-fashion factory on the coast in China, in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. And they will bring back clothes for their grandparents as gifts. And so the grandparents, they wear them, but they say, “Wow, the modern clothes are itchy and they’re sweaty for us to wear out in the fields. But I guess since these are modern clothes, we just have to adjust and get used to it.” I told them, “No way. Your kids giving you fast-fashion and giving you polyester jackets to wear [is] really unhealthy. What you’re making is what you should be wearing. It’s the best for your skin and it’s the best for the environment.”
SB: I wanted to bring up indigenous knowledge, also known as traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK. Earlier this year, actually, on the podcast, Andrew spoke with Julia Watson, whose book Lo-TEK: [Design by Radical Indigenism], looks at indigenous philosophy and vernacular infrastructure as a means to generate sustainable technology. You’ve expressed a lot of similar ideas. Could you talk about what the disappearance of this knowledge would mean, and what the opportunities are for addressing climate change and these other things facing us that these traditional knowledges could potentially solve or help with?
AC: Right. Scientists are now acknowledging that indigenous knowledge is the key to climate change and [to] solving it, and that this traditional knowledge needs to be included in global climate discourse. The reason why indigenous knowledge is so important is because it teaches us how to live with nature—alongside nature and with nature’s resources.
Now, previously, I would have thought, Okay, that’s nice, we should be more sustainable or ecologically aware, let’s all do our part, blah, blah, blah, but there was no urgency to it. Now, with Covid-19, we are seeing how fragile humans are and [that] human extinction is a possibility. Nature can regenerate itself quite quickly and happily, probably, without us.
And so now, over the last six months, my viewpoint has totally shifted. Whereas before, I want[ed] to tell people just to be sustainable because it’s good for the planet, the planet needs our help. Now, it’s more that we humans, we need help, and we need to learn these processes. Let’s say suddenly the grid shuts down. Suddenly we don’t have electricity, we don’t have running water. I mean, all these things have happened in New York, so we know that this could happen tomorrow. Would we be able to survive? Probably not. We don’t know where to get fresh water. We don’t know what to do without our phones or our computers. We wouldn’t know where to get food. We’re so dependent on grocery stores to magically have food for us to buy it. If we didn’t have currency, how would we even get food if we could find someone selling it to us?
So we don’t have the survival skills needed to actually live on the planet outside of this artificial, man-made system that we’ve created for ourselves. So if there is a tsunami, a flood, a hurricane, the people who are going to survive are the indigenous people because they know how to live on this planet. What we have to do is learn how to go back to basics—learn how humans lived before the invention of electricity and before we used so much fossil fuels—learn how to live back on the land, and just learn how to be human, because our survivability is at stake. If not us, then our future generations.
SB: Well, it strikes me that not only does indigenous knowledge include this incredible understanding of craft and a relationship to the planet, but also a relationship to time, and to understanding time through planetary time, not financial time, not clock time, necessarily.
AC: Yeah. So clock time and financial time, those are all man-made and artificial ways of measuring things. When I’m in the villages, time is measured by, well, when the sun rises and when it sets, and when it rains and when the rain stops, and how long it takes for fabric to dry. And also when someone is born and when someone dies.
So time can be very flexible in those ways. You can say, “I’ll meet you in three hours,” but in three hours, there might be some rain, there might be a landslide, it might have stopped the traffic on the road, and there are all these other variables that come from nature that are out of your control. So even if I say, “I’ll meet you in three hours,” the other person may not show up at that exact time. There has to be flexibility.
We’ve become so dependent on this man-made time. The Greeks, I believe they call it chronos. Chronos is what we measure in time, but there’s another word for time [kairos], and that time is measured in experiences and in nature, what I’m explaining to you now. We’ve become so separated from that, that we need to go back and learn that.
SB: To finish and wrap up here, how do you think about all of this in the context of resilient systems, of thinking locally, of this idea that came up in what you were just saying about efficiency and control? What would you be recommending to these companies that are operating at these large scales, and what some might even call artificial, man-made, not necessarily so human-scale operations? What can they learn? And what can we all ultimately learn from this culture and understanding and know-how that you’ve been so intimately involved with?
AC: Yeah. There’s one thing I would like to answer before answering this one, and that is, according to the U.N., we have ten years to drop our carbon emissions by 45 percent., Otherwise, the world’s going to increase its temperature by 1.5 degrees Celsius. So ten years, by 2030, and we have until 2050 to become net-zero. Now, we can’t do that at the current rate that we’re going right now. Our lifestyle—it’s just not possible. But no one’s giving us the path [for] how to live a net-zero or a zero-carbon lifestyle. When I created this collection, ten years ago, I was not a sustainable designer.
SB: It wasn’t about “sustainable” fashion or Slow Fashion or—
AC: Exactly. It wasn’t about that. It was about trying to keep a traditional craft from disappearing. Then as I went down to it, it just made more sense and was more efficient if we did not use man-made products, if we just used what nature had to give us, and then designed based off of that.
What I realized, five years into it, is that we had created clothing that was zero carbon. It was all locally made within a thirty-mile radius. From the growing, the spinning, the weaving, the dyeing, and the sewing, there was no electricity used because the sun was used to dry everything. The spinning was done by hand, not by some big industrial machines. I mean, now, during Covid, I don’t even need to fly there. They can just make it themselves, without me. So my carbon footprint’s out of it. You can compare that to the average cotton T-shirt, which travels forty-five thousand miles around the world to be sold, to be made and sold for ten dollars, versus thirty miles in this village where we’re not using any fossil fuels and no chemicals, and it’s biodegradable because it’s just cotton that’s grown organically from the soil.
Side note: Everyone needs to support organic cotton, because it only makes up 0.6 percent of global cotton production. I mean, think about that. Genetically modified cotton has only been around for the last twenty-five years, and now it makes up 99.4 percent of all cotton. It’s really bad for the environment. The insecticides and the pesticides that are used, and all the water—it’s really a water-thirsty plant. Native-seed organic cotton is not like that. It uses something like 95 percent less water because all the water comes from the rain or from the water in the soil. It’s not irrigated. It uses ninety-one percent less chemicals. It doesn’t use insecticides or pesticides like the GMO variety does. It’s also a native seed, so farmers don’t have to keep buying it every year.
So my process is, I use native seed organic cotton, and it doesn’t cost a lot of money to do it. In fact, it doesn’t cost any money, because nature provides it all for “free.” Free, I put in quotes. For a company today to go sustainable, you can’t become quote-unquote “sustainable” by using your current infrastructure. You need to build it from the ground up and have that supply chain built in. It’s too expensive to take your process that you already have right now and suddenly convert it to be sustainable. It’s not going to work, and it’s going to cause a lot of stress. We’re not going to get to net zero by doing that.
How great is it that we’re at a time [when], yes, many industries are collapsing right now and supply chains [are going] south, but it gives us an opportunity to think of new ways to re-create our lifestyle and to produce products that are zero carbon. Right now, the way that we’re living, we’re not going to make it, but thank goodness, thanks to Covid, despite all of the tragedy and the suffering that we’re going through, it’s kind of cleared the path for us where we can create this new future.
SB: Sort of like a speed bump. We’ve got to figure out what speed we want to go on the other side.
AC: Yeah, many speed bumps. [Laughs]
SB: Angel, this is great. Thank you so much for coming in.
AC: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me, Spencer. It was really fun.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Sept. 10, 2020. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. This episode was produced by our managing director, Mike Lala, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.