May 19, 2023
BEIJING – On the afternoon of April 15, against a backdrop of sea gulls chirping and waves crashing onto the beach, independent designer brand ZI II CI IEN unveiled its spring/summer 2023 collection at the Zen Hall in the ancient water town of Puyuan, Tongxiang city, Zhejiang province.
Using floral elements and gorgeous colors matching, Zhi Chen, the 33-year-old founder of the knitwear brand, has tried to get people to notice beautiful things that could fade away in one blink through the collection named The Moment.
After the show, Zhi revealed her wish and the concept she wanted to pass on, as if she were toasting with a glass of champagne, “to catch the beauty of every moment, and to live every moment happily”.
The new collection was inspired by a namesake picture album, which introduced US artist Alex Katz’s exhibition Flowers held by the Gladstone Gallery during Gallery Weekend Beijing in 2021. The book included his works and a few words that recorded his understanding of life during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Zhi says: “Most of my design inspiration actually comes from the beautiful moments in life that hit me.”
She recalls that on a breezy evening, with the shadows of the trees spilling gently onto the ground, the picture book with a bright cover caught her attention.
“It was very much like a crush, a moment of being hit, of romance, of going against the grain of rational analysis,” she says.
After opening the book with delight, Zhi couldn’t take her eyes off the tulips in one of Katz’s paintings. Those bright red tulips in round shapes, which are in full bloom, took her breath away.
She was also amazed by the orderly arrangement and the close-up composition of the painting. The beige background neutralizes the flamboyance that comes from the extensive red color, and creates just the right amount of retro atmosphere.
The designer then spent days drawing her own tulips, and changed the design dozens of times.
Zhi mainly struggled with whether to depict them as a bunch or in a row; whether to have the leaves flare out or snap in; whether to have highlights or heavier shadows.
“I wanted to get the design down to every pixel point,” she says.
After completing the design of this individual element, the next round of struggle began, mainly about size, sparseness and specific arrangement and superimposition.
Finally, it was decided that her tulips, which have pink petals and blue shadows, are going to grow on the irregular black-and-white checkerboard.
“People would never confuse the sunflowers painted by Vincent van Gogh with the sunflowers painted by Oscar-Claude Monet. The geometric checkerboard pattern is the hint that tells it’s a work of Zhi Chen,” says the designer.
Raised by engineer parents, Zhi took the design path and career unexpectedly.
As a young girl, she used to study science and Mathematical Olympiad course in senior middle school. She gave up on continuing her study in machinery but applied to learn the master course of fashion design and technology at the University of the Arts London in the United Kingdom.
During her study at UAL, she developed a technique that enables the seamless merging of color blocks and knitwear patterns. Using the technique, she produced knitwear underpinned by highly intricate and sophisticated fabric structures that render a smooth surface and present the intricacy as a harmonious whole.
“Order and engineering are things I love, and beauty is something I’ve been pursuing since I was a kid,” Zhi recalls, adding that when she was particularly young, she would walk across several blocks to just buy a nice-looking toothbrush. “Knitting perfectly combines both of my passions, and that’s what I eagerly want to do.”
In the spring/summer 2023 collection, Zhi also presented her iconic design, matching orange with blue to form a strong contrast. She reveals that the orange color represents the setting sun, and the blue color represents the ocean.
As she was born and grew up in Xiamen, a coastal city in Fujian province, she often went for a walk or a bike ride on the beach after school.
“I want to pass the chilling out and satisfying mood to people through my design,” Zhi says.
Last year, the designer returned to her hometown and spent four months there for the first time after she turned 18.
The pace of life slowed because of the pandemic, and Zhi got the chance to look back at the life she has lived, to talk to herself, to rest and even just to count her breaths lying on the bed.
“I work in an industry that spreads beauty, but it consumes me much time and energy just to release a new collection in each season. I have deadlines to meet, one after another. For a very long time, I might have lost my natural designer’s sensibility. I wouldn’t notice that the flowers are blooming on that tree, or how pleasing it is to see spring has arrived.”
Katz mentioned in the picture book the importance of living in the moment, which is definitely not a new concept. But it encouraged Zhi to follow her heart instead of some industry rules.
“Society tells you a lot of rules, such as people should get married or get a stable job, but these rules are not necessarily the most important things for the individual,” Zhi says.
Success and challenge
The designer once frequently designed with black, white and gray colors, which are widely recognized as classic and advanced, when she just began to study at UAL. But she soon realized that “the best part of being a designer is the freedom to make gentle, carefree and spontaneous decisions”.
“What’s important is who you are,” she adds.
Zhi has received many international recognitions, including the Asian Winner of the International Woolmark Prize 2019, the Fashion Scout SS19 Merit Award in the UK, the Fashion Scout AW18 Ones to Watch Award, the Lodz Young Fashion Award 2017, and the Lane Crawford Creative Collective Award 2017.
Her fashion and installation works have been exhibited in internationally renowned museums, including The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Design Museum in London, and she was invited by the MoMA to create an exhibit for the special fashion exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern in 2017.
As a successful designer, Zhi says the greatest thing that the brand has brought her is courage.
“Establishing this brand was completely not my life plan, and the whole process of exploring and experimenting was full of challenge, as well as unprecedented happiness and satisfaction. It has taught me to be brave, to challenge myself and to explore different possibilities,” she says.
Hu Zhixi, a Chinese singer, describes the show in Puyuan with the word “romantic”.
Xu Yi, one of the viewers at the show, comments: “The eye-catching colors and the hat in a dramatic shape all look perfect. I surely want to enjoy the sunset by the ocean in such knitwear.”