Chinese Fashion Designer Susan Fang Is Making The Dresses Of Her Dreams

With her airy dresses and innovative knitwear inspired by nature, the London-based designer spreads her philosophy of love and freedom
Susan Fang Spring/Summer 2024 (Photo: Jess Segal)
Susan Fang Spring/Summer 2024 (Photo: Jess Segal)

Like a modern-day flower child, Susan Fang advocates for love and peace. But instead of using songs and slogans, the Chinese-born, London-based fashion designer does so through her eponymous label, established in 2017.

Fang’s dresses, knitwear and accessories are the stuff of daydreams. They often have an airy quality to them; in fact, the word “air” is a prefix to many of Fang’s collection titles and the names of the construction techniques that she invents. Her signature “air-weave” technique, which requires stitching layers of lightweight fabric strips together in a three-dimensional grid, results in shapeshifting garments that embrace the body—any body.

Inclusivity is important to Fang, who spent much of her childhood growing up in different parts of the world, including China, Canada and the United States. She eventually ended up in London, where she studied fashion at Central Saint Martins before working for Phoebe Philo’s Celine and Stella McCartney. The 31-year-old says, “I think because I was constantly travelling, I began to love different perspectives and cultures. I hope to explore beauty and creation as something that can unify everyone.”

Designer Susan Fang established her fashion brand in 2017. She is based in London and Shanghai (Photo: Charles Guo)
Designer Susan Fang established her fashion brand in 2017. She is based in London and Shanghai (Photo: Charles Guo)

All that travelling has also led Fang to find comfort in nature. Elements like flowers, butterflies, and water droplets can be seen across her clothing and cult bags. Her bestselling bubble accessories, handcrafted from crystal-glass beads, was inspired by a particular memory of the ocean. Of course, sustainability comes naturally to her, too. Fang’s textile innovations, like her air-weaves, are often the result of a creative process that aims to reduce waste. She uses her own leftover fabrics, surplus materials from luxury brands and eco-conscious practices like 3D printing.

More than anything, Fang’s collections are a labour of love. At her atelier in Shanghai, she works alongside her mother and her aunts to handcraft her delightful designs. She has stayed true to her unabashedly romantic and feminine aesthetic, which has now left its mark across collaborations with Zara, Crocs, and most recently, & Other Stories. “I want to always bring the message that we can dream big, and that hope can make miracles happen,” says Fang. Below, the designer tells us more about the inspirations behind her Spring/Summer 2024 collection and what lies in the future of her fashion brand.

How has the Chinese fashion industry evolved since you launched your brand in 2017?

Susan Fang (SF): I think I was really lucky to start my brand at a time when young designers in the fashion industry were just blossoming. I really received so much support and made best friends on this journey. Now, the economy is more sensitive and we need to do more conservative planning while still having the courage to try new steps. It is an important time for us to grow internationally. In the near future, I hope to launch our own perfume, cosmetics and furniture lines. They would be so fun to design; we already love incorporating scents, fun makeup ideas and set designs in our shows. I would also really love to do more sportswear and sneaker collaborations too.

Known for her innovative textile techniques, Susan Fang
introduced “air-weave smocking” for Spring/Summer
Known for her innovative textile techniques, Fang introduced “air-weave smocking” for Spring/Summer 2024 (Photo: Jess Segal)

Your brand is based in both Shanghai and London. How do the two cities influence you?

SF: Shanghai is where my family and close friends are. I love the speed, openness and also the creative passion of the city. London is where my husband is and where I can focus inwardly on planning the collections. Most of the handcrafting is done in our studio in Shanghai, where we have a bigger team led by my mom. In London, we still make a lot of our collections, especially nearer to the show date. London is also where we now do most of our showcases.

How do you stay connected to nature, even when working between two cities?

SF: My mom and I love nature. We try to travel whenever we have the chance. When we shoot our campaigns, we try to visit places with beautiful scenery, such as Qinghai, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Mexico and recently, Tanzania. It’s such an inspiring experience to go on a road trip and experience a new culture, meeting beautiful people by chance and inviting them to model for our photography project.

How would you describe your working collaboration with your mother?

SF: My mom is the person who gets me the most. When I first used the “air-weave” technique in our first collection, it was so complex that most seamstresses couldn’t get it. Only my mom understood it right away. It took us one month to hand-weave a one-metre-long air-weave at that time. She constantly thought of how to improve the technique. When I later made a new technique called “air-embroidery”, where we embroider layers of feathers in between layers of transparent organza, we wanted to mimic the effect of ink floating and vanishing in water. I asked my mom to embroider some flowers too, and she depicted a garden with some butterflies on top. She ended up with a nicer air-embroidery than mine. I think it’s because her mind is so vivid as she loves painting and nature. Now, I ask my mom to start colour matching a lot of our “air-flower” designs as her sense of colour is more lively. She pretty much sculpts a garment layer by layer on the mannequin. Our beaded and crochet pieces—especially the crochet boots this season—were really designed by her. She makes them with love.

Susan Fang’s Spring/Summer 2024 collection features prints made from drawings by her loved ones, blended with an AI tool (Photo: Jess Segal)
Susan Fang’s Spring/Summer 2024 collection features prints made from drawings by her loved ones, blended with an AI tool (Photo: Jess Segal)

Sustainable practices seem to come as second nature to you. What are some new ways to reduce waste that you have used in your creative process?

SF: I am really inspired by my mom’s stories of our hometown, Ningbo, and my childhood there. At that time, there was no concept of sustainability, but there was never any waste because most people were farmers and lived close to nature. They could actually touch and feel the life of a material and utilise it to its full potential. For example, there is a lot of bamboo in Ningbo, and it’s used to make furniture, rice bowls, or pencil cases. Bamboo leaves are also used as plates for desserts. That’s how we want to approach using fabric and making clothing. With our new “air-whirl” technique, we use strips of fabric in matching gradient colours and turn them into an optical illusion, depicting a floral circle or an abstract jellyfish. Then we assemble each air-whirl into dresses of different volumes. By using only strips for the main show pieces, we are able to reduce fabric waste. We can easily reuse the fabric sections in future too.

For Spring/Summer 2024, you introduced air-weave smocking which seems like an evolution of your signature air-weave technique. How did you develop it?

SF: Traditional smocking is done through a machine, squishing layers together to make a beautiful elastic layer. We wanted to recreate it in a 3D way, allowing the layer to stretch both ways. While smocking some layers horizontally, we also hand-tacked layers going in another direction. We always hope to create a sense of liberation for the wearer.

On that note, many of your designs have the distinctive feature of being adaptable to their wearer’s body. Have you considered showcasing that through a size-inclusive model casting?

SF: Yes, we are excitedly preparing to do so, especially next season as we are working in advance with a bigger team. From the beginning, through our campaigns shot on our road trips, we have mainly shown our clothes on real people, on our friends and family, and on the local people that we meet on our travels. We have invited children, mothers, young women, dads and grandpas to model for us. We want to embrace beauty that comes from the energy and love that we have for nature and people. We hope to show that despite differences in size, age and ethnicity, we are all connected by love.

Fang’s cult bubble bag is decorated with tulle this season (Photo: Jess Segal)
Fang’s cult bubble bag is decorated with tulle this season (Photo: Jess Segal)

Speaking of love, some of your customers have worn your dresses to their wedding. You also recently got married in your own design. Have you considered launching your own bridal collection?

SF: I would love to! Many people order our showpiece dresses for their weddings, and it makes me so happy and honoured. We always hope that our handmade pieces will make people feel happy and liberated. I’ve always asked my mom to make my wedding dress. The dress she made portrays the feeling of falling in love, going from white to pink like a blossoming flower. It was recently featured on our catwalk too. We’ve actually tried to make more bridal-friendly showpieces in recent seasons. Next season, you will see more additions.

For SS24, you also explored the use of artificial intelligence (AI) through your prints. What led to that?

SF: The exploration of AI seemed unavoidable because of its sudden arrival to everyone’s lives. I wanted to open up a conversation on AI and how we should view it or how much it will change our lives. I admired AI’s productivity but was fearful of how much we could control it. I wanted to suggest that we need to embrace the spiritual gift that we have as humans—we can connect emotionally, something that is invisible and unbreakable by logic. We are gifted to love. I thought it would be a fun experiment to use my mom’s first drawings and paintings of our hometown, together with my husband’s childhood drawings, and blend them in AI with our previous marble and floral prints. I used them across many nostalgic silhouettes and details, like broderie anglaise or historical sleepwear designs, to question if AI could still create emotional pieces.

How else do you intend to explore technology in the future?

SF: Recently, we have been using Houdini to create our accessories. It’s an animation-led program that uses formulas found in nature to create nature-inspired designs. That’s how we made the flowers in our 3D-printed flower bags, the honeycomb handbag, or the bird nest lattice bag. I find this process extremely exciting, because it’s like we become much more detailed observers of nature. We see how we can use the essence of nature to design surreal creations.

Do you think fantasy is necessary to life?

SF: It definitely is. Especially in an increasingly materialistic and digital world, it’s important to return to our inner child and remember what it was that gave us joy the most. It is our gifts of imagination and fantasy that bring beauty into the physical world.

You previously mentioned that you consulted your Chinese fortune teller before a show. What is the outlook for both you and your brand in 2024?

SF: Every fashion show date has been a lucky date based on my birth chart, and it really works. It’s always a sunny day or a day where everything turns out fine in the end. I didn’t ask the fortune teller about 2024, but she recently shared with me that in the earlier part of this year, I will feel super busy with work and that the later half will be really good. I can feel the busyness already, but it’s definitely worth it!

Susan Fang Spring/Summer 2024 (Photo: Jess Segal)
Susan Fang Spring/Summer 2024 (Photo: Jess Segal)
Susan Fang Spring/Summer 2024 (Photo: Jess Segal)
Susan Fang Spring/Summer 2024 (Photo: Jess Segal)
Susan Fang Spring/Summer 2024 (Photo: Jess Segal)
Susan Fang Spring/Summer 2024 (Photo: Jess Segal)

This story originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of GRAZIA Singapore

Read more:

Designer Spotlight: Is Making The Stuff Of Dreams A Reality

From Hong Kong To Paris: The New Wave Of Emerging Designers To Know

6 Labels To Know If You’re Vying For The Sandy Liang Look