When the going gets tough, the tough go running. The stress of starting a fashion label was so intense that Wei Lin, the co-founder of groundbreaking knitwear brand PH5, took to literally pounding the pavement to cope. “It was either that or drinking, says Lin with a laugh.
Her tenacity has paid off. Today, not only is she an Ironman competitor, but the New York based, made-in-China brand is a fashion critics’ favourite. Its designs have been featured in the pages of Vogue and WWD, and its story has been told in The New York Times and Forbes. But in September 2016, when Wei Lin and Mijia Zhang launched PH5, they were part of just a handful of designers hailing from the Far East showing in the Big Apple.
How the mighty have risen. This year, Lin counted at least 30 budding Chinese fashion designers on the SS19 roster at New York Fashion Week. And PH5 is out to prove that “made in China” means high-quality, boundary-pushing design and execution.
“There will be more talents coming out of that land and it is our job to make sure we’re going to last,” says Lin, who was born in China but who spent her teenage and college years stateside. The former business consultant quit her job in New York to turn fashion entrepreneur. She staged a takeover of her family’s knitwear factory in Dongguan, Guangzhou to turn it into a fashion laboratory for PH5’s avant garde knitwear.
It’s may have just four collections under its belt, but PH5’s designs are so edgy and adventurous that the brand has been hailed as the next Missoni or Alaia. Lin and Zhang have also collaborated with the likes of Fitbit and Mini Cooper.
The production processes require a very particular human-robot interaction.
Parsons graduate Zhang, who is the recipient of the 2014 Kering Empowering Imagination award, sketches the designs. Lin and Zhang head to the fashion lab where they work with engineers to create algorithms and codes. These “translate” the designs for the factory machines, so that each garment can be machine-knit in one single piece.
It’s an unprecedented feat. The shapes and print combinations – think scalloped hems, or complex striping with solid colours in a single garment – are difficult to produce in one piece with no extra seams or hems. But according to Lin, the process results in imitation-proof clothing.
PH5’s designs are knit in one single piece, and are made in the Chinese-American brand’s fashion lab in Guangzhou.
Lin used the fashion lab as the stage for PH5’s FW18 lookbook and campaign. She made sure that photographs included second-generation factory workers and even fengshui artefacts that belong to Lin’s mother.
Keyyes speaks to Lin about how her upbringing contributed to the advent of PH5, and how the brand views sustainability.
Why did you start a knitwear brand?
I grew up in the knitwear factory, seeing millions of sweaters getting made every year. Knits are such a big revenue driver for a lot of brands but they are super conservative (with design). The chunky sweater stays chunky, the cable knit stays cable. I didn’t want to do the same. Since this is our platform, we need to push the boundaries.
What are the benefits to having a family-owned factory?
We are not backed by an outside investor, so we don’t have to (answer to them and) make money immediately, producing commercial pieces. We can take more risks. We have something new and fresh to say with our designs.
I always joke about how this brand copies that brand. But because of PH5’s proprietary technology that we developed in the factory, you can’t really copy us. If you do, chances are, it’ll actually be more expensive.
What are the challenges in selling knitwear?
The silhouette of knitwear is often the Herve Leger bodycon dress or the oversized sweater. Designs that are in between, like PH5’s, are less common.
How do you ensure sustainability in PH5’s creations?
We knit to the exact shape of the garment. There are no leftovers, unlike with woven fabrics where one cuts pieces to shape. If we make a mistake with the shape, we ‘recycle’ by undoing the fabric, and turning it back to yarn. Then, we knit it again. Every season, we are pushed to use environmentally-friendly or recycled yarn and we try to incorporate some of that in our designs; it is our way of supporting this cause.
PH5 is available at SocietyA