Meet Yin-Hsin Chang, the designer using bags as a vehicle for storytelling
Royal College of Art (RCA) graduate Yin-Hsin Chang has a unique take to her bag designs. Having worked in costume design, she combines her knowledge of costumes and theatre to create extravagant bags. Designing a bag, for her, is a way of storytelling; giving each bag their own personality. This is especially evident in her collection, Up in the gallery in which she creates a collection of bags for circus performers, showing the hidden side of their personalities. Recently she took the time to describe to us in more detail why she choose to merge her background in costume and fashion design, what inspires her, and the challenges she faces as a designer.
Describe your style of design in three words.
Fantastical, whimsical, and vibrant.
What got you into fashion?
I have a background in theatre and worked as a costume designer for a few years. As a costume designer, I designed clothing and accessories for actors and plays. But I hope my work can involve the nuances of everyday life, because I see everyone as my actors. In this sense, I hope everyone can use my work for different purposes and allowing it to go beyond any role on stage. I hope to bring my knowledge of theatre into the fashion industry. By combining the skill set to design costumes with the practicality of producing commercial products, I look forward to the many inspirations I would get from marrying these two differing concepts.
What inspired your collection ‘Security Blanket’, and how have you captured the themes in your designs?
I like to observe, not only people, but also all kinds of things and scenarios. I like to think from the perspective of social conditions and human behaviours. In addition, I have been studying the usage of handbags (especially luxury handbags) in the contemporary world. I question the reasoning behind bringing so many things with us at all times, when in fact we need so little. Personally, I do have this habit as well. I believe this is a display of modern people driven by their insecurities. Handbags are no longer a simple thing to carry, but represent some people's spiritual and mental support. This insecurity can be traced back to modern people’s migration from their home, which created a sense of belonging and loss. This feeling embodies nihilism, bewilderment, anxiety, a sense of wandering and questioning our reason for existence. I developed the series 'Security Blanket' by displaying such indescribable emotions in apparel. I have designed the bags and clothing in the series to be over-sized, showing that everyone uses these materials to cover their insecurities. The series of bags are made from foam to create a soft and comfortable pillow-like feeling. As a result, the bags are no longer just containers used to carry things, but can also soothe the carrier. I visualized this sense of insecurity through the digital printing on the bags’ surface. By using dark gray tones and flowing brush as the base, the colored geometric patches represent the instability of modern life.
You used to work as a costume designer, how has this experience impacted your work?
For years, working in many theatrical programs as a costume designer allowed me to apply my academic and technical expertise to create historical pieces based on different eras. These experiences not only helped me learn new and contemporary ways to explore historical clothing, but also to effectively bring out the ethos of these plays. It also helped me developed an appreciation for the overall effect accessories have in both historical and modern fashion. I still retain the thought process behind designing costumes. It’s a method based on storytelling and accentuating plots to give each bag its own unique personality. I create a fantasy world, imagining it from a black space, and then add a period background, a stage, a story, some characters, and they become the starting point for developing a theme, which gives me the first visual concept. At RCA, I tried to combine the knowledge of costume design and theatre to fashion. I decided to create bags not only based on people’s point of view, but also based on their hidden personalities. I believe there is a huge world behind people’s appearances, similar to what is seen onstage and backstage. Therefore, I believe accessories can also help people tell their personal stories.
Describe a typical wearer of Yin-Hsin Chang bags.
I don’t want to limit to a specific style. What I hope to see more is that my bags are being worn and used flexibly. I think their use by different wearers can prolong the longevity of the work, as if giving the work a chance to be recreated by the wearer. This is why fashion has always fascinated me.
What inspired your decision to focus on bags?
I am fascinated by delicately hand-crafted leather goods, their sophisticated finishes on artisan materials, and ornate detailing. It is through this fascination that I have developed an admiration for traditional craftsmanship. I was more interested in hard materials than soft ones, especially using leather as my main creative material. I started to learn leather crafting, then further my understanding of the bag’s construction. By studying and dismantling bags from major international brands, the process helped me understand these bags’ construction and integration of traditional crafts.
What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?
The personal creative approach and how to apply the concept of theatre clothing design to fashion design, and how to strike a balance between them. After all, the two concepts have very different starting points. In addition, I hope that while designing more beautiful fashion products, I can convey the natural thought process I have for society and people in general. The hardest part for me is to convey the different ideas I hope to project: what kind of technique should be used to create, what sort of materials to use, what kind of forms to create, and what kind of atmosphere would I be creating so my message can be delivered clearly.
Where do you generally find inspiration?
From works of fiction, movies, theatre, music, art, etc. everything that can help me create a new version of the world are all inspirations for me. As for my own interests in the creating process, I like to follow the styles back to their roots. It could be in forms of understanding the background of a writer, or the influence of a particular cultural phenomenon. For example, in terms of theatre play, we can analyze the script from its source. The writing of the script can incorporate elements of concurrent literary influences, and from there we can glean different directors' views and interpretations on the source material.
What’s your favourite piece in your current collection?
My graduate collection 'Up in the gallery’ at RCA is my favourite. I created a collection of seven bags for circus performers. These bags exhibit the hidden side of their personalities and individually have its own story and character. The bag series ‘Up in the Gallery’ is inspired by Kafka's story of the same name. The story offers two possible versions of a scene in which a young man watches a woman on horseback. The young man imagines the woman's repetitive performances circling the ring as routine and tired. The woman who is forced to do the laps is tired of her role in the circus. But, in contrast, what he sees during the performance is an amazing physical feat celebrated by the audience and the ringmaster. Both versions of reality are possible, but which one is real? What is the woman's reality? Theatre is also fascinating to me because it mixes reality with fantasy. On the stage we see the showmanship of the circus performers. But we also see how, backstage, these performers are very different. They come from the margins of society -- these are people that society has often labelled as freaks or even monsters. As a result, I decided to create a collection of bags for circus performers. They portray the hidden sides of their personalities, ones hidden from view. I created each bag's story and character. They Include: the contortionist, the conjoined twins, the giant, the dwarf, the unicyclist, and Houdini (displayed in order below). I handmade and constructed each intricate element of these bags. I developed a unique method of laminate marquetry that can be applied to flat and curved surfaces. I am continuing to develop this method and applying it onto different forms. For example, one of the bags in this series, 'the Contortionist’, can fold into a lot of different shapes. For this bag, I developed laminate marquetry to create the bag’s surface. The material laminate is usually use on the surface of furniture but I used it on bags. I was inspired to use laminate by my collages which are like marquetry. Laminate was a good material to use because it is so colourful and helps to create a vivid vision and feeling of the circus.
Do you have any role models and or influences? And how have they impacted your work?
I am interested in Franz Kafka's novels and writers influenced by him, such as Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe. They combine metaphysical themes with absolute absurdity. Their worlds often showcase the absurdly weird with surrealistic contradictions. The underlying thematic spirit of these works bring me great inspiration. Therefore, my creative theme is often used to create a fantasy world. These Kafkaesque works wrap truth and logic around a core of absolute absurdity. They create a sense of ridiculousness, contradictory surrealism, ambivalence, and an inexplicable state of existence. This world has brought me a lot of creative inspiration. Therefore, my creative theme often uses my own fantasy world as the story backdrop, where I bring the story into the work and wrapping it around the idea I want to make.
What would you change about the fashion industry at the moment?
I don’t want to change the fashion industry or follow the fashion trend. I created my own approach to fashion. I have developed my strong luxury products design method through integrating fiction-inspired design elements and combining them with traditional craft and contemporary culture. At RCA, I have two main research directions. One is how to bring my experiences in theatre to the fashion industry. The other is to study how luxury items can be promoted through other concepts beside the value of their craftsmanship and quality, and how to adapt to the changing fashion trends of the modern world. My graduation project 'Up in the Gallery' is the culmination of my research. I bring the concept of costume design to fashion products, as well as the combination of innovative materials and traditional craftsmanship. In this series of seven products, I extended the life of my works by giving a distinct character to each of them.
What can we expect of Yin-Hsin Chang over the next few seasons?
I will continue to give different personalities and stories to each bag I design. So when you own or see my work, in addition to their appearances, you’ll recognize the story behind them, and the new world underneath.
Want to find out more about Yin-Hsin Chang? Check out her instagram and Ocotur.