PARIS — When Angel Chang brews a pot of tea
these days she uses leaves from a rural area in southwest China, the
same place where her latest designs were created.
A top and dress by Angel Chang, part of her collection developed in
One recent morning, with some of her clothing piled on the table,
Ms. Chang poured some of that tea into two small cups as she talked
about the spot: Dimen village in Guizhou Province.
After three years of commuting to the region, the designer spent
most of 2012 there, producing 40 pieces of clothing with the help of
artisans from the Miao and Dong ethnic groups.
Ms. Chang discovered their crafts while visiting the Shanghai Museum
in 2009. She had been working in New York, but was disillusioned by
the economic downturn and felt she needed a change from working with
high-tech elements, like the color-changing fabrics she had been
using. At the museum, “I found these incredible costumes,” she said.
“I assumed the clothes were 200 years old, but they had been made in
the last 50 years.”
She became interested in the clothing, then in the ethnic minorities
who created the fabric and its embellishment. Shortly after seeing
the exhibition, she traveled to the region and, with the aid of a
translator who has helped the British Museum and the Metropolitan
Museum of Art find items for their collections, began learning about
the villages and their artisans.
During one stop, she met a woman who had been working on a jacket
for her son for two years. “We went to a village looking for a woman
that could do triangle-pleated embroidery,” Ms. Chang said. “I was
shocked. There was one light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a
dirt floor. In this setting, she was creating the pieces I had seen
in the museum.”
“In all this poverty, she is making something that is so exact and
so perfect. It looked like couture,” she said.
Ms. Chang finally decided to draw on her experience at fashion
houses like Donna Karan to create a collection using, as she phrases
it, “1,000 years of ancient craftsmanship reinterpreted into modern
In her Paris apartment, the samples of her custom-order styles were
hanging on a rack nearby. The clothing — in yellows from dyes made
of chrysanthemum and pomegranate, gray from the Chinese tallow tree,
black from local barks, and indigo — is so familiar to Ms. Chang
that she can tell their origins by touch: A soft silk was from
Gulong village, a rougher cotton from Zhaoxing, she said.
One standout was a cotton damask suit in indigo, with a
Perfecto-style jacket and cropped pants . The fabric was made by the
Dong people of Hongzhou village, where they grow their own cotton
and make indigo dye. Ms. Chang said it took her about a year, on and
off, to find the right craftspeople. “It was a lot of detective
work, driving from village to village and asking grandmas and
finding out how to get there,” she said.
In Hongzhou, it takes one person about 30 days to produce enough
cotton brocade for one adult-size jacket. When they create the
fabric for themselves, it is used for baby carriers. “There are
auspicious symbols woven into the material to protect the baby,
while also telling the history of the people,” the designer
In the village of Lishanzhai, Ms. Chang found a grandmother who
could weave pure silk into a long-sleeve shirt and matching wide
pants. Xijiang, the largest Miao village, made the dye for the
silks, using mountain flowers, fresh leaves and tree bark.
“Soft yellow is dyed in May, when those flowers are in bloom, and
black in July and August, when the bark can be removed without
harming the tree,” she explained.
Ms. Chang, who was raised in Indiana and graduated from Columbia
University, says she had a lot of help with her fashion efforts.
When Cartier invited her to speak at a women’s forum in 2010 — in
2007, she had won a Cartier Women’s Initiative Award — she met Jiang
Qiong Er, artistic director and chief executive of Shang Xia, the
contemporary Chinese luxury brand whose majority owner is the French
fashion house Hermès.
With Ms. Jiang’s support, and later that of Pierre Berard, who at
the time headed marketing in China for the distilled beverage
company Pernod Ricard, Ms. Chang established herself in China. She
began working with the Western China Cultural Ecology Research
Workshop in Dimen, and eventually began seeing her collection as a
way of helping local people sustain both themselves and their
At first, “I just wanted them to make me beautiful embroidery. My
second instinct was why don’t they make my embroidery on a bigger
scale? They were losing their eyesight,” she said. “Out of the
initial want developed a social interest.”
Valerie Steele, chief curator and director of the Museum at the
Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, was Ms. Chang’s thesis
adviser at Columbia. “The Miao people have a tradition of incredible
textile techniques,” she said. “It would be great if Angel could
help keep that knowledge alive.”
Ms. Chang’s first pieces debuted at a Pernod Ricard fashion show and
dinner in Shanghai in October 2012, and another group was shown in
September 2013 at a Fashion 4 Development lunch in New York. She now
is selling some styles through ahalife.com, an online retail site.
“The collection has the natural handwork in the fabrics and a unique
style that I would like to see more of in the global market,” said
Evie Evangelou, president and founder of the nonprofit Fashion 4
“Angel’s work is in line with the mission of F4D, to create economic
development through fashion and also help preserve cultures.”
Ms. Chang says she remembers talking with a translator about how
difficult it would be to have some fabric made in one of the Guizhou
“He said no one will do it until you show them it can be done,” she
said. “Kids in the countryside get out of high school and go and
work in the fast fashion factories. I want to show them what their
grandmothers do is cool.”