In Conversation With | Amy Cheung

Transformation and identity—of materials, individuals and communities—are some of the themes behind Amy Cheung’s wearable pieces. The Hong Kong born artist is part of a new generation successfully crossing over from conceptual art into product design, creating items that blur the boundaries between fashion and art, under the label Handkerchief. In the process, Cheung’s own life has transformed: from one centered around the traditional ‘me-centric’ POV of the awarded artist into one that thrives on benefitting the collective.

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photography by jj jimenez

YOUR PIECES TRANSFORM INTO OTHER PIECES, LIKE A SKIRT THAT ALL THE SUDDEN TURNS INTO A TOTE BAG. CAN YOU EXPLAIN A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT THE PROCESS BEHIND YOUR DESIGN TECHNIQUE?
I come from a multi-disciplinary background. I wanted to do fashion, but not in the traditional commercial fashion sense. My [pieces are] always very transformative, playful, fun and…multifunctional. They are what I call “wearable.” Something you wear that changes your identity or helps you to construct an identity.
I have to confess I don’t do all the technical design myself. It’s a collaborative process that involves my designers, pattern cutters, and also the seamstress. She always says, ‘Oh, I can’t do that, it’s too heavy, too bulky…” She will counter propose things to me. They are very talented people, and [they always] improve the product.
There is also what we call Handkerchief and Friends, where I collaborate with my friends
I have another friend who only makes up-cycled clothes, combining leftover pieces from other designer to create new ones [and avoid waste.] She will combine some of our pieces with that of four designers to make unique pieces. I love that [concept] so much!

SO, IT’S LIKE A COLLABORATION BETWEEN ARTISTS?
Absolutely. Otherwise I would use Amy Cheng, not a different brand name like Handkerchief. [Sometimes] we don’t even know from whom the idea came from.

WHEN DID YOU START HANDKERCHIEF AND WHY DID YOU TAKE THAT STEP FROM CONCEPTUAL ART INTO DESIGN MAKING?
I actually started Handkerchief with my husband. We would go abroad and work with people as an exhibition duo, using Handkerchief as a collective name. A few years ago, it evolved into a commercial design practice developing products, design, architecture, and cultural exhibitions. It has now become a brand in itself.

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photography by jj jimenez

YOUR DAD OWNS A FABRIC FACTORY. DID THAT INFLUENCE YOU IN ANY WAY?
It did. I studied in London. Then I moved back to Hong Kong for a few years and was quite successful with my art. I never thought about fashion. In 2008 there was a huge financial crisis and a lot of suppliers that had ordered fabric didn’t pay, and my father was left with a lot of material. So he said, “Amy: if you are really creative you’re going to turn all this junk into money.” We used all his fabrics, but the sales were almost insignificant. Our process is so involved it takes a long time to create one piece, almost like art and that’s how Handkerchief developed into fashion label.

WHAT INSPIRES YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS?
Problems inspire me a lot. Be it fashion, photography, architectural design or drawing, everything is just a way of conveying my vision of how I think things can be improved. It’s a long process that starts with observation—understanding human shortcomings or world issues—there are a lot of things I worry about! Most of the items [I produce] try to create a solution. I like the process of working things through.
What I like about fashion is that you don’t always have to be so serious. It gives you the chance to solve small problems [like a skirt that can change into a bag so you have somewhere] to put your dirty gym clothes instead of your computer bag.

WHO DO YOU SEE WEARING YOUR COLLECTION?
Someone who doesn’t really care about the external world, someone who’s not afraid to express his or her individuality and wants to have fun.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED SINCE STARTING THE COMPANY?
Not to start a company!

YOU CAN’T SAY THAT!
OK, delete it. I would say that you have to stay true to yourself, and not compare your success to that of other people. At some point, I wanted to be more successful than I already was in the business sense. This distracted me, but what I learned from that was that that kind of success was for other people, not for me. Now we are small in scale, but more truthful to my vision.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOUNG DESIGNERS WHO ARE JUST STARTING? FOLLOW THE MARKETS ADVICE OR THEIR OWN HEART.
There is really not one solution for all. I really want designers to try and not give up, but they have to understand themselves before they can produce a good brand.

DOES HANDKERCHIEF ALSO REFLECT A DEEPER TRANSFORMATION IN YOUR LIFE?
Before 2007, it was always about me, me and only me: my vision, what surrounded me… After the crisis of 2008, I took a step back and started including others’ perspectives in the creative process.
It made me want to use wearables and design things that are more relevant in terms of benefiting the community. The world is full stuff anyway. It’s good to have this connection with other people, and thinking how they can benefit from it. I’ve found it very therapeutic.
I would like to do more workshop-based work. [I’ve been thinking about] a workshop [in Hong Kong] where mom and daughter design their first bra together. It’s like a workshop for bonding. It could be a fun process to teach teenage girls about sex education, how to protect themselves, how to say no, etc. The workshop would have stronger impact than just buying a bra.
[I really want to explore] projects meaningful to others—not just for my egocentrist satisfaction.


photography and interview by JJ JIMENEZ
written by NATHALIE JASPAR