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Fashion from Antwerp: Influence & identity with Ching-Lin Chen

Saverio Sammartino

Ching-Lin Chen is a Taiwanese-born designer and Antwerp Fashion Department student, who – after landing a fashion degree in Taiwan – got his first industry experience working at luxury brand Shiatzy Chen producing Paris Fashion Week shows. Today, Ching-Lin has graduated from the third Bachelor year in Antwerp with a tiered, gender-unrestricted collection titled “Where have all the flowers gone”, a sculptural, multi-layered vision featuring a limited accessory collab with feted Antwerp alum Niels Peeraer.

Portrait Ching-Lin Chen
Leo Hsu
Saverio Sammartino

MoMu: As a Taiwan-born designer, what drew you to pursue a future in Antwerp fashion?

Ching-Lin Chen: “I needed a change and chose Antwerp because I was very baffled and inspired by the Antwerp students’ work I encountered while doing research at my fashion school in Taiwan. At the time, for me, it was a key turning point. There was one thing I was struggling with, however: ‘Applying in Antwerp means I need to study my Bachelor all over again, it might take more than four years’. I thought: ‘I think I need to go to work first and earn my tuition fee.’ So, I chose to step into the industry. After working for Shiatzy Chen for three years, it became a bit of a comfort zone for me because I knew the routine. I decided: ‘I’ve had a nice preparation now, I think I can go back to being a student.’ So, I applied in Antwerp, just to try. I was on a business trip in Italy to source materials. I asked my ex-boss if I could take a little extra trip around Europe for maybe one week. I headed to Antwerp and did the entrance exam. That was the first time I travelled here and the first time I studied abroad.”

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How did you feel at first about living in Antwerp?

“I think my first year was a struggle because it had been a long time since my last studies and I’d never created a project from scratch before.

When I worked for the brand, the concept experience or research was done by the creative director, we just needed to follow the source and do the design, the detailing or choose the fabric colours and shapes. When I went back to being a student, I needed to remind myself how to be one, doing the research by myself.

It was also my first time living alone after having only lived with my parents. Over here, I lived and studied by myself in a small space. It's a stressful life, which can be lonely at night. You need to have someone to talk to. I do think Antwerp is a very energetic city. You can walk around the riverside to enjoy the sunshine with a coffee, relax and go back home to do your project. That’s how I released stress that first year.”

What was it like for you to not only make friends, but also build a community at school?

“In the first year, everybody felt curious about each other. We shared our experiences and where we came from. It was easier then to create a community with not just Asian people, but also Europeans or those from another place. When we got to second year, people would fail or quit. You’d have a friend to share your loneliness and stress with but after one year, they’d be gone or on a totally different timeline. So, you have to recreate your own community in second year.”

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    Left: Ching-Lin Chen, Right: Saverio Sammartino
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    Left: Ching-Lin Chen, Right: Saverio Sammartino

At the Academy, the focus is on who you are and what your life has been like. It’s also really important to dive into yourself. How are you finding your way in all of that and what kind of future designer does studying here make you?

I think, studying in Antwerp, you have more possibilities to explore your identity and personality because I think Antwerp has a very diverse culture and history. It’s a little bit like in Taiwan, because we speak Mandarin, but we still carry a bit of our own culture as a former colony of Japan and China. We retained different styles of life. I think this diversity creates more possibility for people to explore their signature or personality.

"In Antwerp, it’s the same. Also, Belgium is small. Our inspiration sources are more limited here, compared to Paris. But I think that is a nice way to challenge a student. You need to observe life. There are museums and galleries, you need to walk, go out and discover your environment and use that as your source material. I think Antwerp’s fashion identity lies in volumes, colour and fabric choices and I believe this city is good at challenging an independent designer to define what they want and why they want it. You need to be very clear in your choices. That can be stressful, but it also makes me enjoy life because it's like a challenge: only you can make and do it. And only I can discover my own material and research.”

What’s your preferred order of processing your creativity, is it through design and drawing first or through language?

“When designing, I usually write my ideas down first. I love to work with keywords and finding connections between them, it's more logical to me that way. I ask myself: ‘Why choose this material? This shape?’ I also love talking things through with classmates or other people, answering their why’s about my designs. That’s my way of working, I'm not sure how others do it.”

Congratulations on the WWWSHOWWW unveiling of “where have all the flowers gone”. Can you share some background info on your Bachelor’s graduation collection?

“The concept stems from two lyrics about love, which I relate into a flower and a vase. One lyric is called ‘Only love can hurt like this’, about a broken-hearted feeling. The other one is a poem titled ‘somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond’, by e.e. cumming. He wrote it for his first love, it's very emotional, romantic and dreamy, with vivid colours. I think flowers are the best love language. No need for words, you just hand them over and share your emotions. When the flower dies, it’s like the person has left and you're alone. Flowers are also a soft material, but when dry, they can be hard too. Through folded details, I conveyed my concept – combining flowers with the difficult technique of origami. For my silhouette, I used both the flower and vase as inspiration, translating into a very small waistline, with floral hip detailing and origami with pleating as well as crochet. Through softer and harder materials, I changed and emulated the different stages of a flower.”

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    Sketches by Ching-Lin Chen
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    Ching-Lin Chen
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    Sketches by Ching-Lin Chen
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    Sketches by Ching-Lin Chen
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    Sketches by Ching-Lin Chen
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    Ching-Lin Chen

Do you feel like you are finding your own signature?

I don't like to distinguish womenswear from menswear; I think there's no need to divide them in our generation. Just like sexual orientation, I think there's no need to separate things too much or too clearly. It’s whatever you want.

"I also incorporate traditional womenswear tailoring within menswear through button positioning, for instance. I love that the story of the collection is more about love and emotions. I like to play with colour and material. My friends once told me: ‘Your style is very unisex and elegant.’ Maybe that is my signature?”

A signature is something that you build over time and gravitate towards over the years. So, you still have lots of time. What’s next on your future vision board?

“I have my mind set on my Master’s at the Fashion Department. I went on a whole journey and now, I want to finish it.”

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