Social-Work Wants You To Know Who Actually Makes Your Clothes

A new label that connects the consumer with the factory worker.

by Ashley Tyner
Jul 7 2018, 10:40pm

My first impression of social-work, a new label from recent Parsons graduates Chenghui Zhang and Qi Wang, was that the presentation for their Spring/Summer 2019 collection was hot. The clothes were "fire", yes—bell bottoms, quilt dresses, 70s prints pastiched onto one another rendering them even more blissfully ugly than they might have been alone—but this was more a matter of climate.

We watched the presentation on the 7th floor of an original 36th Street garment studio, completely drenched in mid-summer sweat. And for good reason. Wiping my brow I realized they wanted to elicit a visceral response in order to properly articulate their message of inclusion, recognition and transparency in an industry that fails to acknowledge the literal makers of the clothes on our backs, let alone the conditions in which they are made. One feature of their website is a scanner that reads a code on each garment and unlockis the story of the maker responsible for your new dress.

Assisted by an old timecard machine in the corner and a couple of whirring fans spinning in vain, the heat was a tool used to reveal a side of the industry untouched by glamour. Their debut collection represents a generation more interested in what's real than capitalist fantasy. We spoke with them about how they chose their name, George Orwell, the cultural revolution of 1960s China and what we can learn from youth fanaticism.

Time card machine.

GARAGE: Why "social-work"?

Chenghui Zhang and Qi Wang: There are two concepts behind the brand name. First, we strive for transparency and to educate our customers on who, where and what is behind the production of our clothing. We are really creating a connection between the makers and wearers. Second, a lot of our inspirations came from workwear and uniform of whom usually works behind the scene. Social-work is aiming to create a culture that represents these people.

Was your interest in looking back to the 60s at all influenced by today's political climate?

We believe the 60s are relevant to political changes we’re seeing today. Everything is censored these days both in China and even in America. We want to look back into the two concurrent cultures from the 60s: the countercultural hippies of the West and the Maoist Great Cultural Revolution of China. This contrast was very striking to us, the liberation in the West and compression in the East.

With that historical reference in mind, “1984” by George Orwell provides an analogy for our SS19 concept. The main character was censored and controlled by an intense nationwide personality cult and was persecuted for his individualism [while] he was longing for freedom and rebellion. It is a warning to us all, a similar dystopian situation will exist not far from us if we stop fighting for individual rights and freedom.

Bell bottoms and quilt dresses.

Does your knowledge of the cultural revolution in China come from family or information passed down through generations? If so, how were those stories related to you? Or did you do your own private research?

Yes, Chenghui’s family is heavily involved with politics. Her grandparents worked for the government at the beginning of the 1950s. Her grandma is a factory worker while her grandfather is a government official. Her family was forced to move to Inner Mongolia during the Great Cultural Revolution. During that time, a lot of well-educated scholars were forced to leave their job and exiled to the countryside. It is very common for families to be influenced by politics in the 60s. Because of the intense nationwide personality cult, every family worships Mao as their spiritual leader.

Qi’s family is a good example. Her father respected and worshiped Chairman Mao. He was deeply moved by Chairman’s charisma and told her that without Chairman Mao, a new China will not be found. In her Chinese home, the portrait of Chairman is placed next to a small statue of Bodhisattva in the shrine. Her mother once told her that in the 60s, one of her neighbors was put in prison because she sat on a picture of Chairman Mao. One can catch a glimpse of the fanaticism of Chairman Mao in the 60s.

Mao Zadong's influence on the collection shows on a "Censored" sweater.

One of my favorite things about the show was how it glorifies the space where clothes are actually made, and celebrates those who actually run the factories. Why do you think the industry struggles to highlight and appreciate the full spectrum of talent involved in making clothes? What can we do to change it?

For a long time, the fashion industry has been aiming to create a fantasy and illusion for the customers. They have highlighted the designers, models and all the fashion glamour.

However, social-work is aiming to create an authentic culture that the current fashion industry is lacking. Like on a filming set, everyone contributed to the movie, regardless of which role he/she is taking, should be given equal respect and credit. Production is one of the most important parts of the fashion business. The workers and makers behind the scenes deserve to be valued and appreciated. For us as designers, our job is to push the boundary and continue to create a culture to question and challenge the status quo.

How did your research influence the shapes and colors we see in the collection?

At the beginning of our research process, we decided that we are going to bridge the culture from the 60s, from both China and the West. We reference colors from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Fred Herzog’s Modern Color and Chinese propaganda posters from the 1960s. We want to create a nostalgic and vintage color palette. The silhouettes combine hippie floral print, flared pants from the 60s in America and Asian uniform from the 60s in China.

Work uniform silhouettes and the color red, for good luck.

What do you think we can learn from social movements of the 60s that we may have forgotten?

Both the 60s counterculture movement in the West and the Great Cultural Revolution in China were highlighted by youth fanaticism. Whether it’s rebellion or compression, both were movements that eventually generated change to the society. It is a reminder for us, as a new generation, or even further as global citizens, we should never be the frog in the well. We should always educate ourselves to keep an eye on the global situation to gain a broader outlook and keep thinking and acting vigorously to challenge the status quo.

fashion industry
social work
garment district