PH5, the new brand elevating knitwear to a science
The meteoric rise of fashion technology has new trends developing in the blink of an eye. Designers are in a constant race to innovate, and NYC-based knitwear brand PH5 is one of the emerging players making waves in the game. “It’s like a knitwear laboratory,” says founder Wei Lin of her family-owned knitwear factory outside Hong Kong. The brand is the perfect marriage of art and science, fusing her entrepreneurial savvy with the creative genius of former roommate and Parsons grad Mijia Zhang. Like yin and yang, the two make an incredibly strong duo – reimagining knitwear beyond granny sweaters with a pioneering vision and forward-thinking expertise.
PH5 grew out of their common love for technology, and the brand’s innovation lies in its highly technical construction. They invent their own fabrics to ensure original designs, with every piece imagined start to finish via digitized code. From a diaphanous dress in a hybrid blend, or a sheer sweater felted with a bubble technique, it’s elegance meets engineering, designed for modern women by modern women. With their unending inspiration and invention, they prove that young designers can take risks, defy conventions and effect change in the industry. They’ve set PH5’s sights high, with a dream goal of dressing scientists on the moon. Here, we catch up with the duo – on the eve of their Woolmark Award nomination– on innovation, pushing boundaries, and weaving a new future into fashion.
COOLS: Give a little bit of a background — as to how the brand came about, the significance of the name.
Wei Lin: The story of PH5 is art meets science. My family owns a knitwear factory back in China, and I left the business to consult here in New York. Mijia was my roommate. She graduated from Parsons, and was designing for Christopher Kane, and Nike. I felt the calling to [go] back to the family business, and start a line utilizing the factory’s technology. I’m very number-oriented business-wise, so [what] I needed was the artist’s eye. I asked Mijia to join me, and that’s how we got started.
The name PH5 comes from the chemistry PH numeric scale, one through fourteen. One is acidic, which for me is an extremely feminine, womenswear brand. 14 is the very masculine side, PH7 is gender neutral. So PH5 is gender neutral, but slightly feminine. She’s an independent, edgier woman. Headstrong. A career woman.
When people think knitwear, they think of winter sweaters. But they can be very lightweight, colorful, young, and it can be very fashionable. We want to tell the world that knitwear is more than just a winter fabric. The name is very scientific, our vision for it is that we want to challenge people to completely rethink knitwear. Like a knitwear laboratory.
COOLS: Because your collections are all made at your family’s place near Hong Kong, what’s the advantage of keeping it in the family?
WL: Because what we do is very development heavy, the advantage of it is that it’s basically our playground. Whatever crazy idea Mijia wants to do, the factory can’t say no.
COOLS: How amazing to be such a young designer and have so much creative freedom?
Mijia Zhang: It’s amazing for a designer to have the capability to discover what ever stitch I want. Because the factory can just try for me. Even sometimes we’ll try three prototypes on one stitch, just to test them out. For us, it’s a huge advantage. We can really push the boundary to a very cutting edge design if we want.
WL: Every season, we do something that’s never been done before; we take pride in that. I grew up in a knitwear factory, and I’ve seen millions of sweaters made and sent all around the world. It’s sad to see knitwear being so traditional. Year after year, brand after brand, it’s always the same. Except Alaïa. I love him because he’s doing what we’re doing, in a different field – more luxury, obviously. Alaia is very technical, hard to copy. Fast fashion, no way. Very architectural. Very whimsical. We like things that are playful, but we also like the idea of trying something new in a very traditional field. And how do we create something so unique out of something so traditional? When I talk about knitwear, people think of a grandma knitting back in the country. Our factories are full of machines, and we work with technicians and engineers. Mijia’s buddied up with the coding engineers. People don’t think like that. They think that knitwear is all [by hand]. Like Nike with the FlyKnit, Everything is very technology driven, and that’s the other side of knitwear that people don’t know. And that’s what we do. It’s very cutting edge, and we can do that because we’re willing to spend the time, and the factory is willing to support us.
COOLS: The story of elevating knitwear to a science?
MZ: We’re both very technical and like technology. And for me, knitwear is super technical. Every day, I translate designs into clothes by coding. Everything is programmed. I literally sit next to the technician to figure out what code we have to program. As you code on the computer it creates the shape of the clothes, and you’ll be like, “Hm, no.” If we change the code, and change the shape, there’s more potential [to] play with. For woven, basically you go sourcing fabrics, and you can do print, or different treatments on top of it. But for knitwear, first we have to figure out what fabric we want. So that’s what we call stitch. The stitch can go through every piece and make the fabric. Then we put another code which applies the measurements and the shape of the silhouette, and then you produce.
WL: We start from the yarn and invent the fabric first, so every design is original.
“How do we create something so unique out of something so traditional? When I talk about knitwear, people think of a grandma knitting back in the country…everything [we do] is very technology driven, and that’s the side of knitwear people don’t know. It’s very cutting edge, and we can do that because we’re willing to spend the time, and the factory is willing to support us.” – Wei Lin
COOLS: And what do you find is the difference between producing in China versus in the NY garment district? How are you changing the perspective of “Made in China?”
MZ: Here, I used to work with a lot of wool factories. I don’t see that much difference between here than in China, but the knitwear factories here are not very extensive, there’s only 1 or 2 factories that do knitwear. The machine we’re using in China is very costly, and rare. Here, each sample could easily cost 1000 USD. Because you have to test your swatch. That’s 200. If it’s two of them, that’s 400. By the time you have your garment, imagine. I’ve grown up seeing a lot of amazing sweaters get made, and how these sweaters are done, it’s not as innovative as I would like. Knitwear is a big revenue driver. But designers aren’t being as innovative as they should be. Knitwear is still very conventional; you think black and white, the beige, the chunky, the oversized. But nothing else.
COOLS: You maintain such an accessible price point despite the intricacies of the fabric. How do you feel like you’re changing the market?
WL: [We] spend a lot of time developing it, and we want people to be wearing it on the street. I don’t think it’s a good idea for only certain people to be able to buy it. That’s art, in a way. I would say, that’s not a brand. That’s not sustainable.
COOLS: Speaking of sustainability, does that play into your creative process at all? Do you see sustainable materials, and factory conditions in your future?
WL: Our knitwear is very high quality, we’re not fast fashion. Every piece you own from PH5 will last you years. We work with a lot of natural fibers, and use a lot of recycled yarns. And as you said, knitwear is very eco friendly in a way. For example, if if we have this panel, but something went wrong like a hole, we always take down the yarn and reuse it.
COOLS: What are you most excited about in the industry right now?
WL: The global economic environment isn’t stable. A lot of things aren’t moving. As a young brand it gives us a lot of opportunities, because we’re on the same playing field. Everyone is struggling anyway. Everyone’s having the same problem. There’s no right answer or way of doing things. Because we are so young, we’re more flexible and adaptive. As a young brand it’s an advantage, because we have nothing to lose.