Transparency and ethical practices within the fashion industry certainly shouldn’t be considered trends, but looking at some of the biggest headlines over the last few years, these topics are top of mind. Labels like Gucci and Versace have stopped using real fur in an effort to be more sustainable, retailers like H&M continue to push towards lofty 10- and 20-year goals to become climate positive, and newer names like Social Work are entering the space with transparency as part of their brand DNA from the beginning.
Launched in 2018, Social Work’s unisex collections aren’t just rooted in the brand’s appreciation for workwear—they’re rooted in their appreciation for behind-the-scenes workers. Design team Chenghui Zhang and Qi Wang came up with the concept for their company shortly after graduating from Parsons School of Design a few years ago. “Parsons always challenged us to think more profoundly about clothing and consider their context within fashion,” says Zhang. “It also encouraged us to think about sustainability and workers’ rights.”
With this in mind, Social Work’s goal from the start has been to shine as much light on its team of garment workers as it does on the designs. This comes by way of custom codes found on each of the garment’s tags that can be traced back to a database on the brand’s site, allowing you to virtually meet the workers who made your clothing. Zhang and Wang have integrated the factory workers they collaborate with within Social Work’s promotional materials, including videos, campaigns, and even on some designs.
However, while the brand’s mission is certainly worth applauding, there’s just as much to celebrate about its clothing. Both Zhang and Wang were born in China and moved to the U.S. for their education; as a result, each collection is a study in East-meets-West culture. Coming off of the brand’s debut of its second collection, Fall 2019, this past Paris Fashion Week, we caught up with the designers below.
How did the idea for Social Work come about?
Zhang: “When I was at school and interning for different companies I realized that there was something that was lacking in this industry: We don’t really appreciate people who work behind-the-scenes. It’s more about elevating the glamorous parts: the designers and the fashion show. That’s how we started having this conversation about the people who work in factories and elevating their value.”
Wang: “We work with seamstresses a lot, and when we talk to them, they comment on the samples they’re making and how to finish a garment to make it look better. They care about the pieces they’re making. That’s why we want to broaden the stage.”
The codes featured on each of your garments are unique. How do they work, and what do they tell consumers?
Zhang: “When we first started the coding idea, we wanted to build this connection between the garment makers and the customers. A lot of companies are trying to do production transparency, but what we offer is that your can actually see the individual who’s making your clothes.”
Wang: “If you track our website, each code is associated with the production time, places, materials, and care methods for each individual garment.”
Seems pretty revolutionary. What have initial reactions been?
Wang: “We’ve gotten mostly positive comments, but we don’t feel like we have made our point yet. We just finished the campaign for last season. We did a video and a photoshoot with one of our photographer friends and about six garment workers in Dongguan, China, telling our customers their stories.”
So far your collections have included both Eastern and Western cultural influences. How will you continue to evolve this theme season-to-season?
Zhang: “We reference a lot of vintage workwear, so last season, Spring 2019, we referenced Chinese workwear uniforms from the ‘60s mixed with American hippie-era colors, plaids, and silhouettes like flare pants. Moving forward, this season, Fall 2019, we wanted to still keep the vintage workwear feel but mix in some romance of the Renaissance period. That represents the Western side.”
Wang: “Last season, our theme was revolution; this season, it’s more like rebirth. During the ‘90s, China was experiencing a shift from total government control to a more market-oriented economy. In this way, China was reborn. Similar to this period, the Renaissance was like the landmark of experimentation and rebirth of cultural Europe. That’s why we specifically chose these two periods.”
How will we see those stories in the designs itself?
Zhang: “We used a lot of polyester, faux leather, and bleached denim to represented the industrial environment of ‘90s China, and we used hourglass shapes and princess seams to represent more of the Renaissance period. For the Social Work DNA part, we also used one of our worker’s portraits on a mesh dress.”
What’s your own connection with lifting up those often behind the scenes? Why do you feel personally connected to this goal?
Wang: “Let’s say you’re on a film set, everyone should be deemed equal, whether it’s the actors or the editors or the filmmakers. Everyone is as important as each other. Even more broadly, every job should be seen equally, be it the president or the janitor, because without any of them, the world wouldn’t function as smoothly as it is now.”
Zhang: “For me, when I was young in our neighborhood in Shanghai, we would always have tailors who would alter our clothes. I wanted to have that feeling, like when you get back the clothes. I think it’s important in our current culture, because we just buy things from stores. That’s something we, as a brand, value. We want to bring that nostalgic, meaningful perspective back to the industry.”
What challenges are there with creating a beautiful and desirable fashion line while also leading the conversation around transparency?
Qi: “What you described is the ultimate goal. It’s important to convey your ideas and the concept behind the collection, but the most important thing for design, for me, is aesthetics. The idea is great but ultimately it’s the aesthetics that wins.”
After your first two collections, what’s been the biggest learning from launching this brand?
Wang: “Right now, we have only two people on the team, so we have many things to manage. It’s quite different being a designer for a brand and running your own brand and business. It’s finding the right people to work with and figuring out what are our priorities. In terms of time management and prioritizing things, those have been our most precious lessons to learn.”