Stylist Leaf Greener wearing Atelier ANGEL CHANG                                                                                                            Photographer: Stockton Johnson

In 2012, I spent the entire year developing fabrics and a capsule collection with the ethnic minority villages in rural Guizhou province. During that time, I had to forget everything I learned during my training as a fashion designer from New York — and certainly everything I knew about smart fabrics and innovative materials that had dominated my collections until that point.  Schedules and calendars were tossed aside, and I had to surrender to nature’s timing and resources in order to get anything accomplished.

My goal was to develop a collection that followed the traditional methods; by definition, this meant having to grow our own cotton, spin our own thread, and wait for certain flowers to bloom in order to dye the fabrics.  The ethnic minority villagers served as my teachers, and I learned to live off-the-grid and to work without electricity. These may seem like limitations at first, but this is how clothing was made throughout human history. It made me question what happened in the last 150 years that has made us so dependent on electricity in the Western world.

Atelier ANGEL CHANG – capsule collection

Certainly, following ancient methods was not easy in the beginning, and each day was an exhausting battle against the pressures of “progress” and modernity. The older villagers seemed resistant to teaching me what they considered the “hard life.” Making their own fabrics was a skill they only needed when they could not afford to buy their own clothes, particularly when one could spend an entire year without seeing cash.  In what I found incredibly powerful and moving, they only saw as vestiges of their past poverty and hardship.

It has taken many years, but the villagers now understand my desire to work with their traditional fabrics. Somehow fashion is a universal language that speaks across cultures, and everyone seems to understand the quest for beauty. It is this searching for beauty, authenticity, and truth while working with the ethnic minorities of rural China that continues to guide my design work and keeps me returning to the villages today.