The Practicality of Purpose


An Interview with Evolutionary Accessories designer Duan Chiyang,

Chiyang Duan is a Chinese London-based accessories designer, who prides himself in prioritising practicality. By transforming existing accessories, Duan imprints his designs onto pre-existing objects, reshaping and rejuvenating them to reach their greatest extent. Sustainability lays at the heart of much of his work, which sees him elongating the lifespan of simple design he comes across.

By twisting and deforming, Duan upgrades old products, breathing new life and utility into glasses and footwear. He cites his work as an evolutionary process, and hopes his practice helps to encourage a more circular art world.

Having worked as an intern alongside well-known YEEZY designers, Duan founded his own studio in 2022. He now finds himself collaborating with esteemed brands such as Hermes and those from the LVMH Group, as well as being shortlisted for internationally acclaimed awards such as the 39th Festival de Hyeres Design Competition.

GLITCH had the pleasure of speaking with Chiyang Duan and understanding more about this iconic and transformative approach to fashion. 

What is your earliest memory of being infatuated with fashion? Was it a person, a designer, or an idea that hooked your attention?

“Ichi the Killer” is a Japanese action movie that I watched first in middle school at the age of about 14. The costume designer is Jun Takahashi and the founder of the brand Undercover. I remember seeing the movie and how they all dressed as if they were straight out of a comic book – shabby but gorgeous – just like the undercover aesthetic. These designs definitely were some of the first that hooked me, and I quickly became absorbed by the work of other Japanese fashion designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, founder of Commes De Garçons.

What draws you to designing accessories? Why have you carved out your niche in this space?

I have been carrying a backpack everywhere with me throughout my travels across the last few year. My backpack has become like a pillow that brings me comfort in any situation. I think that’s the idea that brings me into the world of accessories, the idea that they travel with you in many situations, especially bags.

In 2022 before launching your studio you  described yourself as a “fashion layman”, and it seems much of your design education was self-taught. How did you find this experience? 

That quote was from when I was still struggling for my MA graduate show at the Royal College of Art. I find it very interesting how the UK university education system functions – it  is not teaching enough basic skills to their students, and most of my classmates of the same generation have had to learn skills from online resources like YouTube. I think the experience is common to many, so I am not alone, but it is for this reason that we end up feeling like laymen even though we are enrolled in design school. 

How would you describe your formative years in this industry? Have they been successful or challenging? What have you learnt?

2023 was the first year that I graduated from RCA and was one of the toughest times in my life because it’s really difficult to find a full-time job in the creative industry in London. I had to do part-time jobs and work on my design practice at the same time, I almost quit this game altogether. Thankfully I didn’t quit. The collection that I made during that time helped me to enter the Hyères festival – a very big name design competition for emerging designers like me. 

Through this competition I had the opportunity to collaborate with Hermès and to design a fashion accessory, it’s a very challenging but precious opportunity.  I had the chance to visit the Hermès family collective which is usually not open to public, and work with their fashion accessories department. I even visited their factory where they will produce my design, through this opportunity I reflected on my own processes and deeply understood what a successful business should look like, the idea of keeping a balance between the artistic and commercial. This work will be launched mid October, and at the moment is under wraps.

You characterize your work as “upgrading” and “evolving” designs, rather than starting sustainable pursuits from scratch. Why is this a better approach to sustainable solutions?

It has the same logic as remaking a vintage shirt. People are easy to accept things that they are familiar with and if you give them a different look that will hugely increase the chance that people use it again. This is the same as my method, but what I do is re-design those products that people already familiar with. I have seen companies try to increase profit by generating a new category of products that has caused a lot of waste of labor and resources. They are “betting” on new products that may or may not succeed. Especially in today’s society, when 90% of “products” or “categories” have already been invented, this approach is often a waste of time. Transforming a popular design into a completely different look to extend its lifespan and give an old product a fresh feel can be an effective solution instead.

How do you go about sourcing your starting materials?

When designing new objects, I always start by researching to find the right object to transform. How to transform, or deconstruction itself, is not important. Finding the right object is more the key matter. I need to deconstruct and transform the object by following the way people are using the object. Even though I maximize and change the looks of the object I still want it to be able to be used. Practice always comes first. For example, the twisted safety box I did, after I twisted it, it still can be used as a container but the opening methods changed. The twisted lens for the eyewear collection follows the same rule, the lens twisted above the nose which will not affect how people are wearing it, but gives it little playful details. I always keep the same material that the pre-existing object used, and reapply it on the design that I create.

Do you seek inspiration in pre-existing objects, or do you project inspiration onto the deadtock materials you use?

It’s difficult to say; most of my work is deconstructed, and a reconstructed development of pre-existing objects. Whenever possible I will stay with the same material. But since most of the work is prototypes and not for mass production, it’s all made of degradable material.

Some of your eyewear pieces were inspired by the shapes and colours of the London underground. Why? How does your everyday influence your designs?

The colorway and the shapes of this collection are inspired by London Underground station and Lucian Freud’s painting – which have a surprisingly similarity. The round/arc and smooth shape of the eyewear has a lot of inspiration from corner curves in London

Underground stations, which no longer appear in modern architecture. Because the underground station will exist in the city as infrastructure for so many years, it is necessary to build a forward-looking architectural aesthetic. They are the designer’s imagination of the design style that may appear in the future. It is an aesthetic that only exists in the imagination of previous generations.

How would you summarise your design ethos? Who is DUANBYCH2CHA for?

Upgrade, deconstruct, reconstruct, and be practical. The brand is open to people who are interested in discovering objects with interesting functions – model enthusiasts, and function enthusiasts. At the same time, I always try to avoid the hardcore or masculine aesthetic, I’m still working on making all those tools that we see in daily life cuter.

Do you think the fashion industry needs to be disrupted, and what role will you play in this disruption? 

Yes. I don’t like how those big fashion houses create 50-60 looks every season. Some of the design work deserves to exist longer and has a greater potential to be used for a lifetime if we redesign and re-make them positively. For me, there are an unlimited number of archives that I can use to achieve this goal. I wish people could reduce the number of new products and start to actually make good designs that get the value they deserve, over a longer and better lifespan.

Your most recent creation, a golden medallion, was posted to Instagram with the caption “In honor of your service to the twisted world”. How does this piece reflect your observations of the society before us?

When I was a kid, I believed the United Nations was the most powerful organization on the earth. In my mother language, it was paraphrased as a country made up of all nations, and the president of it is the most powerful man on the planet. I used to want to be the king of the world. As I got older, I started to understand the meaning of it and started to realize how the influence of the UN on our world is actually going in the opposite direction.

My design philosophy revolves around twists, destruction, and deconstruction,  but what truly matters is what objects or jewelry I should choose to transform. This UN medal was designed and made during the early days of 2024, inspired by the United Nations Medal which is an international decoration awarded by the UN to the various world countries members for participation in joint international military and police operations such as peacekeeping, humanitarian efforts, and disaster relief.

When I see a country using a one-vote veto to negate a ceasefire agreement supported by all other members, I realize that there is, in effect, a nation above all others—at least at that moment. However, its name is not the United Nations. I designed this new “UN medal” to commemorate this twisted period in world history. This broach is for everyone: “In honor of your service to the twisted world.”

What is the next challenge for yourself and the brand?

I am preparing for the Hyères Festival in early October, where my upgraded collection will be exhibited and also feature on a catwalk. I have also recently received more  enquiries from buyers, so for the next collection I will consider something that can be mass-produced and also combined with my ready-to-wear clothing. I am excited for what is to come.

Interviewed by Hebe Street from GLITCH Magazine

Words by Duan Chiyang


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