A collision of magnificent cultures is the best way to describe Christine Phung. The award-winning designer was raised in France by a Cambodian father and a French mother — a diverse and rich personal history apparent in her work. As a designer, her vision has been praised not only for drawing upon her individual background, but also the architecture and design traditions from the cultures of her ancestors, as well as her own contemporary environment.
A new favourite amongst European tastemakers in the know, Phung is set to make a splash when she shows at Paris Fashion Week this month. And it’s no wonder the designer should be steadily climbing to the top; her experience is stellar and her grasp on modern style is impeccable. After honing her skills at the prestigious École Duperré Paris and L’Institut Français de la Mode schools, Phung went on to work at fashion houses including Chloé, Vanessa Bruno and Lacoste. The designer quickly became a name about Paris Fashion Week after showing her signature collection, Christine Phung, at the Designer Apartment last fall. A showcase of young up and coming designers sponsored by the French Federation of Couture, Phung was a standout and has a coveted 2013 ANDAM Fashion Award for First Collections (which came with a bursary of €75,000) to prove it.
Her Fall/Winter 2013-14 collection is a virtual architectural wonderland, a trajectory we hope her new Spring/Summer 2014 line will follow. An architect in the studio, Phung’s sketches embrace a genuine passion for fabrics — their natural shape and the ease or constraint with which each individual one moves when on the body. She combine this well of knowledge with a feminine sensibility and taste for bold design and vibrant prints to create the collections that have all of Paris talking and waiting to see what Phung will put out next.
Currently planning for her upcoming Paris Fashion Week show, the designer took a moment to chat with FILLER about her inspiration and the story behind her latest designs.
People always talk about how they can see your cultural background in your design. Do you see it in the aesthetic of your design?
I am half-Cambodian, and I kept from this country the energy emerging from its redevelopment. This is the principle of resilience, to re-build when everything is destroyed, adapt, restart with courage, stay strong and straight…and always believe. From this I’ve kept my optimism, determination, and a capacity to always find solutions, a certain faith on things that happen.
And what about your professional background? You’ve worked in some acclaimed fashion houses.
I worked for 10 years for famous brands, so I took the time to find my own style and get very structured in my creative process, my background helped me to build a methodology to work. These 10 years working for other people have enabled me to get a great sense of methodology, and have helped me to be structured and organized in my work. I’ve tried to take the best of each working method in each fashion house. I have also developed my contacts, which is essential when you want to launch your own brand! Moreover, I keep in mind from these experiences the importance of the quality of the production: having high qualified manufacturers is essential for the sustainability of the brand.
Your work has been described as modern architectural, can you explain where this inspiration comes from? It’s a beautiful mix of femininity and structure.
I admire the work of architects like Zaha Hadid, Frank O’Gehry and Daniel Libeskind. My inspiration comes essentially from architecture, contemporary art and geometry.
Where do you start when designing a collection?
My creative process always starts with the counscious of the female body that I try to redraw by giving architectural and geometric volumes, so as to get an effortless elegant and feminine style. My interest in the architecture of the body and the anatomical structures comes from my mother, who was a surgical nurse, and who told me stories about how she stitched people back together from little pieces!
I don’t think too many other designers could say they had the same inspiration, ha! What artists or designers have influenced your work?
I am really interested in contemporary art, with contemporary sculptor, especially artists like Anish Kapoor, Xavier Veilhan, Antony Gormley, and the work on light of Olafur Eliasson, the painter Mark Rothko, who has amazing colors and shades.
As mentioned previously, you spent time at some wonderful design houses including Sonia Rykiel and See By Chloé. Was there anyone you worked with in the past that you would consider a mentor?
I had the chance to work with Christophe Lemaire, one of the most significant artistic directors of the 2000s. At this time, in 2003, he was developing his own brand and was working at the same time for Lacoste to self-finance his brand. He was one of the first example of a “business creator,” so I learned from him the absolute need of working in freelance to self-finance the brand and not be dependent on a bank loan.
Sounds like you learned from example.
He is very patient and perseverant. From all these experiences [with him], I learnt that it is important to keep the creative strength combined with the commercial side of the business.
Let’s talk a bit about this season’s collection, where did the inspiration come from?
I always construct a story before creating a collection like a movie scenario. It becomes the backbone of the collection and helps me to get a very coherent collection. I thus define prints, patterns, volumes and the kind of cuttings I would like to have, so as to create a structured collection. For the fall/winter 13/14 collection, I imagined the story of a travelling girl that was flying over the circular fields of Nevada in her trip to Las Vegas, while she was listening to Elvis Presley… so I used only round shapes, round lines, a print with a collage of sky and landscapes, round embroideries, etc.
I’m not sure I would have been able to decipher that story from the design, it’s quite detailed! Where did the inspiration come from?
All the collection navigates between sky and earth combining gravity and circles. I really wanted to play with all the possibilities of the circle that I find so fascinating through these round fields of Nevada…I’ve never been there, but I would love to go there! The collection plays with tensions and releases, with flat cut and 3D. I created a print in collaboration with the Canadian artist Nima Lorris, from a collage of landscapes inspired by vertigo and this state of flotation between earth and sky.
Do you generally find inspiration in your everyday life without looking for it, or do you look to history, books and research?
I would say both… everyday life, by the women I see in the streets of Paris, really inspires me. Movies and exhibitions are also a great source of inspiration and a good way of staying on top, as much as meeting artists and designers. I try to keep in mind the feminine vision, the different universes, the colors and the volumes, which I transcribe into the collections I create. However, doing some research is very important to construct a collection and it takes time to find precise volumes and constructions that will be used for the clothes.
I find it so interesting the way you merge fashion with art through exhibitions like you did at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Liège for its Biennale du Design. Is this something you plan to continue?
I wish to continue! But the thing is that it is really expensive to print, use silk and develop patterns and prototypes! For the Biennale du Design in Liège, I got a grant from the city of Liège in Belgium, it was great. I [also] often work with some great artists such as Tzuri Gueta for my next collection with polymerized lace. It is a good opportunity to promote our work by designing some unique and strong clothes! It becomes experimental, like in a laboratory, that is what I love.
Do you have any exhibitions planned for the near future?
In July, I won the ANDAM prize in the “Premières Collections” category. Thanks to that prize, the Galeries Lafayette offered me the possibility to organize an event during Fashion Week in September. I will show my Spring/Summer 14 collection on September 24th, on the rooftop terrace overlooking Paris; I am so excited about it!
We are as well, can’t wait to see it. What’s something you haven’t explored in fashion that you’d like to incorporate into your work?
I love to work on unexpected materials, such as what I’m doing now with feathers in collaboration with the feathers artist Janaïna Milheiro. It creates a beautiful shift between haute couture and sportswear and gives feathers a new and contemporary use!
Who would you like to see wearing your pieces?
My ideal clients would be the French actress Chiara Mastroianni or the moviemaker Sofia Coppola or women like that, with a Parisian effortless feminity, elegant, cool and sophistication in their way of dressing. More than that, I like what they represent, the fact that they are very sensitive artists, yet active and strong women.
What’s something that you are passionate about outside of fashion?
I am passionate about traveling, because I love to discover different cultures and shapes. I bring back from these travels new colours, new lights, new smells, new visual landscapes, emotions of beauty, that I keep in mind to feed me. I also love photography and sketching.
You can really see that all in your designs. What’s the secret to success for a fashion label? It seems like it would be difficult to find the balance between commercial appeal and staying true to your vision.
Working hard! And also being well organized and trying to always renew… I guess also, having a strong image, being different. One other secret is to have a solid team that is cohesive and creative!
Last question: what’s can we expect from Christine Phung this fall season?
I really want to increase the sales and expand my visibility in the international press, so as to ensure the longevity of my brand. Hopefully, thanks to the ANDAM prize, I have more possibilities, which gives me more hope!Published September 6, 2013