In Female’s November issue, we highlighted Rachael Cheong as a young designer to look out for. The 24-year-old, an alum of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, first caught our eye with her feminine yet bizarre designs for her label in the making, Closet Children (@closetchildren). Think intricately pleated lace-trimmed gingham dresses paired with latex bonnets and 3D-printed masks.
Talking to Cheong about her creative process, it’s also clear that she approaches design with a thorough, well-researched mentality. As she puts it, “designers have to ground their work in history, sociology and culture.” And well, in our opinion, the best designers do tend to be the ones armed with fastidious research (among other factors) and the knack transform that into something new.
Here, we speak to Cheong on what informs her designs, why research is so important for a creative, and why looking at the work of other designers isn’t taboo for her.
What and who would you say have been your biggest influences so far?
“My influences are rather conceptual. Dark themes have always been an underlying tone in my work. I love [Japanese] manga artist Junji Ito for bringing horror into everyday life. The whole concept of his work, [horror manga series] Uzumaki was genius because it started from the idea of a spiral — which then saw a whole town become obsessed with spirals. Anime in general is a huge influence. I grew up watching it and to me it’s an art form that explores fantasy in a way that no other medium can.
With fashion, capturing the right atmosphere, creating a whole fantasy world like in an anime is a challenge. And it’s a challenge I’m always willing to take up. For example, what makes Japanese street style so legendary is that they know how to capture an atmosphere — from the false eyelashes down to the last frill on their dress. It’s pure dedication. Another influence, which I’ve always been fascinated by but only recently dove into, would be the communities and aesthetics of fetishism and kink. I love looking at latex sissy dresses and PVC adult baby bonnets. It very much captures the idea of perverse innocence.”
Why did you pick the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague over more obvious choices such as Central Saint Martins or London College of Fashion?
“Someone wise once told me that it’s not the school you graduate from, it’s the work you end up making. I know both schools in London have that credible reputation especially when it comes to scoring internships and jobs. However, the downside is that not everyone gets the same amount of attention in the end. What I liked about the Royal Academy were the smaller classes that get even smaller as you move on up the years. I graduated with three other classmates and we started with 22 in the first year! We definitely get more attention from the teachers and press at the fashion show. The whole school itself is cosy and the community is great!
I also really liked the programme of the department. It follows the same curriculum as the Royal Academy in Antwerp. Our teachers also teach at the Antwerp school or have graduated from there themselves and are still practicing designers/artists in the industry. I was taught fashion drawing by one of the Antwerp Six, Marina Yee. In the second year you do a historical costume replica and in the third year an ethnic costume replica — what’s great about this is that you really learn about the right forms and proportions, and to get things down to the details like [creating an] atmosphere with fabrics, textile techniques, hair and makeup, the right models and music. More importantly, you do a great deal of research about the costumes and in the second semester you use it as inspiration for a collection. Designers have to ground their work in history, sociology and culture. It cannot exist in a vacuum.”
Tell us more about your graduate collection. What was the inspiration behind it?
“My graduate collection, ‘WE KNOW WHAT YOU ARE HIDING’ is about concealing your deepest, darkest secrets through the eyes of a porcelain doll. [I took] the body of the doll as a medium for hidden secrets as we project ourselves into them; they sit in our rooms and know what we do and say — but they can’t say anything themselves. They are the perfect partners in crime with their romantic outfits, false innocent smiles and icy stares. They’re also witnesses to horrible things and yet, will never pass judgment.
I was reading Naoki Urasawa’s Monster and there was a scene that never left my head. It was about a serial killer who recalled his abusive childhood, [set] in a room where there was this doll. He would cry out to the doll for help but she would just sit there, smiling in the darkness as his mother beat him. That’s where I got the idea and in fact, I collect dolls. In my research, I also found out that dolls were in fact used to smuggle drugs during the American Civil War. No one ever suspected drugs would be hidden in the torso of these sweet playthings. That’s how the whole collection began.”
What would you consider the highlight of your career thus far?
“Participating in Lichting during Amsterdam Fashion Week and Designblok in Prague! Also, when my friend Viktor and I got our shoot featured on the Vogue Italia site, and being picked as a Vogue Talent. Oh and as always, meeting lovely people during internships and shows!”
Who would you love to collaborate with, and what would you love to work on?
“I would love to make outfits for French singer Petite Meller’s music video or show. She is such a doll and her personal style is perfect. If I ever do a presentation or fashion show, I would collaborate with artist Makoto Egashira for his interiors and objects covered with rococo-printed blankets. It’s kitsch and freaky at the same time. Lastly I would also collaborate with Japanese artist Risa Mehmet. She draws the saddest and the most beautiful broken girls/hybrid creatures in bonnets and ribbons. I would actually love to translate her work into actual garments and make some kind of set design or display.”
My favourite designers are Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, Undercover, Molly Goddard, Simone Rocha, Shrimps, Creepyyeha, Dilara Findikoglu and Palomo Spain. For me, I look at what other designers do to push my work to the next level. It’s more about the amount of effort, work and attention to detail that inspires, rather than copying a “style”. Sometimes it’s also good to look at it from a technical perspective. Perhaps you see something from a designer who manages to capture what you are looking for in terms of fabrics or construction — there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s why research and concept development is important. They inform your style and design decisions to make something that is uniquely you.”
Where can people get their hands on your pieces?
“Unfortunately nothing is for sale — yet! I do intend to launch Closet Children as a brand in a year or two. The pieces I’ve done for school are made with experimental material and may be too fragile to be sold for normal wear.”
What are you working on next?
“I am currently collaborating with local ambient folk band Aspidistrafly for their new album and music video. It drops sometime in Spring 2019.”
All images courtesy of Viktor Naumovski