Reinvention: Angel Chang has simplified the elaborate tribal designs in her jewel dresses
Angel Chang has simplified the elaborate tribal designs in her jewel dresses © Alberto Zanetti 

For the past nine years, US womenswear designer Angel Chang has been a part-time resident of Guizhou province in rural south-west China. It was there in villages that she uncovered long-forgotten artisans who now work with her on the designer’s locally made contemporary collections, which incorporate traditional tribal jewellery.

It all started in 2009, when the alumnus of luxury fashion brands Donna Karan and Chloé visited an exhibition at the Shanghai Museum featuring bejewelled ethnic costumes from the Miao and Dong minorities.

Ms Chang set out to find the people behind the pieces and travelled with an interpreter down dirt roads to villages — some did not even have a name — to find men and women working in huts with no electricity or lighting on exquisitely crafted designs destined primarily for their relatives.

“I found a Miao grandfather in the village of Zhaoxing,” she says. “He had a shop selling metal jewellery to local villagers and Chinese tourists. After speaking to him, I realised he had made all the pieces himself in his workshop.” He was not the only one. More metalworkers and jewellers were scattered across the villages of Guizhou.

Working with the grandfather she met in Zhaoxing, Ms Chang started repurposing local designs. “I first used a Miao necklace [he had created], engraved with mythological creatures, for my pleated necklace gown included in Thomas Erber’s exhibition Le Cabinet de Curiosités in 2014,” she says.

The traditional costumes of Guizhou make elaborate use of jewellery, with big necklaces and silver headpieces adorning rich costumes. Ms Chang simplified these for her collections. “The girls in their traditional costume would wear layers of chunky real silver necklaces to show how much money their family had,” says Ms Chang. “It was like advertising her dowry to find a suitor during village festivals.”

Another of Ms Chang’s bejewelled creations — which retail for between $400 and $1,500 — is a handmade cotton top featuring shimmering medallions with traditional imagery. “The medallions are hand-pounded tin with mythological creatures, dragons, lions, phoenixes and dogs to protect the wearer from evil spirits,” she says. “I saw them in a museum in Kaili, Guizhou province, and asked the curator to find villagers in Qiandongnan [Miao and Dong autonomous prefecture] who could make them for me,” she recalls.

For the villagers, these pieces are more than decoration. “The Miao believe there are spirits everywhere around them in nature — in the rocks, trees, rivers,” says Ms Chang.

Embedding jewellery in clothing is a complicated process and effectively makes the garments impossible to clean. “I used jewellery as embroidery to mimic the way they are used on their traditional jackets,” says Ms Chang. “This, however, was not very practical as it was impossible to clean the garment because the metal pieces were not removable. “I learnt afterwards that the traditional costumes are never cleaned or washed in water. They are [coloured] in indigo dye, a natural antiseptic, so the costumes are able to survive decades without ever needing to be washed.”

While the regional designs have long intrigued Ms Chang, some local mining practices worry her. “I have stopped using metal because it is too heavy and not practical for clothing,” she says. “I saw the mining in the mountains and did not want to contribute to harming the natural ecosystem.

“It is important for me to be able to trace all the raw materials used in my collection, so now we make all our trims (buttons, closures) out of native-seed organic cotton that we plant ourselves. There is no plastic or metal used in the latest collection.”

Her efforts to keep local traditions alive are important. Artisanal skills such as jewellery-making are under threat as these elaborate handmade costumes and jewellery, used for festivities, are replaced by cheap imitations. “We try to pay the villagers 20 per cent more than the average living wage in the region,” Ms Chang says. “They are self-sufficient farmers and grow everything they need to survive, so the amount they earn from the collection is supplemental income.”

Alongside creating her clothing collections, Ms Chang has worked for the past few years to help the villagers sustain and export some of their textile skills and to stop the exodus of young people to factories in China’s cities. In return, she uses their traditional processes to find the most sustainable way of making clothing — without using electricity, chemicals or fossil fuels. “We use just three ingredients: sun, plants and mountain water.”

While the traditional design processes are unchanged for years, the creep of modernity has happened in other ways. “The government has built highways, high-speed rail, a regional airport, internet to the village, and running water into every home,” says Ms Chang. “This has allowed me to build a network of artisans and a local economy to create a vertical supply chain. Every villager now has a smartphone and [messaging app] WeChat, so we can communicate and build out production across the villages.”

Ms Chang’s involvement with tribal designs is not the first time the Miao and Dong craftspeople have attracted outside attention. Dutch collector Mieke Gorter has assembled a rich array of jewellery, accessories and costumes from both tribes and organises tours of the area with her local partner, Wu Zeng Ou. Ms Gorter’s collection has been exhibited in Rijswijk in the Netherlands.

“All the villages have different styles and different jewellery to match. Some wear simple costumes but with a lot of jewellery,” she says. The jewellery designs include head crowns, hairpins, bracelets, earrings, necklaces (they wear many at the same time), silver combs, apron weights that are worn on the back as a buckle, silver ornaments on children’s hats, and ornaments on girls aprons, and jackets, she adds. “Now people make new jewellery for the Chinese and foreign tourists — earrings, brooches, bracelets, alpaca with embroidery,” says Ms Gorter.

But as a clothing designer, Ms Chang’s main focus has been textiles and clothing. By collaborating with the Tang’an Dong Ethnic Eco-Museum in Guizhou, she has benefited from an artisan workshop and dye facility the museum built for her to use in the village. “They are our local non-profit partner and liaison with the artisans,” she says.

“In 2017, I received a grant from the Smithsonian Institution [in Washington DC] to create a training programme for the artisans to begin hand-sewing the clothes, so they could be made from seed to button without electricity or fossil fuels.”

As for the jewellery part: “Who knows what the future holds?” says Ms Chang.

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