Carmen Channers: The designer who loves to have a laugh

She’s the designer who had girls covered in temporary tattoos, whilst holding bouquets of cauliflower at her debut show. NATALIE CHUI interviews Carmen Chan to find out why everyone’s abuzz about this breakout fashion designer for #LOVE.

Carmen Chan basting a quilt with the words "peaked last year" doodled on. Photo:Natalie Chui

“Do you want to cut my hair?” is not the question you would expect to hear on a Tuesday night in the middle of Central Saint Martin’s fashion studios. But sure enough, amidst surrounding BA final year Fashion Print students, one of them, Carmen Chan or Channers, as she labels herself, is asking me to cut her hair. “Do you trust me?” Not really sure what sort of response to expect. She disappears for a few seconds and reappears with a pair of proper hair dressing scissors and a yellow comb. “Just cut a straight line above my eyebrows” as she points to her Rei Kawakubo-esque bob and draws a line over her fringe. “Don’t worry, I like the choppy look.” At this point, despite knowing Channers for roughly three months now, it’s still an unexpected act as she throws the weight of her hair literally into my hands. None-the-less, her charm is infectious and I begin cutting her fringe.

Walking into the fashion studios is a busy environment, with designers covering every inch, its an area where you suddenly become much more conscious of your movements, as to not disturb anyone. However, walking to Channers’s table, you begin to feel yourself loosen up and the rush seems hardly present. “I only work in the studios,” Channers tells me, in her low, monotonous voice. “I try to never bring my work home.” For most designers, their lives revolve around the studio but with Channers there’s a clear sense that her life isn’t always inside. We often meet towards the evening and most times, once the day is finished, Channers is off to a different occasion in the night, one night its to the V&A to meet up with her best friend Liam, with whom she shares her table in the studios with, the other its dinner with a “sort-of boyfriend” that she’s casually dating. “So far, I’ve never stayed until 10PM, maybe 8 and that’s it.” A rare statement heard in the design studios, when the closing time is 10PM.

Whenever we meet, Channers is always surrounded by at least one of her friends. Whether its fellow print student Amy, who modeled her first line-up or Maddy, an American studying fashion communications, it becomes apparent that Channers, despite her constant denial, is popular. At her first line-up, every model she used, was a friend. Thus, the title of her collection “These are my girls”, to which she always excitedly announces before presentation. Ironically, the one time where she isn’t with her friends, is when we meet to discuss her collection, which is to be modeled by friends only. “It’s a time capsule of my time at CSM, the people I’ve met and been with.” Her sketchbooks are riddled with scribbles and colour pencil markings. There are family photographs of her, at 6 years old grinning in a lycra swimsuit. “I looked a lot at the swimwear I wore in the past as a child.” Her final year collection re-imagines the multi-coloured Speedo swimsuits of her childhood, but with the grown-up mind of Channers’s current self. A polyester one piece is left with one breast fully exposed, whereas another bikini bottom is designed to leave the ties hanging vertically center. “It’s about girls who are a bit overgrown but still need to grow up.” It does bear a funny image picturing womanly figures in scantly clad bikini tops, but Channers is turning the sexual nature of her outfits away from the male mediatized gaze with her own light-hearted, humorous vision. “Carmen’s the most blasé person I know”, Liam remarks to me after a line-up that Channers regarded as “ok”, and there’s a universal feeling amongst her cohort that she’s the “one to watch”.

Channers is Malaysian and lived in both Malaysia and Hong Kong before coming to the UK, where she is on a scholarship that finances her final year. She isn’t just a natural visualizer, but she’s also incredibly intellectual, articulately conversing about English literature, in particularly “favourite” Ray Bradbury and Shel Silverstein.

Channers explains to me that Shibori, a Japanese tie-dyeing technique that manipulates material into shapes, heavily inspired her. She’s created her own version of Shibori, which doesn’t require sewing, combining multiple pleats to have the effect of a ripple in water. She disregards it as “quite basic”, though it is an arduous 45-minute process that requires two people, including her helper Ella, to complete. It involves stretching polyester over a board and stapling it down to keep shape. It’s easier written than done, as Channers has to physically repel the elasticity of the fiber. A lined plastic screen is applied over the polyester as the most integral ingredient, gloss, is spread over a wide scraper. The shortage of gloss over Easter caused her a one-week delay. The scraper is pulled over the table horizontally, scraping any remaining gloss into its pot. The screen is removed and linen is slowly rolled over the glossed polyester. The process is finished the next morning as the gloss dries overnight, resulting in large Shibori quilts. Anything else is digitally printed, a much quicker procedure where Channers photoshops her doodles together, and sends them to the digital laboratory for it to be printed onto polyester.

All the models from Carmen Channers' BA final year collection "These are my girls" in a picture shot for her lookbook by friend Gareth Wrighton

Every time Channers has to present her work to the tutors, the mood is surprisingly light. Her models fill the atmosphere with laughter as they share tidbits about tinder dates and pull faces in photos. Her work is often met with praise, especially from head of BA fashion, Willie Walters, who is sponsoring half of the materials of her collection, and if anything to go wilder. During the internal assessments, her models wave their quilts in the air, parading their juvenile spirit. As the press list is revealed, Channers has made it, though this is no surprise to anyone who knows her. Instead of being in the studios, she’s at her Dalston home, sleeping. “You guys are all going to be walking!” she types to her friends. Whether Channers goes on to complete an MA or joins a design house, she undeniably has the support from the community of friends that she’s unknowingly built.