Mission: Innovation, a conversation with PH5 founders Wei Lin and Mijia Zhang
BY OBI ANYANWU
Wei Lin and Mijia Zhang, the co-founders of PH5, were destined to work together. The roommates-turned-business partners are linked together by their respective experiences in the fashion industry, their collective love for fashion design and textiles, and the shared commitment to innovation. They are also the only two women in the world that could have made PH5 a reality.
Wei grew up in a knitwear factory, her family’s business, and experienced firsthand what goes into knitwear production, while Mijia studied at Parsons School of Design in New York City and worked with designer Christopher Kane and Nike after having won the Kering Empowering Imagination Award. Wei felt compelled to return to her family’s business, but wanted to do things differently. She presented to Mijia the idea of PH5, a brand that boasts intricate and innovative knits, and after Mijia agreed, the label was born.
The contemporary womenswear label gets its name from the scale that chemists use to determine acidity and alkaline levels in a solution. The duo chose the number 5 with the belief that ‘0’ represents femininity and ‘14’ represents masculinity. The number 5 on their scale represent fashion that is ’sporty’ and ‘feminine,’ two words that also best describe the knitwear label.
PH5 offers mutable, adaptable knitwear that is designed to be playful. Numerous pieces are sheer and designed for layering; some pieces are reversible for ultimate function. Wei and Mijia push the boundaries at their factory, the factory Wei grew up in, and produce knits that were deemed impossible by the staff. Their most recent knit, sheer wool, quietly debuted during the Woolmark Prize competition and challenges our perception of knitwear. Not to mention the new fabric scratches the surface of the duo’s potential.
We spoke to Wei and Mijia about the importance of innovation, the newly created Sheer Wool knit, and Spring 2018.
Interview Conducted | July 20, 2017
Thanks for taking the time to sit with us. First I must ask, what is PH5?
WEI LIN: PH5 is the story of art meets science. We begin research for our collections with art and then we add a science twist to it.
What spurned the idea of this “art-meets-science” knitwear?
WEI LIN: My parents own a knitwear factory in China, and I left the family business for a career in consulting here in New York. I felt a calling to go back to the family business and start this fashion label utilizing the factory’s technology.
The factory is very high-tech; we have more machines than we have people.
How did you two join together to launch PH5?
WEI LIN: Mijia was my roommate when she was a student at Parsons. She won the Kering Empowering Imagination Award at Parsons, which allowed her to work with Christopher Kane in London and later Nike, where she was a sneaker designer. What I needed was the artistic side of PH5, so we decided to join forces.
Mijia, how was your experience at Christopher Kane and at Nike?
MIJIA ZHANG: Christopher Kane is a very playful designer. He is very studio based, so we have a floor pattern room and a floor design room and everything is vertical. I learned that at the beginning of the season he would come to a pile of fabric and he would pick something and start making things and testing things out. The experience was very hands on and I think I learned from his spirit.
At Nike, I learned how to work with people. Nike is such a huge company. We had meetings often, and I learned how to express what I wanted and I learned that different people have different skills. You have to speak the language that they understand to help them see your point of view.
The experiences are definitely different, but I’ve learned from different parts of both.
Both of your experiences seem similar in terms of innovation. How important is innovation to you?
WEI LIN: As a brand, we love innovation. While most brands will innovate a silhouette and create a new trend, we innovate the fiber and go beyond the surface of silhouettes and trends, right to the core of the fiber.
For the Woolmark competition, we thought we were special and that we can bring something young, playful and unique to the competition.
We push the boundaries. Every season we will do something that was never done before. We will invent a new stitch, invent a new technique on garments, or what we did for the International Woolmark Prize, which was create a whole new yarn we call “sheer wool”.
Sheer wool offers many possibilities for us as a brand, because that’s an important part of our brand identity. If somebody loves PH5 then they’ll love sheer wool, because it’s playful.
Sheer wool sounds like a very high-functioning yarn, especially for the summer.
MIJIA ZHANG: If you think about it, we already have this advantage for knitwear. Wool absorbs your sweat, lets out the heat so much faster than a synthetic yarn, and it has UV protection.
WEI LIN: The US is our biggest market, but surprisingly, Singapore is our second biggest market and Singapore is twice as hot as a humid summer day in New York City.
It’s exactly to our point that knitwear can be and should be worn in the summer. The holes on knitwear are bigger than holes on woven pieces.
Chances are that if you’re walking down the street in Singapore, you’ll be the only one in knitwear because summer knitwear is difficult to find there, unless they’re looking for us.
For example, the ribbed knit that I wore the day of the competition is one of our best sellers from Fall 2016, and it sold out in Singapore very quickly. We ordered the style 3 times.
MIJIA ZHANG: But sheer wool feels lighter compared to synthetic too. There’s so much potential.
That sounds really exciting. How many people can say they’ve invented a new yarn?
WEI LIN: Exactly! And it took us so long to get the yarn. We were afraid that we couldn’t make the Woolmark deadline in time. Sheer wool sounds impossible and all of the vendors were saying that it wasn’t possible.
After we created the yarn, we had less than a month, or two to three weeks to finish the look with that yarn. We didn’t have enough time to think and expand on it, but it’s our yarn and it has opened so many doors.
Sheer wool going to be something that we’ll keep working on and think of more products and more ways to keep using it. The vendor is counting on us because they spent a lot of resources with us developing this yarn.
There are so many more possibilities—it’s part of our identity and now that we have this secret weapon, it’s something that we can talk about and keep pushing new ideas around.
MIJIA ZHANG: Like transparent socks that are soft, easy, wearable and light…
WEI LIN: Gloves, hats—
MIJIA ZHANG: Wei is a real athlete, and when you see the leggings nowadays, it’s a solid pant with a transparent panel but the entire pair of leggings is nylon. So imagine that but with wool! That’ll be so much more comfortable and easier to move around so that is some potential too.
Wait, I didn’t know you’re an athlete Wei.
WEI LIN: I play a lot of sports, but my main ones are the Triathlon, scuba diving and free diving.
MIJIA ZHANG: She’s done the Ironman too.
No way! Which one is that? I’m not familiar…
WEI LIN: The triathlon has 3 different distances: the Olympic distance, half-Ironman and full-Ironman. The one that I recently did is the full-Ironman
MIJIA ZHANG: The longest one…
WEI LIN: 2 and half miles of swimming, 130-something miles of cycling and then a full marathon at the end, which is 26.2 miles of running. It’s a difficult course in Cairns, Australia.
I thought I would do it in 14 hours, but I ended up beating my time by an hour. I did it in 12 hours and 50 minutes. I finished right before midnight.
That’s amazing, congratulations! Seriously, this sounds like no joke at all.
MIJIA ZHANG: Sometimes I’ll ask Wei what her training is and she’ll say “I just did a marathon,” and I’m like okay?
WEI LIN: (laughs) Some people fly or travel to do a marathon, but I do a marathon on a regular basis.
I’m surprised you have the time to compete while working on PH5. And bringing the interview back to the brand, whom would you say you design for?
WEI LIN: We are designing for real girls. We want people to buy and enjoy our clothes over a long period of time. We offer quality knitwear that is still affordable and isn’t something that people will just window shop for.
MIJIA ZHANG: We all have that pair of jeans or jacket in our closet that we always feel comfortable wearing. It probably won’t be super expensive because you’ll get worried if you wear it, but it’s a good, easy to wear design that will make you feel comfortable. We want to be like that.
WEI LIN: At the end of the day fashion is fashion. Fashion should not take up so much of your time and money and resources. You should be able to enjoy what you buy and still have a life.
That’s why a lot of our pieces are reversible. We like people to play with our clothes. We add pockets to as many things as we can. We try to be machine washable, but there are some limitations and some of the pieces we produce are dedicated but we try to hit a balance
Very cool. Now, we’ve explored the technical side of PH5, but how do you approach conceptualizing collections?
MIJIA ZHANG: We’re always looking for new artwork, and when we travel, we go to art museums. We like classic art because it represents a time period in history, but we really like contemporary art because those artists discuss current issues that make us think about our situation, like the weather or politics. We like to have this interaction with the artwork.
WEI LIN: And sometimes, we look at common objects. Last season, our focus was the balloon and this season it’s flowers. We didn’t do prints of flowers or make everything round like a balloon either.
For the balloons, we were interested in exactly how people feel when they see balloons. The airiness, the lightness, and the happy feelings of balloons—it’s not just simply about the balloon. For the flowers, we’re interested in the human manipulations of the flowers and what is natural, organic beauty versus the artificial, manmade beauty. For example, bouquets are artificial, because we arrange them together. It’s common objects with a philosophical approach.
MIJIA ZHANG: For our first season, we looked at Berndaut Smilde’s art. He manipulates the temperature in rooms to create clouds but just for a few seconds so he can take a picture of the clouds and print it out. Everything we do is with technology or a common object.
Can you tell me more about this Spring 2018?
MIJIA ZHANG: I used the same inspiration for Woolmark for Spring 2018: Artificial Flowers. The inspiration will be more in-depth. And we’re doing a gallery, art performance for the presentation.
We’re renting a gallery because we treat our presentations as gallery shows and not just a play space. I understand some people rent a gallery space and put their models in, but we really enjoy curating a space.
For Spring 2017, we installed a frame in the gallery because of our inspiration, Katharina Grosse. She had done great work with colors at the time, and we liked this idea and did our own. For the past season we did an installation using a lot of balloons.
WEI LIN: We found the biggest balloons we could find and just filled the room. It was the idea of occupying all of this air and space.
MIJIA ZHANG: We do a little art project for each show. We want our guests to walk into the presentation and feel our inspiration and feel how we feel. It’ll also be fun to take a picture for Instagram. We try to do this every season and for this season we’re thinking about how to present the flower.
We’re not going to use real flowers though. We’re thinking of artificial ways to present flowers so you feel an interaction with the theme. We call it an immersive art experience.
Awesome, can’t wait to see the inspiration come to life on Thursday. Last question before you go, what are some goals that you have beyond SS18? Perhaps adding new categories or opening stores?
WEI LIN: We were thinking, of course we want to add new categories and standalone stores, but those are very conventional and a very traditional routes. If we were to really think about the brand, PH5 challenges people to rethink knitwear, and we want people to rethink knitwear beyond womenswear.
That is an open conversation that we continue to have. We continue to think about how knitwear can be used. Five years ago, Nike Flyknits didn’t exist, and now we see knitwear in shoes. Knitwear wasn’t a part of the footwear category and now knitwear is a huge component, so what are some other ways of utilizing knitwear that hasn’t been thought of and haven’t been done. We don’t have the answer yet.
We want to do new categories of course. I would love to do sportswear and Mijia would love to make shoes, but we keep our minds open and our eyes open so we can apply knitwear in a way that nobody has thought of.
It’s good for us to keep in mind that we’re about this identity of challenging people’s conventional view on knitwear and what it is beyond just a traditional fabric. What about it is so special, like the sheer wool, what about it is so special that we can be pioneers onto something.