The last time knitwear experienced seismic change was during the Industrial Revolution. Automation and large-scale machinery increased quantities and overall accessibility of fabric. Since then, there’s been little progress. “It hasn’t developed in decades,” Wei Lin—founder of the womenswear label PH5—says with a sense of frustration. “Well there was Alaïa,” she adds. But, apart from the late “King of Cling,” very few luxury labels can claim their stitches and techniques differ from those used by High Street and fast fashion brands. “To most people, knitwear means oversized, chunky sweaters,” she continues. “While there’s nothing wrong with that, there are too many brands going in that direction.”
Lin, a former Wall Street management consultant, and her business partner Mijia Zhang (a celebrated Parsons School of Design graduate) became roommates nine years ago. In 2012, they parted ways when Lin returned home to Dongguan, China to help run her family’s knitwear mill. “This was her first and only job. She started at the bottom as a worker and rose through the ranks,” Lin says of her mother who now manages the facility. “I grew up in the factory, so I feel I have a deeper understanding of knitwear than most.”
When Zhang was set to produce her knit-heavy thesis collection in 2014, sample quotes from Manhattan factories were simply too high. In stepped Lin, inviting Zhang to spend her winter break producing a six-piece capsule at the factory. “This was the first time I saw a Shima Seiki machine,” Zhang gushes, referring to the computerized Japanese apparatus capable of knitting full, seamless garments. “The whole process is so advanced. It really blew my mind.” Codes written by fabric and pattern technicians—based on extensive conversations with Lin and Zhang about fabric mood, weight, tension, and hand—are passed on to software engineers who feed the data into a 3D knitting machine that creates the final garments.
The following year, Lin invested in Zhang as the second half of her new label PH5. (Its moniker comes from translating the scientific PH scale to fashion: if seven is androgynous and one is saccharine femininity, Lin and Zhang’s aesthetic lands at five.) Every season since, the duo has proved that knitwear is about much more than your run-of-the-mill sweater. Their scalloped, body-sculpting dresses, streamlined swimwear and jumpsuits, and structured outerwear bucks the mold, bringing versatility, color, and whimsy to the stodgy category. Whether it’s Art Deco as seen in Miami or Alice In Wonderland expressed through contemporary dance, Lin and Zhang filter larger cultural moments through a specific lens.
Their innovative approach has earned them one of six finalist spots for the inaugural BoF China Prize this year. With their newfound platform, the pair is intent on highlighting the virtues of knitwear from ease of movement and wrinkle-resistance to its inherent sustainability.
With pattern-cutting eliminated and unraveling missteps made easy, knit fabrics (unlike their woven counterparts) can be produced in a zero waste process. “We have a room in the factory dedicated to pulling yarns out of damaged samples and bad fabric panels,” Lin explains. “They’re rewound and reused.” While this technique isn’t new, it’s often underutilized. In addition to making mistakes less costly and experimenting less risky, reverse-engineering reduces overall waste. But for Lin and Zhang, a green process is just one facet of sustainability.
We’re coming at innovation from different angles
“We just got back from Spinexpo in Shanghai,” Zhang says, noting that it’s the largest yarn trade show in the world. “We’ve been asking for new, environmentally friendly options for a while, and this year we saw yarns made of seashells, bamboo, and even tree resin.” Between Fair Trade-certified organic cotton, recycled polyester and Merino wool, and lyocell, 30% of the yarns in PH5’s last collection were sustainable. Zhang hopes to double that percentage by next season. “We’re coming at innovation from different angles,” Zhang adds. “It keeps things interesting.”
From partnering with Fitbit and Girls Who Code to dressing Sophia—the disconcerting AI humanoid created by Hong Kong-based engineering firm Hanson Robotics—Lin and Zhang have a keen interest in what’s next. “Before we dressed her for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last year, only the top half of Sophia was public,” Lin explains. “She was going to be walking at the event, so we had to customize everything to make sure she could move easily in the clothes.” Sophia (or rather her creator David Hanson), was thrilled with the results. “She even wrote us a letter of recommendation,” Lin adds, with a chuckle. Even with the world’s most famous robot on board, reception hasn’t been ideal.
“In the industry, we’re often told that we’re a just a category brand not a fully ready-to-wear,” Zhang says. “I think that’s partly because no one really celebrates knitwear and all of its possibilities.” Though PH5 is now in its fifth year of operation, Lin and Zhang feel it has yet to break through that perception. “But we really believe in it,” Lin assuredly chimes in. “If anyone can push knitwear forward, it’s us.”
Images courtesy of PH5