Fashion designer Tianan Ding has a unique perspective on the concept of value in the fashion industry. Using discarded materials, such as kitchen paper towels, toilet paper, and expired plasters, her brand ALA TIANAN experiments with deconstructing the costs and functions of clothing. Through her playful and ironic approach, she elevates the value of everyday objects while challenging the disposability of fashion. In this interview, she shares her journey from Beijing to London's RCA, her fascination with "making something out of nothing," and her opinion on the state of the fashion industry today.
N: Hi, Tianan, how are you feeling and what inspires you these days?
T: Hi! Currently in London the cherry blossom trees are blooming everywhere and I feel inspired by this changing scenery: the chilly smoky air, and grey sky but with these bright colour-toned flowers is very beautiful.
N: I want to start at the beginning of your journey, how did you first get into fashion? How did that lead into moving to London to study at RCA?
T: I started my BA fashion degree in Beijing, and I have learned a lot of technical skills there, which has turned me into a big geek on textile innovation and uniform culture.
It was 2018, I watched the RCA graduation show clip during my study in Beijing, I was shocked because I have never seen fashion presented like this before. That was my first time thinking that I wanna have a “brand” that tries to do something really different.
Thankfully I was able to study further with a scholarship from RCA.
N: Most of your designs are made using disposable materials: kitchen paper towels, toilet paper, expired plasters. How did that come about? Walk me through getting the idea and going for your first attempt at it.
T: It was a very fun journey - I did a performance with a reversed-functional raincoat first, it was made from coated toilet paper. I chose this material because it is dissolvable when it gets wet, and it’s a very ironic take on very function-oriented outdoor wear culture.
When the pandemic & lockdown came, I was developing my graduation collection, but unfortunately I couldn’t access any more fabric. There was a funny coincidence that people started to panic-buy toilet roll, and all of a sudden necessities such as , toilet paper, dry pasta, the groceries turned into “luxury” goods.
This made me realize how fashion is so disposable, and the idea of ALA TIANAN also starts from there. It is this sarcasm and experimentation that kind of deconstructs all the costs and functions while making a garment.
N: You have expressed your fascination with "making something out of nothing". Have you always been resourceful ?
T: This statement has two meanings behind it. When it comes to elevating the value of a “non-fashion” everyday object, I am always happily exploring and trying to bring in more unexpected contexts in order to revalue collection.
It also reminds me every time that fashion should always be approachable and give equal access to everyone. The second meaning is I find myself not actually having many resources so I usually have to make something out of nothing,
But I love the aesthetics of the status behind this sentence, it feels so organic and raw. When you are not owning much, you have the most potential to show the genuineness and pureness of your work. I think I am at this stage right now and I really enjoy it.
N: Your use of discarded material is part of your investigation on the idea of "value", especially in relation to how the fashion industry seems to be able to "make value" out of anything. What is your opinion on the state of the fashion industry today?
T: In my case, I still find the word “luxury streetwear” quite disturbing, even though sometimes I feel guilty that I am doing a “streetwear designer brand”. There is a saying that, “rich people wanna look broke now”. I think the fashion industry does love trends and tastes from “the other side of the world”, they embrace romanticized kitsch, grunge, homeless aesthetics, and “poverty chic".
I appreciate the beauty of this cultural merge, from the streetwear that mixes with high-end fashion. However, what we need is more voice and perspective from kids from the street. If streetwear doesn’t speak for real people, it is only a cosplay costume.
N: Your brand ALA TIANAN fuses soft, feminine pastel prints with bold and stereotypically masculine elements like biker jackets and streetwear. Can you tell me more about the brand´s aesthetics?
T: Playing with the idea of “Value” is like my playful, ironic side. When I am designing, I dig down more into the emotional side of it- I want to give the garment a very soft, storytelling finish. For example, I imagine the biker jacket wearer drifting into a nightclub craving friendship, instead of actually going to enjoy the music. I want to present the beauty of streetwear, the typical menswear from the female gaze.
My Chinese heritage gives me a push on exploring delicate techniques and crafts, I am always obsessed with the contrast when I adapt them into clothing of a much harsher style.
N: How has your practice evolved in the past year?
T: Last year I went through some health & financial struggles, even Visa issues, I was suddenly beaten by the reality of the world. Thankfully I got a group of friends that gives me a lot of support. It has actually really influenced my design practice . When I looked back on my first commercial collection, it was very much about flexing my technical knowledge. The latest collection “Kids from another system” has far more emotion, and the whole process is also rather slow. When I was making these clothes, I was picturing how they would look on my friends.
I found that as a young designer, it is ok to grow up with your design and let your experience evolve your design.