Inspiration strikes in the most unexpected places. A falling apple sparked the theory of gravity. A segmented orange inspired the Opera House design. For Jake Rong Chen and Jason Alexander Pang, the duo behind new Melbourne-based menswear label Amxander, it was the memory of their most annoying primary school P.E teachers that provided rich fodder for the spring-summer 2017/2018 collection.
“I had a teacher who was just hilarious,” says Chen. “Watching her bounce up and down, I can’t get that image out of my mind.” You can see the references to awkward P.E teachers in Amxander’s Ode To Mrs. P collection – a blend of tracksuits and pin-stripe office-wear made contemporary with fine materials and tongue-in-cheek embroidery (one velour sweatshirt reads Platypussies). “I like to put the fun into fashion,” says Pang. “It’s not that serious.”
Chen and Pang are part of a crop of young designers blurring the line between streetwear and formalwear. Amxander’s designs require a certain amount of confidence (forest green velour is a bold look for most of us) but the label’s silhouettes are accessible. Playful colours, customised hardware and bold embroidery of Chinese characters hint at the designers’ heritage.
With Chen and Pang’s mutual disdain for suiting, they instead look towards subcultural uniforms as collection starting points. “The fact that you’re being confined into this one identity because of this one type of garment really bothered us,” says Chen. The pair references 1930s American farming uniforms, clothes worn by Antarctic explorers, early pilots and Bosozoku (Japanese youth biker gangs). For the record, Chen and Pang have designed a number of suits, although their versions are casual – no padding or fusing required.
Xander is the hypothetical character Chen and Pang design for – a man confined to nine-to-five suit life, whose repressed inner-self yearns for a more playful identity. It makes for a good story, but at a deeper level reflects Chen and Pang’s frustration with conservative tastes that persist in the Australian menswear market – a factor that pushed them to launch their label in the Chinese market from inception in mid 2014.
“There’s a laidback attitude and cultural acceptance for men to be a bit ungroomed,” says Chen. “It’s that idea of masculinity that permeates Australian culture. There’s not much of a culture of men wanting to represent their identity in a way that’s unique to themselves and their country.”
“I feel like things are better than they were before,” Pang adds. “I just feel like a lot of menswear labels don’t really reach their goals here [in Australia].”
The label has been nominated for the Australia and New Zealand Woolmark prize for two consecutive years, but Chen still sees the menswear business as slow moving in Australia, especially for younger, experimental labels. Data from market researcher Euromonitor showed that menswear sales in Australia outpaced womenswear in 2016, rising by three per cent. But for Chen and Pang, it’s Chinese millennials who are “much braver in dressing than previous generations".
The pair talk of how mobile technology mediates almost every transaction in the Chinese market and are clearly energised by the potential. Chen scrolls through his WeChat page (a Chinese social media app), demonstrating how users can do a multitude of things including hiring a bike, shopping for clothes, paying for groceries and communicating with friends. The pair would love to sell their products on WeChat one day.
Next up is Shanghai Fashion Week – a crucial show for the label, considering most of its sales happen in China. “The market is growing so rapidly and the speed of consumption is insane,” Chen says of the pair’s frequent visits to China, where the label’s production happens. “We’ve seen the womenswear market in China move towards contemporary labels, moving on from just your Louis Vuittons and Guccis, and hopefully we’ll see a similar change in behaviour with the men’s market.”
“[Chinese consumers] are educated these days. They do their research, have their own resources and know what they want to buy,” says Pang.
The e-shop will reopen at the end of the month.