Last December was a big moment for knitwear.
In Rian Johnson’s film Knives Out, Chris Evans wore a cream-coloured chunky knit that featured weaving patterns that is traditional of the Aran Islands in Ireland. Surprisingly – or, unsurprisingly given the nature of things going viral – the sweater caught the attention of many spectators and overshadowed the actual success of the film.
Suddenly, there was a flood of articles chronicling the sweater that barraged the Internet. Everyone wanted a thread in this story, and it became evident when according to a report, one retailer saw a 150 percent uptick in sales of its Aran sweater. Even Evans was quick to get in on the joke, remarking in one interview that he stole the sweaters after production wrapped.
By the time the new James Bond film, No Time To Die, dropped at the end of December, sweater-mania hit its stride.
Given the strange days that we seem to be suspended in, sweaters are having a moment again. That cosy feeling of slipping one on, curling up on the sofa and watching an endless stream of Netflix shows suddenly feels like the antidote to the uncertainty and the dread that linger outside.
Sweaters have a kind of psychological effect on people. In the same way that a sparkly dress makes you feel like dancing, a sweater makes you feel sheltered and cocooned.
But where so many designers have largely responded to the customer’s yearn for a loving sweater by producing more of the same designs, Chris Ran Lin is taking the idea of knitwear to a different plane.
A two-time nominee for the Woolmark Prize – which has an alumnus of bright sparks that include Richard Malone and GmbH – Lin has created an identity that balks the traditional ideas of knitwear in favour for experimentation and exploration.
“[Knitwear is] a difficult area for designers, because everyone wants to try their hand at knitwear”, Lin tells us candidly. “But when you come down to the materials, the yarns and the different type of fibres, that’s where it gets complicated. I think that’s where my science-y side of my mind kicks in. I love to explore and try different things to get a new kind of texture that you won’t get with traditional knitwear.”
When I flew down to Melbourne last March for the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF) 2020 – just before border closures became a norm in our lives – Lin was just preparing to showcase his newest collection.
A modest line-up of 17 looks, the collection showed some of his greatest strengths. There were gauzy knit tops that fluttered behind the models as they walked down the runway, and sleek tailoring for a grounding effect. Preppy sweaters spliced together to form an almost Frankenstein-ish jumper, while rugby-inspired lacing held the sleeves onto a grey fuzzy knit. And his greatest claim to this season’s trends? Most of his designs were gender-neutral enough that you couldn’t peg it to a single gender.
Often branded as a gender-neutral Australian designer by home media, it’s easy to see why. A sheer t-shirt in forest green would look almost just as good when worn by a woman, and the wispy thin scarves that hung around the male models’ necks will surely attract plenty of female buyers as well.
Yet, where major fashion brands are now discovering the joys of designing clothing without specific gender codes in mind, Lin is quick to set the record straight: he never set out his label as one that transcended sex.
“From my perspective, I don’t understand why one has to put a gender on clothing. It’s just clothes, and it should be for anyone to wear”, he says. “I’m not in the business of telling people what to wear. I often tell people that my label will always represent the customers who have their own attitudes.”
The designer also openly admits that he doesn’t use the term “gender neutral” in his designs, because he sees it as another boundary. “If I say it, it means that I have to create gender neutral designs, right?”
Discussing his process, Lin starts his design work on a men’s form, but he also challenges himself to find a new expression that doesn’t exist in the market. Over time, he noticed that it wasn’t just the lads that began frequenting his collection.
“It surprised me that more than 80 percent of my customers are female”, Lin lets on with a laugh. “Once, I asked a female customer if she was buying it for her boyfriend or husband, and she said, ‘No, it’s for me’. I was very happy because it shows that I didn’t have to put my clothes in one gender category and stick to that strictly.”
Going back to the clothes in his collection, Lin explained that he was experimenting with a technique called knit felting, where knits are purposely agitated and shrunken to allow fibres to sprout out in different directions. The result is a lighter knit that’s plusher to touch, and the textures remain even after washing. Another method involved knitting extra-fine organza together with wool to create a texture that mimics jacquard.
On top of weaving organza into wool, Lin also played with the idea of hiding the organza fabric beneath the knit. On one sweater, strips of organza were interspliced with plackets of wool, and would only be revealed once the wearer put the sweater on and stretched out the knitting pattern.
Runway images: Lucas Dawson for VAMFF
It’s this dimensional approach to making knitwear that defines Lin’s edge in today’s market. He thinks about knit not just in the way it hangs on a rack, but how it looks when it’s stretched out, shrunken, folded and pleated.
“Architecture influences my designs”, Lin responds. “I always think about the human body as the foundation. Take our tailoring, for example. A lot of thought went into the figuring out how we wanted to incorporate the horsehair canvas or how much padding we wanted on the shoulders, so we could achieve a particular look when it’s worn.”
Being one of the few Asian designers based in Australia, Lin has never looked at moving his brand to a different city. Not even when he met the veteran ex-fashion director of The Daily Telegraph Hilary Alexander, who told him that he should take his collection and knock on the doors of Balenciaga to ask for a job because he had the potential to succeed internationally.
Lin, who came to Australia at 18 for his university education, feels a connection to his environment. “The cityscape [in Melbourne] continues to inspire me”, Lin explains. “The atmosphere, the architecture, and the personality of its dwellers – these factors collectively push me to do things a little differently from what’s available here.”
It’s also because of this reason that he believes onlookers sometimes have trouble associating him with the Australian fashion scene.
Where the fashion industry Down Under has garnered a reputation of creating pastel summer dresses, and relaxed, surf-inspired pieces for the bronzed bodies sprawled across sun-drenched beaches, Lin’s clothing feels far removed from that crowd.
Nothing clings to the body for sex appeal, nor exudes an air of exuberance that’s drenched with an overly-sunny disposition and lots of tanning oil.
Looking at his collection – what with the louche pants, the pullovers that envelope your body and the occasional poncho – you’d have an easier time seeing Lin’s imaginary muse traipsing through a cobbled walkway in the middle of Europe.
While Lin recognises that as much as those aesthetic values are valid, and despite the rich tradition that the knitwear industry is steeped in, his customers return to him for his contemporary ideas. And its this conviction to create clothing for an international crowd that places him apart from his homegrown peers.
“I have a real appreciation for the history and tradition that has taught me so much, but a designer cannot live in that past”, Lin states in a very matter-of-fact manner. “If you’re only living with [the history] and not thinking about the present or the future, then you cannot progress.”
For more information, visit chrisranlin.com