PSFK Shanghai recently caught up with John Solomon, one of the founders of Nankeen — a unique new fashion brand that takes its inspiration from a traditional Chinese art form that dates back to the Song Dynasty.
Please tell us about the concept and inspiration behind Nankeen.
Two years ago, while on a visit to see my sister (who was living and studying in Shanghai) my family discovered a beautiful fabric tucked away in the back alleys in the French Concession known to the Chinese as blue nankeen. As a family of designers, we were immediately drawn to the intricate and stunning richness of blue nankeen, an art form that has been perfected over thousands of years. Using hand-cut patterns, a paste resistance method and natural colors derived from the indigo plant, the result is a highly durable and beautiful textile. Inspired by what we discovered, in Shanghai, we returned to the US to create a line of contemporary fashion and home items so that we could share Nankeen with the rest of the world. I re-located to Shanghai to work closely with the artisans and my mother (the designer) and father (preservation architect) started the business in New England.
What is unique about your fabric and hand-printing technique?
The term “blue nankeen” describes hand-dyed fabric of artistic refinement and primitive simplicity, which originated on the Silk Road over three thousand years ago. Hand-carved stencils, originally made from wood but now from heavy paper, are prepared and a mix of soya bean flour and slaked lime is applied through the openings of the stencil onto the 100% cotton fabric. The result is a material that still adheres to the original technique and provides a variety of patterns that we can use for men and women’s accessories.
The fabric can often be found in historic houses throughout China where it was used for drapes, table cloths, and every day clothing. For centuries, the common people in China have found the fabrics spiritually satisfying. To them, the simple blue and white color scheme epitomizes contentment, tranquility, and harmony between human beings and nature. Many in the West have never heard or seen this technique and therefore it is viewed as fresh and unique.
What are your favorite 2-3 Nankeen products and why?
Prior to the launch of our men’s line, I have always been intrigued with our wave and butterfly patterns. The products in these patterns are very popular.
Now that I have designed the men’s line, I would say I cannot live without the new weekender with matching toilet kit and tray for my keys. It is often difficult to find interesting men’s accessories that are durable yet stylish. We have managed to do this with a simple pattern and through the addition of leather accents. Our addition, this Winter, of leather to both our men’s and women’s line is very interesting as the traditional fabrics have never been combined with leather before.
Do you think traditional Chinese designs are popular in the US and if so, why?
Historically, the West has always been very interested in Chinese culture. Whether it is the food, ceramics, furniture or art, we tend to value these traditions as they have been perfected over thousands of years. We find this is true with Nankeen. With the variety of negative stories coming out of China, people are happy to hear about the more personal side of China. This is a process and art form that the Chinese are very proud of and our customers like to hear this story. They also enjoy being able to wear and use these products on a daily basis because they are so durable yet stylish.
What are your Nankeen’s future plans?
Nankeen is currently expanding in a number of ways. We have a robust online store, and continue to open retail outlets throughout the United States–currently we are in over 20 stores. For the coming year, we have plans in the works for a our very own flagship store in New England, as well as continuing with our expansions overseas to Canada, Bermuda, and London. We are excited that we will be able to share Nankeen both domestically and abroad.