“Our brand is about questioning and challenging what modern masculinity means and the possibility of menswear,” explain Central Saint Martins graduates Alex Po and Derek Cheng, who launched their brand PONDER.ER in 2019
Who is it? PONDER.ER is a Hong Kong-based label by Alex Po and Derek Cheng, who met at London’s Central Saint Martins
Why do I want it? The gender-fluid brand challenges traditional ideas around both menswear and masculinity itself
Where can I find it? PONDER.ER is available at Biffi Boutiques in Milan and Bergamo, WUT in Tokyo, LABELHOOD in Shanghai and B1ock by JNBY Group in Hangzhou, China
Who is it? Alex Po and Derek Cheng, the designers behind fledgling Hong Kong-based brand PONDER.ER, met when they were both studying at Central Saint Martins in London. In 2019, three years after they graduated – and after Po had completed a Masters in Knitwear at the Royal College of Art – the pair came together to launch the gender-fluid label, with the aim of subverting traditional ideas around menswear and masculinity itself. “The name PONDER.ER is a wordplay on our names, it’s about balancing both of our aesthetics,” Cheng explains. During their time at Central Saint Martins, they “were very different in terms of our styles and directions”, but as classmates, and flatmates, “supported each other throughout the whole journey”.
The success of PONDER.ER lies in how Po and Cheng bring their individual aesthetics together – a collaboration rooted in the fact that both were interested in exploring a broad spectrum of menswear and masculinity. Their work as independent designers had both broached the idea, but from opposite directions: “Alex had this fascination with fun and colourful vintage menswear pieces. Some of his inspirations include 1930s men’s swimsuits and 1970s disco suits,” explains Cheng. “While my collection was about my love-hate relationship with my home city Hong Kong, especially in recent years when the city and the people have undergone so many changes and challenges, both socially and culturally. So Alex’s collection was much more romantic and soft, while mine was on the rougher side in terms of the textures and presentation.”
Together, Po and Cheng look at urban life and modern masculinity through PONDER.ER, always aiming to take an “alternative approach”. It’s something they draw on their own experiences as young men for: “More significantly, growing up as ‘too soft’, and some would say ‘feminine’ boys, our brand is about questioning and challenging what modern masculinity means and the possibility of menswear,” says Cheng. “Just like one of the featured creatives from our latest project UNTITLED SHELL, Jason Mui, said, masculinity is about confidence and freedom.”
Why do I want it? Po and Cheng’s adrogynous collections seek to “liquefy” familiar tropes of masculine dress – their Spring/Summer 2020 collection was titled Liquid Masculinity accordingly, whereby semi-sheer body-clinging knits, delicate shirting and cut-outs sought to “to rethink and reconsider the definition of masculinity and how modern men dress” (the pair called it a coming together of both of their graduate collections). “It’s definitely satisfying to make something look fragile and unsettling,” they say. “It’s all about embracing that vulnerability, and directing the gaze onto the male body.”
Their Autumn/Winter 2020 collection – debuted at Paris Fashion Week – continued what they describe as an exploration of “how garments as our second skin reflect fragments of life growing up as a modern man”. This time, they looked more directly at their home city, drawing inspiration from the discarded objects they see on Hong Kong’s streets, using abandoned mattresses and tarpaulins as a means to explore texture and silhouette. One pair of trousers is printed with hand-drawn mementos of Hong Kong; other garments play with conventional menswear pieces – from poplin shirts and trench coats to denim jackets – reimagining them into sensual new forms.
Of the way they work, they say: “We experiment with a lot of the ideas in-house, we enjoy the process as much as the outcome, I guess this is something that we learnt and adopted from London.” Textile innovation is key – whether using smocking, digital printing or fabric-bonding to disrupt the shape of a garment, or riffing on traditional technique, like one particular silk organza suit, constructed with denim-like topstitch details before undergoing a hand-dying process with natural Yamato Indigo dye to give the illusion of denim.
With an eye to sustainability (“as an emerging brand, we also feel the responsibility to be more aware with how we produce our garments, and also encourage our customers to make more considered purchases,” they say) Po and Cheng work closely with knit technicians in China and small local production houses in Hong Kong. “A lot of them are retired seamstresses and pattern cutters or people who have been laid off since most textile and garment factories have been relocated to mainland China.”
In fact, a local mindset is key for the designers, who recently showed film titled UNSETTLED SHELL by Teo Studio at the first digital edition of London Fashion Week, which they call a “a love-hate letter to identity, gender and our home-city, Hong Kong during this time of self-reflections when the world is on pause”. Seven creatives from the city feature, including fellow designer Jason Mui of Hong Kong-based Yat Pit, and drag artist and activist Muschi. “Ever since we started our brand, we have been working with local talents and incorporating elements from local cultures into our work,” PONDER.ER say. “Under the current pandemic, we feel like this is the time for creatives to come together and to support each other.”