Dillon Chen is a multidisciplinary designer and illustrator. He completed a Bachelor's degree in Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute in 2016, and works primarily in the men’s fashion industry. Dillon has had the pleasure of assisting design teams at Calvin Klein, Coach, Theory, Converse, and Under Armour. He is currently freelancing at an independent outerwear label, Rainforest Inc. We connected with Dillon to see what he's been up to.
Can you tell us about a project that ~transformed~ you the most as an artist? What was challenging about it? what did you learn about yourself through it?
I wrote and recorded a demo called Angel in U around two years back with the help of a musician I met at karaoke. It was just something we did for fun, but it really meant the world to me. I sing in the shower and can strum a few chords on the guitar, so I wouldn’t call myself a musician by any measure. When my friend, Luke, sent the demo back to me after our recording session, I couldn’t believe that it was my voice on the track. It actually sounded good. Granted, he did 99% of the work, playing instruments, recording my vocals, and post production, but it was genuinely a beautiful collaboration. I remember after recording with Luke, I stayed up all night in my apartment thinking I was going to become a pop star. That’s the gift he gave me, the experience that sparked a dream so powerful it warped my reality. The only challenge of the project was to overcome the hesitation to express myself 100% during the recording session. Although, it wasn’t difficult to achieve in the privacy of a small, dim practice space, with the guidance of my friend. I discovered my inner voice through this project, but also the dangers of being seduced by your own art. I had created a dream and lost myself in it for a while, because I didn’t want to deal with my reality and responsibilities. That’s the double edged sword of art. If anybody’s curious, you can search “angel in u spaceprince” on Youtube to check out the demo. It’s going strong at 33 views.
What are the challenges of working in the fashion world?
My last notable job was very high pressure. It was incredibly fast paced and not all that creative. Every day I’d go into work, and my manager would lay out a row of print outs from Pinterest for me to sketch. Whatever brand of garment was photographed on the print out, I would have to copy closely. Then my manager would open the sketch, make some tweaks, and drop in colors from the season. Sometimes I’d sketch directly from garments that were purchased at other stores. It was difficult for me to reconcile, the fact that our design process started from another piece of clothing, hardly evolved, and I didn’t have any say in it. That was the job, however, and it seemed the most plausible solution to meet the demands of merchandising as well as short production timelines. I wasn’t comfortable copying designs, but was expected to do so on the daily, so it really messed with my head. I spoke out about it, but since nothing changed after a year, I left the job. On one hand, I regret I wasn’t able to overcome these challenges in order to maintain my career, but it was like trying to overhaul all of my morals and falling apart at the seams while doing so. I’ve taken a break from fashion since, and am still trying to figure out how to get back up.
What does artistic integrity mean to you?
Having ownership over your work. Knowing that what you put out into the world, came from your head or your heart. I draw from reference photos that I find online, but the look of the final piece, and the message that it speaks, is my own. To paint a scene, or build a chair, you will need to study other paintings and other chairs to understand how they were created, but then you have to figure out how to make it your own. That doesn’t always mix with big business, when you have other people dictating what works and what sells. My last job felt meaningless because there was no ownership of work. I couldn’t point at a garment sketch and say, I came up with that. When a team is driven by a strong vision and works towards realizing it, the authenticity of the product will naturally show through.
What strikes you as “inauthentic” in the art world? What frustrates you about art as an industry?
The art world is such a broad term. There’s a lot more authenticity in the fine art world vs the commercial fashion space. The voice of a singular artist has more of an identity than the voice of a company, but less of a reach. Art that is inauthentic doesn’t express an idea, a story, or a feeling. So it may be considered less a work of art, and more of a product. I don’t have much experience working professionally in the art industry, so I guess my only frustration is how difficult it is to make a living out of it. Then again, there are a lot of successful artists out there, so I still have a lot to learn.
I saw that you won a wearable technology contest in 2014, where you were praised for exceptional vision in designing something “likely unbuildable with today’s technology.” What else would you design if you didn’t have to consider the feasibility of execution?
A time machine.
How do your backgrounds in art & illustration, fashion design, & industrial design come together? What does an interdisciplinary thought process/creative process look like for you?
I’m a very visual thinker, so the best way I can communicate an idea is by sketching it to create a picture. My drawing has helped me land jobs in fashion, and got me through the Industrial Design program I studied at school. It’s given me the avenues to explore ideas beyond the page, whether it be a lighting project, a Mars Transit Habitat, or commercial garments. Fashion and Industrial design have completely different processes and principles of design, but they can both start out as a sketch. An interdisciplinary thought process gives me more than one angle to look at and solve a design problem.
What's your dream commission & why?
This illustrated campaign for Bobblehaus is certainly a rare opportunity that I view as a professional milestone. I was very inspired and awed by Ignasi Monreal’s illustrated campaigns for Gucci, so this project was like my “Gucci” moment. I hope to apply my artistry to visual development for film and animation some day. Having studied Industrial Design and dipped my toes in Fashion, I find that storytelling has the most room for blue sky creativity and self expression, so I’m really drawn to that space right now.
Do you have anything personal you’d like to share with the community?
This is really a reminder for myself, but I’d like to encourage anyone reading to practice kindness, stay healthy, and keep working on their craft. I haven’t created artwork to the level of finish in these pieces for Bobblehaus in a very long time, so I feel very grateful to be given the chance to polish and showcase my artistry. This project pushed me to get back on my feet during a time I felt knocked down. Big thanks to Abi and Ophelia for putting their trust in me.
What would a self-portrait of your alter-ego look like?
My alter ego is a character named spaceprince, who’s on a mission to save the galaxy armed with his laser gun that goes, pew-pew!
See more of Dillon's work here: