When COVID-19 hit New Brunswick last year, Chinese Canadian student Echo Chen had a lot on her mind. In order to get through it, she buried herself in her collection: a six-piece fashion line called Forbidden City.
“The collection gave me the motivation to start my day. At the time I was worried about my family in China, I worried about myself…It made me switch my focus from the things I was worried about…It helped me go through that hard time,” said Echo.
Echo, a 2020 New Brunswick College of Craft and Design graduate, was awarded the 2020 Acquisition Award of $1,000 at the George Fry Gallery’s opening of RECollection on March 22. She will have one of her pieces from Forbidden City entered into the NBCCD Permanent Collection, a collection of artworks that stays in the College to inspire and inform future students.
When she was presented the award, Echo was speechless and brought to tears.
“When they mentioned my name, I was like, ‘Oh my god, is this real?’”
Echo said it’s an honour to know that her piece will remain in NBCCD forever.
“The three years I was here changed my life. They changed my career path, changed my nature, changed the way I think about the world. It’s huge. NBCCD is a really magic school.”
Forbidden City’s six pieces can be put in three categories: Students/youth, professional working-class, and high-class or wealthy. They are made of rayon satin and are embroidered with delicate designs, as well as machine stitched appliqué of waves and dragons. All material used came from China, and all her models were of Chinese heritage.
The collection is inspired by the Imperial Palace of China. It expresses her concern for the undemocratic society and the environmental pollution that affects all people in China, regardless of gender, age, or status, says Echo’s artist statement.
The pollution is bad, said Echo. Some days, when you stand close to the window and look down, you can’t see the people on the ground.
At the George Fry Gallery, the mannequin that wore Echo’s evening gown piece also wore a mask with the word “forbidden” written across it, another way for Echo to share her message that regardless of your social status, you can’t escape China’s censorship or pollution.
“No matter your age, or if you’re rich or not or working, it impacts everyone.”
When Canada went into lockdown in March 2020, everyone was shocked, but not Echo.
“I was worried one and a half months early,” she said.
Echo got her Canadian citizenship on Jan. 22, 2020, the same day that China went into lockdown due to COVID-19. Instead of celebrating, Echo was fearful. The Chinese government wasn’t being transparent with what was happening, and there were rumours the internet was going to be shut down. She was worried she would lose contact with her family.
“I was so scared. Every time you Facetimed your parents you didn’t know tomorrow if you could talk to them.”
Back in New Brunswick, NBCCD closed but allowed students to bring home equipment so they’d be able to continue their projects. Echo brought back irons and sewing machines and tried to set up a studio.
She remembers the sleeves of her garments when she thinks back on this time. In the classroom, she had forms to hold the sleeves in place, but at home she had nothing. She said to herself, Echo, use what you have.
But it wasn’t as simple as grabbing the first arm-shaped object she found and getting to work. It needed to be something that could withstand heat and she’d need many different sizes in order to shape the arm correctly. She tried a lot of objects: Water glasses, glass water bottles, pickle jars, strawberry jam jars – eventually she had a whole collection of glass objects to shape the sleeves.
Karen Ruet, George Fry Gallery Coordinator and NBCCD Photography instructor, said the committee who chose Echo’s piece to be entered into the NBCCD Permanent Collection all made separate decisions that Echo was the most deserving of this award.
“The concept of her line is incredibly powerful. She has a voice now because she is a Canadian citizen and doesn’t have to fear repercussions from her government and China,” said Karen.
The Permanent Collection is a working collection, meaning most pieces live in the studios and continue to be used to inspire and instruct future students at NBCCD. This will be true for Echo’s piece as well.
“We want the pieces not to be tucked away in a cabinet somewhere, we want them to be out and on display around the College.”
As for Echo, she appreciates letting people to react to her first collection. Every time she’s able to talk to people about it, it makes her think more about the meaning.
“Every time I talk about it, everything becomes clear: Why I’m here, why I left my home country,” she said.
“The collection gives me a chance to review my past…It’s telling my story.”