Tony Chen isn’t exactly sure how old he is.
If you’re following the Gregorian calendar, he’s 28. But in Taiwan, under the Chinese calendar, he’s actually 27. Or, maybe it’s 26.
Like Tony says, “it’s just complicated.” And really, it’s just like the businessman himself.
His culture has been torn between those two calendars, countries, schools and home lives ever since his birth. As the grandson of Chen Wen-jin, the founder of the major Taiwanese textile producer HerMin, Chen spent his childhood in both Taiwan and the United States, where he eventually attended Penn State in Pennsylvania as an undergrad.
But a few years after graduation, he found himself back in Tainan, Taiwan to help take over the family business with his mother and father, who are still at the helm of a leading textile producer here in Taiwan. Now, Chen is spearheading a new clothing company using HerMin textiles—his own project and ever-demanding task, called Weavism.
So his life back in Taiwan he says is, again, just complicated.
“I knew we had a factory, but I never really understood what the family business was like,” Chen said. “I think it’s pretty painful, you know? My parents spend 20 or 30 years in the textile business, and they both come from a chemistry background. They understand a lot more than I do.”
Narratives like Chen’s are familiar and keep surfacing as industry in Taiwan keeps evolving and as a new generation ages. Many companies, like HerMin, were founded in the 1970s and ‘80s during what is known as the Taiwan Miracle. This economic boom gave birth to local entrepreneurs who industrialized the country with technology, cheap labor and new capital.
“My grandparents told me the weave printing machine was a bill printing machine,” Chen said. “It was just cash, you know? This is like a cycle that always happens—people go to cheaper labor companies for textile sourcing. The reason for Taiwan booming is we had cheap labor.”
As many of these founding entrepreneurs aged, their children took over the factories and their grandchildren were sent abroad to attend universities in the West, just like Chen. With a more international perspective, and perhaps a better knack for business, many of these third-generation Taiwanese have started to return with experiences so unlike their grandparents, and yet similar tasks lying ahead as owners of sometimes large factories and businesses.
When Chen arrived back in Asia, he wanted to get involved in a way that would further HerMin’s innovation as a textile brand. The market had shifted, and Taiwan certainly wasn’t holding a monopoly in cheap labor or products any more.
According to the Taiwan Textile Foundation, production value, employees and manufacturers have all decreased in the last 10 years. A report done by the foundation found the industry has (not shockingly) grown from “labor intensive to technical intensive and finally to capital intensive.”
So far, that is what has made HerMin so successful, said Weavism’s Fabric and Apparel Project and Marketing Advisor Courtney Cruzan.
“Primarily, most of the larger companies focus on using polyester synthetic functional fibers,” she said. “Whereas HerMin textiles was founded on using high grade cotton blends. They’ve stayed true to high-end woven natural fibers.”
Cruzan, a longtime-employee with HerMin, has been tasked with introducing the world to Weavism, which she describes as “northern European or Japanese high-end streetwear.”
“The majority of consumers, especially of Americans, they might not even know where Taiwan is, let alone there is so much creativity and technology that comes out of it,” Cruzan said.
Many other Taiwan-centric textile companies are moving in an eco-friendly direction because there is room for it in the industry—a change from their roots in cheap products and even cheaper labor.
HerMin’s claim to fame is its use of the Umorfil textile which uses collagen peptide extracted from fish scales, a waste product from processing fish for sale. The scales are purchased from local fisheries and then turned into a fiber used in these textiles.
Weavism uses this in many of its garments, which at first glance feature minimal designs with some flairs like high collars on coats lined with Umorfil, asymmetrical women’s tops and unisex pieces that introduce street-like undertones. The prices, on average, are around NT$2,000, or about $60 USD.
“That’s really what the goal is,” she said. “To elevate the perception to, ‘What is a Taiwan brand? And what does that mean? What does that look like?’ [Chen] in a unique position to develop an international flair and his own style.”
Chen says now that he’s the founder of the clothing brand and still a project manager for HerMin, he is trying to learn how to move both companies forward, which includes expanding internationally.
“Too many factories think [Weavism is] too complicated, stylish, functional,” he said. “It can’t appeal to everyone in Taiwan, you will only hit a very small target audience. So that’s why it has better potential to expand to other countries because it’s unique and different.”
Weavism currently has stores open in Taipei and Tainan, but the next goal for Cruzan is to share the products with other startup founders back in the U.S. She is currently living in the Bay Area in order to collaborate with others in California.
Cruzan says eliminating fast fashion, creating sustainable fabrics and introducing functional garments is not just a goal of the company, but also a personal goal.
“Now, we’re more about, ‘How do we use the technology that we’re developing in Asia, and how do we get Taipei and California to then work together to generate these benefits for humanity overall?’” she said.
(Feature photo courtesy of Weavism)
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