Jiawen Gan & Yarui Chen from Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology

A taste for movies and a flair for theatre helped Jiawen Gan win the WOW 2016 Student Innovation Award.

For his graduate university project, Gan, a student of Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology, created The Knight, three warrior-like characters. After he learned about WOW, he entered them in the 2016 awards show, and was stunned to find out he’d won the prize.

Though Gan’s major at university was textiles, he says he’s always been interested in stage performance. He drew inspiration from foreign movies and medieval knights for his trio of garments, made from space cotton, leather, wool, and metal pieces.

“I saw movies with knights in them, and wanted to one day make a garment for them,” he says.

His garments have achieved that very successfully. Both futuristic and recalling ancient elements of battle dress, each piece complements the others but is also striking on its own. He layered the fabrics to achieve the heavy, protective look of armour, steel and chainmail, despite being made of fabric and feeling light to the wearer.

The Knight on stage in the 2016 WOW Awards show

Because the focus of his university’s design programme is commercial success for its students, Gan laughs that his teachers weren’t so keen on his idea. But it was perfect for WOW. “I have a supervisor at university who is very supportive; he encouraged me to do what I am interested in doing,” he says. “The teachers at my university always think about the market so they want students to learn to make clothes ready for it.” The competition was a great chance to think outside these parameters.

Gan has a lifelong interest in being creative. He started to learn art from a very early age, with a focus mainly on fine art. When he got to university, he was assigned to study fashion design, which wasn’t his first choice. But he grew to love it, and now he’s passionate about the field, and intends to study further.

Jiawen Gan is an example of an exciting fresh crop of international WOW entrants. Since 2012, WOW has been reaching out to world universities and design institutes, encouraging new talent to enter. WOW founder Dame Suzie Moncrieff and competition director Heather Palmer regularly present the awards competition to universities to promote it, and offer a project to help young designers launch their careers. Indeed, many tertiary students who have entered WOW have gone on to work in the fashion and film industries.

Entries from Chinese students have been particularly strong. In 2016, Jiawen Gan was one of four Chinese designers to win awards for their WOW garments. Another was Donghua University’s Yuru Ma and Siyu Fang’s Renascence, which won first place in the American Express Open Section. Yuru Ma is a frequent WOW entrant and award-winner; in 2012, her first-ever entry to WOW won the Supreme Award and in 2013 she was runner-up for Student Award.

The Renaissance Happens Again by Yu Tan, Donghua University, China, on stage in the 2016 WOW Awards show

Another Chinese student who found success last year was Yu Tan, a first-time entrant also from Donghua University. Her garment, The Renaissance Happens Again, won the Asia Design Award.

Gan says WOW, and his win, have given him a boost in passion for his craft. “I am so excited to see designers from different parts of the world,” he says. “Before I had never heard about WOW but once I did, I find it’s very inspiring. I think the garments that appear here are very appealing to audiences.

Jiawen Gan and WOW Competition Director Heather Palmer, on stage at the 2016 WOW Awards Ceremony

“I’m also proud of myself because I’m the first one from my university to come to New Zealand and be a part of the WOW competition,” he says. “I hope in the future, my university will send more designers to be part of WOW.”