Wei Lin’s outlook on sustainability has changed a lot since she co-founded PH5 in 2016.
Known for its innovative, highly technical designs, PH5 has carved out a niche for itself by creating knitwear that looks like nothing else on the market, and has succeeded in getting everyone from Serena Williams to Barbie Ferreira into its clothes as a result. But lately, the brand’s aspirations have started to shift.
“When I first started PH5 I was like, ‘Let’s be the next generation’s Alaïa,'” Lin tells me over the phone. “Now it’s like, ‘Let’s be the next generation’s Patagonia.'”
Lin has long posited that knitwear is an inherently more sustainable apparel category than many others: There’s no wasted fabric, as there is with wovens, and there’s not a ton of water involved, like there is with denim. But it’s only within the last few seasons that PH5 has really started to ramp up its commitment to sustainability.
Core to that strategy is a brand-new CGI team member named Ama. Introduced during digital New York Fashion Week via the brand’s Fall 2021 lookbook, Ama is more than a digital model filling in for one season. She’s being billed as the brand’s new, but permanent, “Chief Decision Scientist.” In this role, Ama is supposed to focus on two things: communicating about the brand’s deepening sustainability efforts to those outside the brand, and inspiring those within it to push harder to minimize their environmental impact.
“It’s about having something that will hold us accountable to ourselves. Part of us creating her means that we can’t let her down because then we’re letting ourselves down. She was born from our dreams and desires to be better,” explains creative director Zoe Champion.
Both Champion and Lin are more interested in working behind the scenes than they are in being the face of the brand, so they’re counting on Ama to help bridge the gap between themselves and their customers, both through official brand channels and through her own social media. Part of their goal for her is to be a “listener” who really engages with and learns about their customers’ sustainability priorities.
Listening has already proven itself an important part of how PH5 does business, even before Ama joined the team. I know in part because of how Lin and Champion have listened to me: When PH5’s Spring 2021 show focused on the devastation of the Australian bushfires and Indigenous wisdom as a key to ecological restoration, I wrote about it — but also pointed out the discrepancy between that theme and their sourcing, which featured only 30-40% of what the brand described as “sustainable materials.”
Rather than responding defensively, the brand took it as a challenge. This season, Lin and Champion told me that our dialogue was part of what spurred them to push harder on the sourcing front. After years of its recycled or organic materials hovering in the 30-35% range, PH5 got that number up to 91% of materials used in the Fall 2021 collection.
“I tried to make sure I started with the yarn this season, looking for something that felt good and was more consciously sourced, and then using it to the best of its abilities and properties, rather than starting from design, looking for a yarn and struggling to find something that fits,” explains Champion.
Part of the goal with Ama is to allow the kind of dialogue we had to happen more regularly, and extend it beyond journalists to anyone who follows or wears the brand. In opening the doors that way, PH5 will likely face plenty of pushback — especially if it starts to attract a robust following among the sustainability community. Though most of the brand’s materials this season are either recycled or organic, the prominent use of synthetics may still alarm those particularly concerned with the impacts of microplastics. Others might be frustrated to see that though Ama, PH5’s “ideal woman,” is clearly not meant to look like the typical sample size model, the brand only carries most of its garments up to a size large. (Lin says that attempts to expand the brand’s sizing range in the past were abandoned after they didn’t drive enough sales.)
But if Ama can help PH5 listen to those critiques, or whatever else may come up, and actually implement real changes, she will turn out to be an asset indeed.
“So much of the conversation around sustainability and conscious design is on social media. I think Ama being a CGI person creates a space that people can get more excited,” says Champion.
Her hope is that that excitement could drive dialogue, and open up avenues for new partnerships. PH5 is not looking to turn Ama into the next Lil Miquela (who the brand has also dressed), so much as hoping to find collaborators who could help them move towards further reducing their impact, since PH5 doesn’t have the kinds of resources that allow it to create all-new materials from scratch. (Lin’s dream collaborations at the moment include “some kind of cool Silicon Valley-backed yarn company,” a partner in AI robotics or electric vehicles.)
And if it’s still not exactly clear how having a CGI teammate will help make the brand more sustainable, Champion and Lin are okay with that for now. They’re confident enough of the value that Ama adds to their team that they invested more than seven months in her creation before introducing her to the world, and they trust that simply by being on the cutting edge of fashion’s use of CGI Ama’s going to help take them somewhere. Lin says it’s already happening: by day two of her life, Ama had already inspired new potential collaborators to reach out.
“I think small brands asking for [new] yarns is not a super sexy email to read,” says Champion. “But Ama being this innovation and oddity and something you have to be a little confused by opens up those doors for us a bit more.”