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Helen + Cen

Power babes, Helen Zhang, founder and designer of Social-Work and Cen Si, print designer for Calvin Klein, are redefining their category and staying true to their friendship along the way. We chatted with the pair about building their brand and how empowering each other has been a major key to their success.

Where are you from?
Helen: I was born in Milan and raised in China. 

Cen: I was born in China and raised in Finland.

What brought you two together?
Helen: We met in our sophomore year while we were at Parsons. We became close friends in our junior and senior year. We finished our thesis in the same class and then we decided to live together as roommates after graduation.

Cen: We met while studying Fashion Design at Parsons and had taken classes together. In our final year we were both put into the same thesis class: All Gender, a class for students who wanted to make clothes for both men and women. After graduation we decided to move in together as roommates.

Tell us about your careers? How did you get there?
Helen: While studying fashion design at Parsons, I was designing both menswear and womenswear. After graduation, I met with my business partner Qi so we decide to do an all gender fashion brand together called Social-Work.

Cen: At school, I discovered that I loved screen printing, painting/drawing things, and color. My own line Con Moto is a line of all gender clothes full of prints and color. Graphic elements for clothing is something I naturally gravitate towards. Currently I am also designing prints and graphics for the label 205W39NYC under Calvin Klein. I draw, paint, and work on screen prints for the the upcoming runway seasons alongside the design team.

What is your process when approaching your creative work?
Helen: I usually start with a concept/story that I find really intriguing. Then, I will do research around the story on either fabric, color, or silhouette. And then I will take two or three elements from the research and implement them into design elements. Finally, I start sketching and pattern making. 

Cen: Outside of work, I always start with research, whether it is drawing inspiration from pictures I snap on my iPhone, visiting galleries or looking into film/books/literature. At work, we are usually given a big concept/idea where we can develop and propose creative solutions. It is our responsibility to help fulfill the creative vision of the creative director/brand. I often mold my creativity to suit the energy of the team to bring out the most suitable ideas.

How do you guys use your friendship to drive your careers and businesses?
Helen: We love to visit museums and galleries together. We will talk about designers and artist that we like and share some stuff we saw that are inspirational to each other. 

Cen: Our house is full of creative energy. Everyone living together is in the artistic field. We talk about our ideas, visions, and whatever we find inspiring. We visit galleries together and share artists and photographers we love with each other. Our instagram DMs mostly consist of us sharing visual archives, inspiration images, and cat videos.

Helen, what strengths does Cen have that you admire? Cen, what strength does Helen have that you admire?
Helen: There are so many strengths about Cen I admired. Cen is a kindhearted and humble person. She is very talented, yet you will never see Cen talk about her achievement. She treats all of her friends with the right heart and she always remembers the best in everyone. Cen is also rigorous in work and meticulous in details. That’s what makes her stand out from everyone else.

Cen: I admire the way Helen works. She is very diligent about her passion and if she has an idea, she will not wait for tomorrow to begin working on it. She will start right away and she will finish what she began, because her passion fuels her a long way. Many people have great ideas, but don’t follow through. Helen, however, will work until the day they are fulfilled to what she envisioned.

What are the biggest challenges in your career and how does your partner-in-crime help you?
Helen: Our biggest challenges are sales for our brands. Cen is so encouraging and supportive, and actually became our very first customer.

Cen: Often during runway seasons, it gets stressful. Helen makes me homemade food whenever I have a rough day. Her stable comfort food includes: Tomato soup, Mapo Tofu (spicy tofu dish) and a warm bowl of rice.

How do you motivate each other?
Helen: We cook for each other when we are free and when there is too much stress, we send cat/dog videos to each other!

Cen: We plan getaways trips and food adventures together. Whenever there is a tough season, we will motivate each other by saying: “Just two weeks until the LA trip” or “Hotpot this Saturday in Chinatown!”.

What do you love doing together?
Helen: We love to go to church together, and when we have time, we will go visit a gallery or exhibition at The MoMA or The Whitney.

Cen: Waking each other up for church on Sundays. Brunch after church every week during our college days. It was our time to catch up and relax. I wish we could do that more often now, but we are both more busy.


When do you feel the most empowered?
Helen: When I have a good night sleep or have a very good meal.

Cen: It’s quite simple. When I learn a new skill at work, I feel like I gained an asset which brings me a step closer to my dreams!


What’s the best advice you’ve gotten from the other?
Helen: Don’t be stressed, and you got it!

Cen: Don’t think too much into it, pray, and everything will be okay.

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