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BEIJING — All Chinese are taught that their ultimate mission in life is to bring glory to the motherland and, hence, to their families and to themselves. This is what you live for. Be it Olympic medal or design award, the end goal is all very clear.
Not so, says Xander Zhou, a 30-year-old men’s wear designer who is heading to London Fashion Week in June. “It’s too much,” he says. “I don’t want the burden to glorify my Chinese-ness through high collars and woven buttons; it’s not my job to spread Chinese culture. I am one designer. It’s too heavy for me.”
It’s true there are none of the usual symbols of Chinese design in Xander’s latest collection. Instead, he says his inspiration came from photographs of boys in a Scottish castle. “I like the way their clothes were bloated and distorted by the wind,” he says. “It’s about translating the rustic nature of the countryside into urban sophistication.”
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Xander is not the Chinese you’d expect. He represents a new globalized generation. He grew up in the seaside city of Qingdao and comes from a family in the construction business. “My mother never forced me to do anything I didn’t want to do,” he says. “She was very liberal for her generation of Chinese.” Xander notes that he was not a good student but managed to get into Beijing Industrial Engineering Institute.
He dropped out before the end of the first year. “My mother did not protest at all, the fact I got into university has already given face to the family. So I could drop out afterward,” says Xander. While in Beijing, he befriended students from Holland, so he decided to go there. “I went to check it out,” he says. “I just wanted to see what it was like outside of China.”
Xander remembers that when he arrived in Holland, he immediately went for a long walk. “It just felt free. You know, freedom was tangible for me for the first time,” he says. He hung out with friends and dabbled in making clothes for the first year. A friend gave him a secondhand sewing machine. “You know I am no good with machines of any type, I can never understand the instructions,” Xander says. “But I was so good with the sewing machine, I knew how to do everything right away. It was amazing.” So he made his first collection and was brave enough to show it to Jeroen van Tuyl, a professor of design. He was invited by van Tuyl to study with him even though his Dutch was still very rusty.
After his studies, Xander interned with Den Haag for a year. “I knew I wanted to do my own label, in China,” says Xander, who considers himself lucky to have come back to his homeland at the right time. In 2005, Chinese fashion design was just beginning to get some attention. So Xander’s first collection, dubbed Mass Production, was an instant hit and he became a darling of the Chinese fashion press as well as mainstream media. “I was happy that I was so lucky. I took every interview; I went to every party. Then I realized, I am a designer. I have to get back to work,” he says.
Work today is in Xander’s own studio-showroom in an industrial compound that has been turned into a series of creative studios in the southeastern part of Beijing.
“The hardest part about being a designer is to find a production partner,” Xander notes. He considers himself lucky in being able to coordinate a team of patternmakers and seamstresses who specialize in making suits for expatriates in Beijing. It’s a small workshop he has worked with for the past five years and Xander is very proud of the relationship he developed with the shop owner. “We are on the same wavelength,” he says. “They know me, so when they see something unusual in my drawing, they don’t question my design, they just call me to check the measurements.”
The trip to Xander’s showroom is a drive through a construction field — not the most accessible location. Xander says he has a loyal following of clients who visit him, and his business is more bespoke than retail, although he does not alter design according to clients’ wishes.
Xander is not shy about being gay, either. In 2009, he was on the cover of a magazine with “Gay China” the only headline. “It was important for my design for me to acknowledge who I am,” he says.
Xander is one of the few Chinese designers who has consistently held fashion shows every season for five years. His shows are sponsored by brands such as Johnny Walker and Lenovo, and he emphasizes the importance of learning to mange his business as well as design the line. “I know how to negotiate with third parties,” he says. Asked whether he would take on a business partner, he answers “yes,” but tentatively: “You cannot go searching for the partner, he is just found.”
The day I visit, Xander is shooting his look book in his black-walled showroom. His puffed-up trenches and well-tailored Windbreakers have all the urban sophistication of Europe, and nothing typical at all from China. Xander says he visited Scotland with Johnny Walker: It was the first time he stayed in a real castle and it inspired him.
Despite the fact there is nothing symbolically Chinese in Xander’s design, his cryptic label, “made on another planet,” seems to be a dead giveaway that he is consciously avoiding the “Made in China” label. “Not really,” says Xander, when I challenge him. “It doesn’t matter, people know it has to be made here. Besides, to Westerners, China is another planet.”
Yep, that may be so, but for many traditional Chinese, Xander is also from another planet. At least he is one of the first Chinese who are breaking the mold.
Xander’s current collection can be viewed on xanderzhou.com. His show is scheduled for June 15 during London Men’s Fashion Week.