Compared to other fashion designers in China, Zhang Na of Fake Natoo is very low-key. She is not media shy, but so far, she has not attracted any media attention. To me, she represents what is good and fresh about young Chinese designers.
Zhang Na was born in 1981, a member of China’s Generation X, which is often characterized by the Chinese media as the “lost generation.” She is from Beijing, her parents are both artists, and she majored in art at a university in Xian, a major city in central China. After graduation, she took a year off in Europe — wandering, taking fashion classes and going to parties and hanging out. In 2004, she came back to settle in Shanghai as a fashion designer.
“I always knew I wanted to be a fashion designer,” Zhang said. “My entire family are artists — my parents, aunts and uncles, cousins. I was not interested in that life.”
Despite her generation’s reputation, Zhang had a goal in mind from the get-go: She wanted to work for a large fashion company to gain some experience and then start her own label. She did exactly that, designing for a local brand for three years as its chief designer before going off on her own. She said that “2007 was the right time, Changle Road was happening in Shanghai, all the independent designers had opened their boutiques there. And I was ready.”
Zhang registered her brand Natoo in April 2008 and opened her own shop on Changle Road.
“I believe clothes are about the people who wear them,” she said. “I wanted to make easygoing and relaxed clothes for my generation of Chinese. I want people to feel free in my clothes.”
But as they say in China, planning can never catch up with changes. By 2010, Zhang was forced to close her boutique. It was the year of the World Expo, the municipal government wanted to promote local business and named Changle Road as a recommended shopping street. The landlords took this as a sign to double rent for their current tenants, and force them to accept advertising above their store signs. Zhang gave up trying to reason with her landlord. She just closed the shop.
“In hindsight, it was probably a good thing. Not having the shop allowed me to focus on my design,” she said. “You really need a partner to handle retail if you want to open boutiques.”
Just when she had reconciled herself to losing the lease for the boutique, she had another nasty surprise in early 2011. The reply from her trademark application finally came back after nearly three years. Apparently, her trademark, Natoo, was already registered by a Tianjin company. She tried to buy back the trademark from the company but failed. So she added “Fake” in front of her original label.
Zhang was very calm when she talked about these problems, but I remember when this happened, she was a bit upset on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter. Her ability to cope with change is amazing.
“I like Fake Natoo as a name now,” she said. “It’s got a sense of humor considering what happened.”
Fake Natoo became popular and a top seller in the boutiques. As merchandise moved quickly, she became concerned about the environmental hazards of fast fashion. She wasn’t happy just to be doing well; she didn’t want people to throw away clothes after one season. So she started a new line called Re-Clothing Bank (RCB).
“You don’t throw away money after you use it once,” she said. “Why should you throw away clothes? I started to ask family and friends to give me all their old clothes and I would make new ones out of them. “
It attracted a lot of media attention as well as interest from entertainment celebrities. Everyone thought that would be the end of it — a very nice marketing idea. But Zhang continued to make RCB another line for her studio. She in fact contributes 10 percent of the revenue from RCB to a training center for unemployed women.
As her business grows and her original plans as a fashion designer continue to come true, Zhang finds herself in a different mood than when she first started. “When I first graduated, I had plans,” she said. “I was going to go places, I wanted to show everyone what I can do. It was all about me. But now I think I should be more contemplative, more grateful. I didn’t get here all by myself. I should be thankful.”
Fake Natoo’s business is growing at 50 percent a year. Zhang has already turned down several interested investors. “I don’t really need money right now,” she said. “However, some expertise in managing operations and marketing would be much more helpful.”
At the end of the interview, Zhang told me that she broke her leg recently and was confined to bed for two months. As usual, she seems to have taken this adversity in stride. “I added some new twists to the collection, more urban and sophisticated,” she said.
Among many Chinese designers and Generation X, Zhang is the exception rather than the rule. She denies it. “I can suffer more,” she said, and paused to rephrase herself: “I guess you can say I got stamina.”