Strange as it may seem in this age of Alibaba, Singles’ Day and Kris Wu fronting Burberry ads, fashion was a foreign language for most Chinese 20 years ago.
“China was very closed. People had no idea about fashion magazines, high-street stores carried off-cut clothing and Levi’s were a luxury,” said Huishan Zhang, the Chinese-born, London-based designer recalling his style-starved
“I can remember trying to explain to my mother what ‘fashion design’ was. There were no specific words in Chinese for it, so it took me a while,” said the 34-year-old who first studied fine art and fashion at New Zealand’s Massey University, and later gained bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Central Saint Martins in London.
“I told her it was a little like being a tailor, or a seamstress — but so much more — and that if it all went wrong, at least I could make clothes for her.”
Today, the Qingdao native is indeed making clothes for his mother — but also for women including Gwyneth Paltrow, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren and Naomi Campbell. He’s been picking up accolades since he graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2010, and his collection is selling at such stores as Bergdorf Goodman, Browns, Holt Renfrew and Joyce.
Zhang is also one of seven contenders for the BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund, which will be revealed April 4, and last year was in the running to become artistic director of Lanvin, a job that eventually went to Bouchra Jarrar.
Delphine Arnault spotted him while he was still at Central Saint Martins and hired him to work on leather goods and couture at Dior in Paris. He was shortlisted for the LVMH Prize in 2015.
Despite growing up in a Chinese fashion vacuum — “Even the school uniforms were ugly, colored bomber-style jackets and tracksuit bottoms,” he lamented — Zhang always felt that clothes were powerful, and a means of forging an identity.
After New Zealand, he moved to London “with a plan in mind,” to create a lifestyle label that catered to everyday life, one that would fuse Chinese culture and manufacturing with a Western aesthetic. The result has been a steadily growing wardrobe of romantic, whimsical pieces — with practical flourishes — all of which are made in China.
Elizabeth Saltzman, the consultant and stylist, got to know Zhang after he scooped the Dorchester Fashion Prize in 2013, and has since turned Paltrow, Uma Thurman and Coco König on to his sartorial charms. Saltzman said she’s drawn to the “multiculturalism and whimsy,” of the collections, “which are done with a couture hand. His pieces are unique.”
Among his pre-fall creations are a blush pink Neoprene trouser-and-top combo, embellished at the hips and on the collar with little hands holding pearls. “The Neoprene is wrinkle-free,” said the designer, who also created flowing — and machine-washable — dresses with bell sleeves and contrast lace inserts.
Zhang, who zooms between London and China once a month, said his aim is to conjure romance but also to cater to everyday needs. He said he’s designing for customers who, like him, live much of their lives out
of a suitcase.
Flashes of Zhang’s Chinese heritage come via a black lace dress with a sensual female silhouette, detailed with pearls large and small. The image is based on the 20th-century Chinese artist Pan Yuliang, known for her Western-style paintings and controversial images of
The Chinese watercolor artist Qi Baishi, meanwhile, was the inspiration behind Zhang’s long, double-layer organza skirts covered in a blurred flower print. Zhang said those themes will continue into his fall
There is much more on the agenda. Zhang wants to expand the collection, hire more people, expand the studio space and launch e-commerce. He also wants fellow Chinese creatives to play a bigger role in his collections. His aim is to work closer with the local artists and artisans on the collections, and to “connect East with West and find different ways of telling stories.”
This time, he should have no trouble finding the words.