How Huishan Zhang Became One Of China's Best Fashion Designers
When Chinese fashion prodigy Huishan Zhang presented his first collection in a showroom in Paris seven years ago, several buyers remarked, “What a beautiful collection. Too bad it’s made in China. Our customers would never buy this.” The budding designer remembers leaving Paris dejected on a drizzly, overcast day, rolling two oversized suitcases packed with gowns along cobblestoned streets towards Gare du Nord.
How things have changed. Today, the term “high fashion” can confidently be attached to the Made in China label, thanks in no small part to Zhang’s burgeoning reputation as one of the best young designers working today.
“When I was growing up, there were only fast-fashion brands like Giordano here, so it was really hard to explain to my parents that I wanted to be a designer,” says Zhang, clad in a black T-shirt and joggers, matching leather sandals and a brown Valentino bracelet, when I visit his two-storey studio in his hometown, Qingdao. “They didn’t even know that it was a job.”
Next door to his grammar school had been one of the city’s few magazine shops, and perusing its stacks gave the young Zhang a rudimentary knowledge of fashion and instilled in him a desire to learn more. “Other kids were saving their pocket money for a PlayStation and I was spending all of mine on magazines,” says Zhang, who is upbeat and chatty though jetlagged, having just arrived back from visiting his London atelier and five staff. “I was immediately drawn to the idea of using clothes to express emotion.”
In the context of the homogeneous middle-class apparel that surrounded him at the time, a magazine fashion spread starring a frizzy-haired model in vermillion pleated Issey Miyake stood out, so much so that it’s still vividly emblazoned on Zhang’s memory. From the moment he saw this image, his mind was set on a career in fashion.
Following in the footsteps of famous alumni such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, Zhang applied and was accepted to the undergraduate fashion programme at Central Saint Martins in London, where he dabbled across genres, mimicking Rei Kawakubo’s work one day and Miuccia Prada’s the next to test his talent. He likens the practice to a chef in training: “You should first experiment with different cuisines to see what you can do best, and how to make your own.”
While he was still studying at the fashion college, fate struck in the svelte form of Delphine Arnault, who had recently inherited management of Christian Dior, one of the brands owned by her family’s LVMH group. She was scouting for talent using a simple test for potential recruits—to create a print to be used on Dior’s first canvas bag—and Zhang’s design, using the maison’s historic Lily of the Valley motif, was a cut above the rest.
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Under Arnault’s tutelage, Zhang was like “a sponge dipped in water.” Having decided early on that he would one day launch his own brand, he focused on learning everything about how a fashion house operates—from pattern cutting to merchandising. “I had a rule for myself that every single couture dress of the season needed to pass through me, and I had to go see what’s inside it and touch it.” It was at the maison that he found his design voice. “Had I not worked at Dior, my clothes today would look very different.”
Zhang holds up his hand politely to pause our conversation as a seamstress asks for instructions regarding extra boleros he ordered for our shoot tomorrow. He responds in Mandarin with a strong regional accent before switching seamlessly to English to answer his buzzing phone. The call, from his London office, is about his coming September show. He checks a few things on his iMac, the only item on his desk bar except for a bit of stationery and a porcelain cup filled with tea. Behind him is a backlit photograph of six modern qipaos, his first solo collection.
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“I wanted my first collection to be a tribute to Dior and also to my Chinese heritage, which is why I chose the cheongsam as the basis.” Eastern garments are two-dimensional, he explains, made from a single piece of fabric. A dragon robe or kimono lies flat on any surface, unlike its Western counterparts, which have always been admired for the draping and gathering that enable them to stand, even without a body.
The cheongsam, created in Shanghai during an era heavily influenced by the West, is a fusion of the two worlds, with tailors taking the more conservative dragon robe and creating a three dimensional shape. Zhang’s first dresses, too, were made from a single piece of fabric with just one zip at the back, but he learned to use moulding techniques at Christian Dior to painstakingly mark the pattern with a silk thread before assembling by hand—specifically, by the hands of Zhang and his aunt. “This was the highest level of what Made in China stood for.”
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To Zhang, the vastly improved status today of the Made in China label is the result of the hard work of its people. In uncovering and exploring his own heritage, he had never meant to take up the mantle of reversing the stereotype. “I just wanted to present my culture in the best way possible,” he says. “It was just about showing people another side of China that they might have never known or ignored.” He’d take inspiration from an old Chinese porcelain book, for example, recreating the cracks he saw in the vases as patterns in gold silk in his clothes.
“The way I design my collections is like I’m presenting a diary or personal journal of what I’ve gathered every six months,” says the designer, whose interests span far and wide and include Chinese literature, as well as contemporary and historical art. Whether or not he had intended to remake the Made in China label as a trademark of good quality, his intricate cocktail dresses and frothy evening gowns have earned a home in the permanent collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, a testament to his innovation and the impact of his aesthetic. “I only want to make pieces that are meaningful and won’t go out of fashion easily, a more classic way of construction using modern techniques,” he says. “I want our garments to be relevant even after five or 10 years.”
A tailor pops her head in with another question, so he invites me to the second floor to check on the boleros. A daunting fabric printer is on one side and humble sewing machines line the other, with pearls and lace strewn about. Had the “uncles” and “aunties” Zhang calls his tailors not been speaking Mandarin, this could easily be mistaken for an atelier in Europe. Fashion, after all, is a universal language.
“I feel we’ve changed a lot the way a Made in China product is perceived, but it’s not all by my own effort. It’s also all the Chinese designers like Chen Xuzhi and Angel Chen (the first Chinese designer to have a collaboration with H&M), but we still have a long way to go.”
With Zhang’s name a firm fixture on the London Fashion Week calendar next to the likes of Burberry and JW Anderson, the kids doodling today at his alma mater are likely looking up at this new guard, with aspirations that feel just a little closer within reach.