Eri (left) and Phillip Chu (right) of Ground Zero
Right now there is so much focus on designers coming out of mainland China that I sometimes feel that Hong Kong has been overlooked. Admittedly we haven’t seen a local designer become an international success since Vivienne Tam, which is why I was very proud and honoured to meet the boys behind Hong Kong based label Ground Zero. Founded back in 2003, brothers Phillip and Eri Chu recently showed their second collection at Paris Fashion Week in March and are destined for great things.
Hope you will enjoy learning more about them with my exclusive interview below.
Ground Zero Autumn/Winter 2013
THEY SAY a designer’s workspace is the window to their soul– this couldn’t ring truer for Hong Kong based fashion label Ground Zero. Located in a hip industrial space in Wong Chuk Hang, the lofty warehouse is full of kitschy collectables ranging from Bear Bricks of the Beatles and a ceramic lamp decorated with figurines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to satirized posters of fashion heroes like Yves Saint Laurent. In one corner there is a comfortable couch, flat screen TV and massive bookcase crammed with hundreds of magazines and books on art, pop culture and of course, fashion. In the background Aerosmith is blaring as the designers, Phillip and Eri Chu, pose for the cameras.
Welcome to the cool world of Ground Zero, where pop culture meets high fashion. The label, which was founded by the Hong Kong-born brothers in 2003, rose to fame thanks to its printed unisex tees, which became a favourite with pop stars such as Sammi Cheng Sau-man and Gillian Chung Yan-tung. Although the tees are still a huge part of the business, the brothers are celebrating the next big milestone in their career as the only Hong Kong designers to ever show during Paris Fashion Week.
So how did these two local boys go from the streets of Causeway Bay to the capital of high fashion? Born and raised in Hong Kong, Eri (34) and Phillip (31) have always loved fashion, stocking up on labels like Armani and Ralph Lauren since they were teenagers. Eri, who is the more pensive of the two, had a talent for drawing so took up freelance roles as a graphic designer. Phillip meanwhile dabbled in everything from rock music to boring desk jobs, until he got the idea for Ground Zero (they chose the name Ground Zero because they were literally starting from nothing).
“It was right before I went to study in London [in 2003] and we wanted to create something that combined art and music. The first thing that came to our minds was T-shirts. Obviously it turned out to be way more complicated than we thought – we had to buy minimums so we ended up with more than 1,000 T-shirts sitting in our home. So because of that I decided to take some with me to England and try my luck,” says Phillip.
Although Phillip was busy studying fashion at Middlesex University, he spent his spare hitting up all the cool boutiques in town in hopes that one of them would buy their distressed tees. It was a rather challenging time for the brothers who knew little about how the industry worked.
“I was in London so it was easier to launch from there while Eri started to sell the shirts in Hong Kong,” says Phillip. Their big break came when the collection was bought by a famous boutique called the Pineal Eye, which carried hip brands like Givenchy.
“We were so lucky. After that things moved quickly – Eri found a stockist here and I hooked up with the PR and sales team. Eventually we hit up the trade fairs which was my first time in Paris and it went well,” he continues.
Phillip decided to move back to Hong Kong in 2009 to be closer to the factories and join Eri. Although the business was doing well, they still had one lifelong dream which was host a fashion show at Paris Fashion Week.
“We’d been doing well for a while and we really wanted to change things up and develop and improve the brand. We came up with the runway show idea and I pitched this to my Paris agent. With their support, we got into the calendar successfully” says Phillip.
Showing in a more competitive arena such as Paris Fashion Week meant that the boys had to really refine and hone their aesthetic. So although their dark prints stayed, they began working on more feminine silhouettes and shapes for their debut collection in September of last year.
“We have a unique style because we like to put two things together that dramatically conflict with the other – not only visually but also in terms of inspiration. We sometimes start with an image, or think about what we want to create. Pop culture really inspires us especially pop music. It’s important for easy to understand and recognize. It’s easy for people to understand and recognise. And I quite like to give it a twist.
“Our look can be described as a futuristic and robotic, although we give it a more feminine touch. Our style is not really high fashion but we wanted to add a street edge to our first runway collection with the graphics. It’s about taking the formal and sophisticated and making it edgy and street-like,” says Phillip, who cites Belgian designer Raf Simons as an influence.
Although the spring/summer collection was a hit, Phillip says that the recent autumn/winter collection speaks more to their true style. An exploration of femininity and technology, the look is elegant yet futuristic thanks to new applications of neoprene, cashmere and leather, on structured silhouettes including peplum tops that protect the body. On the other end of the spectrum are lighter, more delicate fabrics such silk, chiffon and organza.
“We are still defining our aesthetic because the time between last season and this one was short! Honestly during the first season we didn’t know what to expect. Now we have more experience. We put some commercial clothes on the runway initially so now we will add more statement pieces. Autumn is all about a new feminine silhouette juxtaposed with prints that are inspired by cartoons for kids like Transformers,” he jokes.
Looking ahead, the boys have ambitious plans. Although they continue to collaborate on a series of knitwear with Hong Kong based label BYPAC, they want to build on their ready-to-wear collection while separating the T-shirts into a secondary collection. But more than anything, they really hope to establish a name for Hong Kong designers abroad.
“It’s very hard to be a designer in Hong Kong. There’s not much culture and no one has ever succeeded abroad, at least in our generation. That being said the pop culture here, especially Canto Pop really inspires us. Adding a fashion element makes it all the more interesting,” says Phillip.
Backstage at the Ground Zero Autumn/Winter 2013 show
As first published in the South China Morning Post newspaper on March 8 2013.