If you haven’t heard of designer Huishan Zhang, chances are you will soon. The Chinese couturier launched his fashion line two years ago but has already won countless of accolades including the recent Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize. A graduate of Central Saint Martin’s in London, his beautiful yet modern couture creations mix East and West in a way that appeals to women everywhere (fun fact: he trained at Dior, after being handpicked by Delphine Arnault). He is currently based between London, where he shows at Fashion Week, and Qingdao, China where all his clothes are produced.
I caught up with him last week to chat about the ever-changing Chinese market and why couture will always be at the heart of his brand.
Huishan Zhang spring/summer 2014
You were born in China but spent your later years in New Zealand. When did fashion come into the picture?
As a teenager, I was always the one who dressed in something outrageous. It was in my DNA to be creative, so when I moved to New Zealand at 17, I decided to study fashion. Fashion for me is a way to see the world from a different angle. I love craftsmanship and discovering why a garment is made a certain way. Funnily enough, I learnt the fundamentals of fashion in New Zealand. My course director taught us about Madeleine Vionnet, textiles, pattern cutting and how to drape a full-circle skirt. She made me realise why I wanted to be a designer. It’s all about the love that you put into the garment, not the superficial or glamorous side of the industry.
When you launched your brand two years ago you made a conscious decision to position it in the luxury category. Why?
The contemporary market right now is so crowded – how can you beat Carven or Phillip Lim? For me, I want to express pure luxury. At Dior, I saw how incredible couture pieces are and how meaningful they are to women and how it transforms them. On top of that, I want to create a brand that is Made in China. Why should China be all about mass produced fashion? It’s another side to the industry people haven’t seen.
Right now the fashion world is obsessed with finding the next big Chinese designer – has this been a help or hindrance for you?
I think both. When the media, especially in the West, bring up my heritage, I always want to ask them why where I am from is so important. Shouldn’t you support designers no matter where they are from? At the same time it’s been so encouraging for us because we are a new generation of Chinese designers starting from scratch, looking to create something new. Of course we’re going to attract a lot of attention. For me personally, I am trying to create a legacy that’s very controversial because we are promoting made in China. This actually gives us a lot of pressure because we are setting up a business that bridges two different countries, which have completely different strategies and cultures. So yes we are lucky to have exposure, but its hard work too.
How would you describe your style?
It’s always about a couture approach. For example, the secret of couture is not to make a woman look ridiculous or theatrical. The essence is to make women feel comfortable, light and liberated. Because of this our garment is ultra light and modern.
For example, the cheongsam is a silhouette we constantly build upon. Over the years it has been reshaped by the Western culture so we focus on its subtleness and creating a different cut. We use a special draping technique so our pieces don’t use bust darts making it fit a woman more comfortably.
As a young designer, how do strike the balance between commercial and creative?
Creating commercial pieces is something I always consider. It’s not because we need the money, but because I want my garment to be worn. For me, that’s the art. Especially since it has a couture element, its integral women can enjoy it. I want to create something women are deeply in love with, in terms of the appearance and also the inside, the feeling of it and the comfort of it. That’s important to me.
People have been saying the future of fashion at least lies in the East. What are your thoughts?
Luxury is not a new thing for China. Looking at our history it’s always been there, but it’s only now that we are bringing it back. Luxury is in the blood of every Chinese.
I really hope that in the future the Chinese are going to lead the luxury market not in terms of spending, but also in creativity, style and appreciation. There is already so much potential. Even now the Chinese are exploring how they experience the product, wear it and appreciate it in their own way.
What are your goals for the future?
Huishan Zhang is really a contemporary Chinese lifestyle brand but at the same time international. We want to expand our range into different territories. We have so many stories to tell. It’s not enough to do this through the main collection. That’s actually going to make it more exciting for us.
At the same time I want to do it subtlety. I want people to think that I am their hidden secret. When they go to an event or party, I want them to feel proud that they discovered Huishan Zhang. Huishan Zhang is not for anybody. At the moment, it is really for the women who appreciate craftsmanship. Other lines will follow but the heart of our brand will always be the couture.