There are black-tie dresses and then there are black-tie dresses. This is something Newgen-winner Huishan Zhang knows only too well, as his unique cocktail dresses infusing modern elegance with old-school craftsmanship have made the fashion world (ahem, including Alexa Chung and Anna Wintour) sit up and take notice.
While in the midst of planning a trip to China, Zhang showed us around his studio space and talked design, career highlights, and celebrity dressing. Come along and we'll give you the tour.
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Photographed by Claire Pepper
How long have you been in the studio?
"I live and work in this studio since I was in Saint Martins, so it is about five years. I started my own brand in August 2011, so it has only been established for just under two years."
What drew you to this location?
"My school, Central Saint Martins [laughs], it is so close to school. At the time I was living in Notting Hill Gate which was a nice place but just a little bit too far away. I love to go to the library and it was my dream to find somewhere close to school so I could go to the library all the time."
How many employees do you have?
"At the moment in here, we have Hester, Angela, and myself. Angela is my administrator for the studio and my assistant. Hester is my design assistant. We constantly have interns from Central Saint Martins also, which adds a family kind of feeling to it, which is very nice. In China we have a bigger studio — we have almost 20 people working there."
Tell us about the inspiration behind your AW'13 collection?
"The inspiration was the ‘60s and revolution. It was about China and the West. Basically, all my collections are constantly talking about the connection between the West and East. I love to use Chinese heritage. We used the Mao suit as a starting point, which is a very memorable Chinese piece for the West. I love the Mondrian paintings from the West with their very precise cuts and strict lines. And then, we feminized the Mao suit, which is a very powerful suit for a man, into womenswear. To give power to the woman. We used lots of Swarovski crystals to maximize on the glamour of the ‘60s in the West. It was really an exercise in seeing how these cultures could be combined together while showcasing their contrast as well."
Do you have a favourite piece from the collection?
"There are two pieces — one is the Mao suit; we put lace on top of patent leather in the shape of a traditional Mao suit. I also really like these kinds of Mondrian reworked dresses, where we took some inspiration from Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian collection but the piece I designed is quite different from it. We’re still using the Mondrian painting but we changed the medium into crystal. The precise-cut crystal mesh and lace inserts bring [the dresses] into the modern day."
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
"The proudest moment for me so far is my dragon dress being collected by the V&A museum. It made me the first Chinese contemporary fashion designer to receive this kind of honour, which for me is a recognition of my own work — to see how open the West is to Chinese culture and how fascinated they are with how the young are dealing with that culture. It gave me lots of confidence. It is my greatest moment in my career. It’s in the permanent collection, too, so it will be there forever."
You’re originally from China. Why did you decide to base your business in London?
"It felt natural. I trained here; I’ve been here for seven years. It’s like my home. I feel like I belong to both places. I was born in China and I’m Chinese but I live here and I’m a British designer. Since China opened, people travel a lot and we’ve become quite international in a way. In the brand, I’m trying to show the best combination of East and West and represent the modern way of Chinese living. The Chinese part comes from my blood and the Western part comes from what I experience everyday, so I love to combine them together to give a personal touch to my collection."
What is your design philosophy? How is it influenced by your Chinese heritage?
"My design philosophy is to create this bridge or link between East and West. All my garments are proudly made in China, I might be one of the first designers to announce to the international audience that all my beautifully crafted garments are made in China and I’m very proud about this. We want to give a new meaning to it. We have lots of great craftsmanship that I see in China and I also worked at Christian Dior Couture Atelier so there’s lots of heritage also from the West — all the couture elements. That is the ambition of the brand; to really make people appreciate the classics, this image of an elegant, sophisticated, and well-travelled woman."
Since winning Newgen sponsorship, how has your design process changed?
"Not really. It is all about encouraging individuality and it encourages you to work the way you want, to keep going even further."
Do you have a specific woman in mind when you are designing?
"I have lots of friends who are this type of woman. They are my perfect muses. I talk to them and eat lunch with them and I hear them complain about what they need so I always know what to design for them. I appreciate it when they have a custom-ordered dress from me they feel really happy. We have a ready-to-wear line for the bigger audience and we hear from the shop that people really appreciate the lightness of the garment and that is a part of our collection."
We know Alexa Chung is already a fan of your work. Who are the other celebrities you would love to see wearing your designs on the red carpet?
"There are a few, actually. I really love Gwyneth Paltrow, Tilda Swinton, and Angelina Jolie. This kind of woman is always in my mind. In China, Maggie Chung was one of my biggest muses from day one, when I was setting up the brand. This classic, intelligent, very cultured woman is always in my head."
What is the next milestone of success you would like to cross?
"Every designer's dream is to have their own shop, their own world. I don’t know when that is going to happen but hopefully soon. It would be a very good milestone and a dream come true."
Where do you like to go for inspiration in London?
"Museums. It is so convenient. We have the British Museum downstairs from the studio. Somerset House is only five minutes away. Also, every season I go back to school, to the Central Saint Martins library, to do some research there. I also like to go to Notting Hill Gate to look at all the vintage clothes; I take a lot of inspiration from that. I love going to the Retro Woman store there. There are lots of amazing pieces to look at. Also, on the street you see so many people dressing differently, it is always a source of inspiration."
Describe an average working day.
"I wake up at 5 a.m. because I need to call China as it is midday there and I need to catch up with the studio. I give them instructions about what they need to do for the rest of the day and then if I’m lucky I’ve got half an hour to go back to sleep before I start my day here in the London studio. All my team come at 9 o’clock sharp and then, because the collection has been sold in seven different countries, sometimes we need to organize something with a buyer. I spend half of my day with my administrator working on the logistics here in London and then in the afternoon I come back to my design team to sit with the assistant to develop the concept of the collection further."
What can you reveal about your next collection — for SS’14?
"For the new collection, we're looking toward Man Ray as the Western part and then, we have lots of draping, too. Actually, we drape all the time but we make it quite 2D because that is really like the cut idea from the Eastern side of things. But this time, we’re working another way so there will be lots of draped pieces, which will be exciting. And lots of stretch as well, because every season we try to introduce something new."
Commes des Garcons jacket, Prada jumper, Uniqlo jeans, and Prada shoes.
Who are your biggest design inspirations?
"My design icons are Yohji Yamamoto and Miuccia Prada. Yohji Yamamoto is all about the cut, how to manipulate the fabric. Miuccia Prada inspires with her constant innovative fabric development, and all the mood and styling. Those two designers really inspire me a lot."
Huishan Zhang chillin' in his Bloomsbury studio. As you do.