"I am one of the only Chinese-born designers to be picked up by Barneys in their entire 92-year history — that gave me all the encouragement I needed to push forward," said Huishan Zhang whilst showing us his first resort collection at Moda Operandi's elegant London office. While Zhang shows his collections to press and buyers in London, the Central Saint Martins alum comes from, and continues to produce his designs in, mainland China. While intriguing and rare, being associated with China comes with its challenges.
"Unfortunately, the phrase 'Made in China' has become synonymous with cheap, mass-produced tat," he laments. "I am trying to change this and show that the country is a rich source of high quality raw materials, craftsmanship and artistic expression." While still studying at CSM, Zhang was handpicked by Delphine Arnault to work for a year with Dior, of which half the time was spent in the couture atelier. In other words, he should know a thing or two about quality: "I mean, who does silk better than China?" he says while showing us the construction of a sublime silk dress: "I figure someone needs to tie China's reputation to luxury again; may as well be me."
One of Zhang's competitive edges is that he never buys fabric, but creates it himself, and then it's all designed and produced in his atelier in China: "I am always in between China and London." he says with a laugh: "But the truth is, a lot of my day also goes into researching and discovery. A lot of suppliers are just not good enough, so we tend to produce it all ourselves — and that’s become the core strategy of the business." He also takes great pains to point out his atelier in China "is a real atelier, the kind that you would expect to find in Milan or Paris."
Zhang's resort collection showed us exactly why he is stocked by the likes of Moda Operandi, Barneys and, soon, Bergdorf Goodman. It was inspired by Georgia O'Keefe, with a lot of curve details, broderie anglais and a standout silk shirt that had a double collar to it: ingenious. One item that showed he's ahead of the curve in fabric innovation was an extraordinary "snakeskin" coat, made from material that actually mimicked the shingles of the snake's skin. It was a clever re-imagination. "Georgia O'Keefe painted in the desert and so she had a lot of snakes around her, and I wanted to incorporate this motif in. But a lot of my clients are sensitive to animal rights, so I couldn’t use real snakeskin. Then it became a fun challenge to mimic the real thing."
It is this kind of genius, says Moda Operandi stylist Michael Shuttleworth, that attracted the retailer to the designer in the first place: "He is a deeply talented designer, and very exciting. He is at the forefront of design despite his youth, and in that sense he is perfect for us as we also like to nurture our brands and help them grow," he said, standing by a mannequin wearing a key dress from the collection that many a visitor to the office had mistaken for Chanel: "He is very innovative with fabrics and combines it with a modern silhouette that is very fresh — and its all the more compelling that he comes from inland China."
The buzz around Zhang is growing. Earlier this year, he created a five-piece capsule collection for Barneys, in celebration of the Met's "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibit and gala. He has also attracted a fair amount of celebrity credits, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Samcam, Keira Knightley and more. Were it not for the controversy that the Sultan of Brunei incited over his adoption of Sharia Law, and his subsequent shunning from the fashion world, it would be worth noting that Zhang won the once-prestigious Dorchester Fashion Prize (the Dorchester is owned by the Sultan) in 2013, before the boycotts started. He was also shortlisted for this year's LVMH Prize. But for Zhang, a highlight of his career was to sit alongside some of his most revered designers at Barneys: "I sit with Alaia, Lanvin, Bottega and Fendi. After I saw the sign in the shop that put our names all together, it took a while to catch my breath." After seeing this resort collection, we can understand the feeling.
See it all below.