Man with a plan: Chinese designer looks beyond fashion
The Huishan Zhang brand is on a strong upward trajectory, but the award-winning designer behind the label is keen to spread his ideas outside clothes
Many of Huishan Zhang’s award-winning designs are completed in mid-air, as he flies between his two bases, in the British capital of London and the Chinese port city of Qingdao in the eastern province of Shandong.
The two-nation approach has worked wonderfully well so far, earning the high-flying Zhang fashion-industry accolades galore and requests by celebrities such as model Gigi Hadid and actresses Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley and Gwyneth Paltrow to wear his clothes at red-carpet events.
“At the moment it is a bit crazy with the traveling,” says Zhang, who has his main design and operations centre in the Bloomsbury district of London, close to the British Museum.
“It is a tough schedule, but I like it and it allows me to bridge two different cultures between East and West. Travel is important and it inspires me a lot.
“In theory you have to wait for inspiration, go to a beautiful space and lock yourself in and be truly inspired, but in reality when you are an entrepreneur, with your own brand and business trying to organise studios in different countries you design wherever you can.
“I design a lot on planes, as that is a place where nobody can bother you with phone calls. I always have ideas, I am always planning for the next season.”
Zhang originally went to London to study at the renowned Central Saint Martins design college, which has produced some of the fashion world’s finest talents, including John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. The young Chinese student was hand-picked by a senior executive at the giant LVMH group to train at the Christian Dior studios in Paris.
It was a golden opportunity that the neophyte designer grasped with both hands: on returning to London, he launched the Huishan Zhang label, featuring clothes aimed at the modern professional woman, subtly incorporating Chinese elements in the design.
It proved to be an astute, and well-timed, move. The Dragon Dress, in the first range of clothing, was chosen for the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum; a few years later, Zhang scooped the prestigious Dorchester Collection prize, worth £25,000 (US$30,500).
He says: “Every season your ambition gets bigger. My ambition is to make Huishan Zhang a luxury contemporary Chinese lifestyle brand that is associated with East-West design and is a Made in China luxury brand with a big audience. Our products expand every season, starting with dresses, and soon shoes and bags.
“It is very exciting, we are planning to move to a new studio and hire more people. I chose London because I feel very welcome here, I came as a student first and then settled down here.
“It is a very diverse city: my assistant is from Ireland, my sales manager is from Denmark, I have interns from Thailand and Argentina, the merchandise manager is from Korea and my business partner is from Mexico. It gives you a good angle to understand the world, if you are just dealing with single culture our mind could be narrowed.”
The Huishan Zhang brand is continuing on a strong upward trajectory. This year’s London Fashion Week in September featured a catwalk show for the first time, allowing the clothes to be showcased to buyers from major stores such as Harvey Nichols, Barneys and Joyce.
The cheapest outfit from the label is a top and trousers priced at just under US$1,000, with more expensive dresses selling for US$3,000 and couture pieces, made specifically for the client, charged at US$6,000 or more, depending on the level of intricacy.
The personable, modest and ever-smiling Chinese designer, 34, has become something of a celebrity, representing the modern and international face of Chinese fashion creativity. He has risen to established-designer status very quickly and, as Vogue writer Sarah Mower noted, has time on his side.
Zhang admits he is still learning, particularly about the business. At school in Qingdao, maths was not a strong subject – he just wanted to be a fashion designer – but since launching the label, a basic grasp of cash flow, inventory and exchange rates has become vital.
“I think if you really determined to learn,” you can, he says. “The first times doing the bookkeeping and P&L and forecasts and budgets, were was painful for me. But as CEO and creative director, I have to know those and it is a sense of responsibility taking care of my employees and knowing my business better it encourages me to learn. Now I can read a spreadsheet easily; before I didn’t know what it meant!”
Success so far has been achieved without much reliance on social media for promotion. That will change soon, sparked by American supermodel Gigi Hadid demonstrating just how much influence a posting on instagram can have: after wearing a Huishan Zhang jacket, the brand was inundated with inquiries as to where it could be bought. The post also had 260 likes.
But Zhang is not one to become too carried away with effusive praise, star endorsements and positive sales figures. He is in it for the long haul, a man with a plan.
He adds: “Right now it is brand building and I am learning at every stage. I have learned that you make sure you trust your judgement and focus on the goal, no matter how hard the challenge.”