Portrait of a debutant
Last weekend's inaugural London Collections: Menswear marked the debut of young Beijing-based designer Xander Zhou on the European catwalks.
'I wanted to create a synergy between designers in London and China,' explains Grant Pearce, the editorial director of GQ Asia-Pacific, who invited Zhou to participate. 'Xander stood out for me, as he has an understanding of the international market and a respect for his own.'
Zhou, 29, who has a growing private client business in Beijing, admitted this show was an experiment for him, as he had never shown in a European city before. 'They offer more opportunities for young designers to show in London, and it is edgier here,' he says.
Presenting his spring-summer 2013 collection alongside Savile Row luminaries such as Richard James and Spencer Hart, and a new generation of designers such as Jonathan Saunders and J.W. Anderson is part of the appeal for Zhou. 'Anything could happen in London,' he adds.
The fact that this is also his first visit to the Britain adds to the occasion for him.
On the catwalk, his collection proved to be as experimental as his visit. The emphasis was on sportswear, inspired by Boy Scouts with the shorts and triangular neckerchiefs, which influenced the shape of collars on oversized jackets and duster coats constructed in hi-tech silks. There were bold graphic patterns on roomy vests, gilets and shorts worked in a monochrome palette with shocks of lilac and red, but his most stylish pieces were in the softly tailored suiting.
If the audience were expecting some reference to his heritage, they weren't going to get it. Zhou is not that kind of designer. He is very dismissive of those who might drum up images of peonies and dragons for the European market. 'I think Europeans have a very strange view of Asian people. What they see is really in their imagination; it is not the real culture of China or Asian countries.' He believes designers shouldn't have a nationality: 'Design is an international thing. It is much more about individual expression than about nationalism.'
He plays with fabric such as intriguing hi-tech silks and jacquard weaves, and with form. 'I respect the classic menswear silhouette, but I like to do something new. Some people regard my clothes as deconstructed, and I think that is the right word.'
Born and raised in very comfortable circumstances in northern China, Zhou credits his mother's influence in leading him to design. She had hundreds of pairs of high heels and loved fashion. 'And she liked to dress me like Barbie's boyfriend, Ken. I didn't stop her. I think I kind of enjoyed it,' he admits.
He briefly studied industrial design in China, but abandoned that to travel to Europe and, after learning Dutch, trained in fashion design in The Hague. Then he returned to China to establish his menswear label.
He says returning home 'was the right thing to do. I think I have more opportunity in China, and I know a lot of people in the fashion industry there, like photographers and stylists.' Since his return in 2007, his eponymous label has grown by word of mouth, with most of his business currently focused on private clients (including women), although he sells through Dongliang in Beijing and Shanghai. Now he is looking farther afield for stockists in Hong Kong and London.
Zhou says men in China have become very fashion-savvy. 'Chinese men spend a lot of money on clothes. At one time, they just wanted to dress well. Now they want to dress fashionably.' They are also very brand loyal. In cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, he is noticing an increasing consumer interest in more individual design. 'I think some people don't feel comfortable wearing the big luxury brands,' he says. 'Initially, people bought because of a brand name. Now they are becoming a little choosier.'
If the European luxury labels want to really expand on their success on the mainland, he thinks they should work with a Chinese designer, a collaboration. 'It is not happening yet, but I think it will happen,' he says.
Who knows? Maybe, with more experience under his belt and fine-tuning of his craft, they might come knocking at his door.