ALTHOUGH THE MAINLAND boasts top fashion names such as Louis Vuitton and Prada, its own young talents are striving to make their mark. Their biggest challenge is competing with the glamorous names and hefty marketing budgets of the international conglomerates, all the while maintaining a determined attitude and nurturing their creative spirit.
Shanghai-based Zhang Da is one designer who is slowly but steadily climbing the mainland fashion ranks. Zhang is intent on carving his niche by targeting discerning customers who are more concerned with cut and style than the brand, and take pride in supporting homegrown talent. He is one of only a handful of mainland designers who have worked and studied abroad, picking up the tricks of the European trade at first-hand. Now that he is back in China he is hoping to bring a new understanding of fashion to his homeland.
'I think people who buy my clothes like to try new things. They have their own choice and don't just follow trends,' says Zhang. 'They are curious about new things, and try to understand your design. Even if the design is not so perfect, they like it.'
Luckily for Zhang his hard work is paying off, with local fashionistas recognising him as the name to watch. 'What's special about Zhang Da is that he didn't start off making it a business, but was more focused on design,' says Stephanie Zhu-Ge, fashion editor of Vogue China. 'Also, comparatively speaking, he was the earliest to go overseas to study design, so he was more aware of international trends.
'His clothes appeal to women who have a bit of attitude towards style and who want to wear something different. These people are young women who are more confident ... They know what they want.'
Zhang, 38, spent most of his adult life as a college lecturer in the terracotta-warrior city of Xian, where he was also born and raised. When he applied for college, he tried his luck and signed up for two exams - a fashion design school and an art academy. Fashion won.
'It was fate. The fashion business was a new major at that time, in the mid-1980s. You couldn't even buy Marie Claire or magazines on streets or in the shops, only in university. At that time, fashion was unusual,' Zhang says.
'Even in the first year in university I still liked drawing and found it more interesting than fashion design, but in the second year I saw Japanese designs by Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, and found them very different. I became more interested, and when I saw more magazines and books, I appreciated how fashion design can be free.'
Although Zhang's college was located in the sticks, it had strong links with European fashion institutes and there was a regular flow of teaching staff from the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Art, who he says 'opened his eyes' to the world of fashion. After graduating, Zhang worked as a lecturer, maintaining his contacts with people in Europe. They in turn encouraged him to enter an Italian design contest in 1997, which resulted in an invitation to display his wares in the final round, held in a town near Venice.
'I won the prize for an evening dress that had been made in Xian,' he says. 'I found a really good tailor who was a real craftsman and made five different pieces, a small collection. The gown was a combination of western and Chinese styles. It was black velvet with a strong pink colour inside. I even made a hat to go with it.'
News of the talented young Chinese designer spread on the Italian fashion grapevine and in the following year he was invited back for a three-month working spell at the haute couture fashion house, Sarli. Once again, it proved to be an eye-opener.
'We didn't really have haute couture at the time in China, so it was all new to me. The company made evening dresses, wedding dresses and suits. I learned more about the cutting and how they do it. The technique is totally different to China. It was fascinating to see young and old working side by side, working by hand, and passing skills to the next generation.'
After that career boost, Zhang hankered to try his luck in the big city, subsequently moving to Shanghai where he worked initially for late artist Chen Yifei's fashion label and, more recently, with his own fashion studio Parallel, which sells clothes under the Boundless label.
Zhang's personal influences include Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela, the Belgian designer with a penchant for recycling clothing and labelling his collections by numbers.
'I like his attitude to fashion, in particular the way he takes influences from life around him,' says Zhang.
'I like the idea of taking inspiration from things around me, whether it is people or clothes. It is interesting, for instance, to see the old people in China playing sports in the morning - they have their own distinctive style, a men's jacket that is zipped up and trousers with stripes up the side.
'I think all those kind of local influences can be incorporated into your work, to make it a Chinese style. There are a lot of things designers in China need to learn from Paris and Milan, and, of course, you can't compare us yet, but there is a lot of talent in China. They might gain the technique and learn from the west, but they are applying it in China, whether it is design, architecture or film.'
His 40-piece summer collection was based on an arc theme, featuring pieces in silk and jersey, in blue, purple, green and white. Its focus is on the sleeve, similar to the work of fashion designer Balenciaga. The Boundless range is on show at the Bund 18 complex, and at a smaller, specialist boutique called AIAAI. Prices are from HK$300 for a blouse up to HK$2,000 for a coat.
'I think when people see the pieces they will see my inspiration,' Zhang says. 'The trousers, for example, have a shape that is like a half circle, as do the sleeves of the tops. I mix and match Chinese and European elements with both the design and the cutting. I always say that the thought and design process is complicated, but the result is very, very simple.
'Many designers concentrate on the colour, and shape and pattern. Me, too, of course, but one of my main concerns is how people look in the clothes and why they wear these clothes and if they use clothes just to cover their body, or to show an attitude.'
Zhang is building ideas for his winter collection as he prepares for an exhibition in Beijing next month and another in France at the end of the year.
There is interest from overseas distributors, but he is intent on making his mark on the mainland. 'Now is the right time and the right place for fashion. I need to work hard, and I am still developing my style, but this is an interesting time in China,' he says. 'Maybe after two years I can open my own store.'