When a plan comes together
Huishan Zhang is a man in a hurry. The 28-year-old mainland designer, who is tipped to be the next big thing, is a bundle of nervous energy and infectious enthusiasm. Zhang talks animatedly about everything.
He chats about pattern cutting, the weather in New Zealand, Chinese history and meeting his hero, John Galliano. His chatty conversation is interspersed with giggles. But becomes apparent that behind the smiles is a startling sense of dedication and focus. He dreams of opening his own standalone stores selling his clothes, shoes and leather goods to his countrymen.
'From day one, my own brand was the plan,' Zhang says at the Hong Kong launch of his spring-summer 2012 ready-to-wear collection, which is available in Hong Kong as of today at Joyce.
Born in Qingdao, Shandong, Zhang says he wanted to be a designer since as far back as he can remember. He has meticulously planned every stage of his career. At 17, he decided he needed to leave China to realise his dreams. Instead of heading west, the pragmatic youth went to New Zealand. 'New Zealand was the first step. I come from one of the first generations to study abroad,' he says. 'I wanted to study fashion, and New Zealand was, at the time, one of the few countries open and welcoming to Chinese students.'
Zhang spent four years in Wellington, where he was given the space to hone his technique. 'It gave me time to develop myself, away from all the pressure, and let me learn the technique and fundamentals of fashion. All my pattern-cutting skills were developed in New Zealand.'
After mastering the fundamental skills, Zhang took a more established path and studied at Central Saint Martins in London. He knew this would open his path to the fashion world. 'The competition was very tough, but I needed that extremely fashion-conscious environment,' he says. 'Saint Martins was all about fighting to survive, but you need that to really make it. You have to develop yourself there to prove you're special.'
Zhang proved he was just that, winning a prestigious Deutsche Bank award as well as a much envied internship at Dior in Paris, where he designed prints for the label's leather goods. With a place at Dior, a growing army of admirers and a darling of the critics - Zhang seemed set to join the fashion A-list. But he had other plans: 'It was an honour to work for Dior, and I learned a lot, and improved myself. But I wanted to build Huishan Zhang as a Chinese brand. That was always my dream.'
All the years of planning are beginning to pay off, as Zhang launches his first collection for Hong Kong. The clothes show off his handiwork. The womenswear exhibits strong lines and a striking blend of Western technique with Eastern design inspiration.
'I use my Chinese name with the English pronunciation. I combine two cultures as a representation of myself. I want to give the West a new vision of China using very old Chinese dressmaking skills. I also want to introduce a lot of couture elements to Chinese buyers - elements that they may not be familiar with. I want to build a bridge between cultures. I want them to mix naturally,' says Zhang.
He is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, which he sees as an inexhaustible well of ideas. He recently found success with a reinvention of the cheongsam. 'The cheongsam is very simple, but there's a lot of skill involved in making something simple look good,' he says. 'I've done a lot of research into the old ways of dressmaking. I am trying to reintroduce those skills and technique with my own touches.'
His love of all things Chinese extends to the materials he uses and where the clothes are made. All the garments are hand-made in Qingdao as part of Zhang's hope to change the perceptions of the 'Made in China' label.
'Many things are made in China, but you get what you pay for. So if you pay a small amount, you will get low quality. If you pay a higher price, you will get good quality. So my clothes are real 'Made in China' luxury.'
Hong Kong is the next phase of his plan: 'The Joyce collection is my official introduction to the Hong Kong market. More than that, it's the first step of the return to my homeland.'
Now that he's based in London, Zhang says the pull of home is getting stronger. A store in Qingdao is a particularly cherished ambition. It seems almost inevitable that he will achieve his goals. Given his penchant for planning, it's a good bet that things won't happen by accident. 'It's better to have a plan than not have one,' he says. 'I've already made my next five-year plan.'