The designer world of the Chu brothers
Brothers Eri and Philip Chu blend pop culture with haute couture so well they recently showed at Paris Fashion Week, writes Divia Harilela
It is said a designer's workspace is the window to their soul. This couldn't ring truer for Hong Kong-based fashion label Ground Zero. Located in a hip industrial space in Wong Chuk Hang, the lofty warehouse is full of kitschy collectibles, ranging from Bear Bricks of The Beatles and a ceramic lamp decorated with figurines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to satirised posters of such fashion heroes as Yves Saint Laurent. In one corner, there is a comfortable couch, flat-screen television and massive bookcase crammed with hundreds of magazines and books on art, pop culture and, of course, fashion. In the background, Aerosmith is blaring as the designers, Philip and Eri Chu, pose for the cameras.
Welcome to the world of Ground Zero, where pop culture meets high fashion. The label, founded by the brothers in 2003, rose to fame thanks to its printed unisex T-shirts, which became a favourite with pop stars such as Sammi Cheng Sau-man and Gillian Chung Yan-tung. Although the tees are still a huge part of the business, the brothers are celebrating the next big milestone in their career as the only Hong Kong designers to ever show during Paris Fashion Week.
So how did these two local men go from Causeway Bay to the capital of high fashion? Born and raised in Hong Kong, Eri, 34, and Philip, 31, have always loved fashion, stocking up on labels such as Armani and Ralph Lauren since they were teenagers. Eri, who is more pensive, had a talent for drawing, so he began working as a freelance graphic designer. Philip dabbled in everything from rock music to boring desk jobs, until he got the idea for Ground Zero (they chose the name because they were starting from scratch).
"It was right before I went to study in London [in 2003], and we wanted to create something that combined art and music. The first thing that came to our minds was T-shirts. Obviously, it turned out to be far more complicated than we thought. We had to buy minimums, so we ended up with more than 1,000 T-shirts sitting in our home. Because of that, I decided to take some with me to England and try my luck," says Philip.
Although Philip was busy studying fashion at Middlesex University, he spent his spare time hitting up all the cool boutiques in town, hoping that one of them would buy the distressed tees. It was a challenging time for the brothers, who knew little about how the industry worked.
"I was in London, so it was easier to launch from there while Eri started to sell the shirts in Hong Kong," says Philip.
Their big break came when the collection was bought by a famous boutique called The Pineal Eye, which carried luxury brands such as Givenchy.
"We were so lucky," says Philip. "After that, things moved quickly. Eri found a stockist here, and I hooked up with the PR and sales team. Eventually we hit up the trade fairs, which was my first time in Paris and it went well."
Philip decided to move back to Hong Kong in 2009 to be closer to the factories and join Eri. Although the business was doing well, they still had one lifelong dream - to host a show at Paris Fashion Week. "We'd been doing well for a while, and we really wanted to change things, and develop and improve the brand. We came up with the runway show idea, and I pitched this to my Paris agent. With their support, we got onto the calendar," says Philip.
Showing in a competitive arena such as Paris Fashion Week meant that they had to really refine their aesthetic. The dark prints stayed but they began working on more feminine shapes for their debut collection in September.
"We have a unique style because we like to put two things together that dramatically conflict with each other - not only visually but also in terms of inspiration," says Philip, citing Belgian designer Raf Simons as an influence.
"We sometimes start with an image, or think about what we want to create. Pop culture really inspires us, especially pop music. It's important to be easily understood and recognised.
"Our look can be described as futuristic and robotic, although we give it a feminine touch. Our style is not really high fashion, but we wanted to add a street edge to our first runway collection with the graphics. It's about taking the formal and sophisticated and making it edgy and street-like."
Although the spring-summer collection was a hit, Philip says the recent autumn-winter collection speaks more to their true style. An exploration of femininity and technology, the look is elegant yet futuristic, thanks to new applications of neoprene, cashmere and leather on structured silhouettes including peplum tops. At the other end of the spectrum are lighter, more delicate fabrics such as silk, chiffon and organza.
"We are still defining our aesthetic because the time between last season and this one was short. For the first season, we didn't know what to expect. Now we have more experience. We put some commercial clothes on the runway initially so now we will add more statement pieces.
"Autumn is all about a new feminine silhouette juxtaposed with prints that are inspired by kids' cartoons like Transformers," Philip says.
Looking ahead, the brothers have ambitious plans. Although they continue to collaborate on a series of knitwear with Hong Kong-based label BYPAC, they want to build on their ready-to-wear collection while separating the T-shirts into a secondary collection. But more than anything, they really hope to establish a name for Hong Kong designers abroad.
"It is very hard to be a designer in Hong Kong," Philip says.
"There is not much culture and no one has ever succeeded abroad, at least in our generation. That being said, the pop culture here, especially Canto-pop, really inspires us. Adding a fashion element makes it all the more interesting."