China’s ‘father of fashion’ on Pierre Cardin, Chinese supermodels and bringing Chinese brands to the world
- Fashion show director Jerry Zhang fell in love with the business in the early 1980s
- He started China’s first modelling agency and has launched a number of Chinese brands overseas
In December 1978, a Frenchman with a balding pate, wearing a broad-shouldered, long, and fashionable coat strode down a Beijing street, drawing curious stares from drably attired Chinese men and women.
The man was fashion maestro Pierre Cardin, the first person to bring chic Western fashion to China, at the time still reeling from the ravages wrought by the Cultural Revolution, which had ended two years earlier.
In 1979, Cardin did fashion shoots on the Great Wall in Beijing. China’s first encounter with Western fashion, post-Cultural Revolution, left an indelible impression on Jerry Zhang, dubbed the father of Chinese modelling for his establishment of the first modelling agency in China, New Silk Road, in 1992.
“A fresh graduate in fashion design in 1983, I saw a fashion show of Pierre Cardin in Beijing and I was impressed. There was amazing stage and lighting design.”
A fashion show director who has staged productions for Western and Chinese brands in China, Milan, New York, and Paris, Zhang has witnessed the development of China’s fashion industry.
“In the past, parents didn’t want their children to become models. Now China has 93 universities that offer modelling classes. [Starting from the early 1990s], I brought Chinese fashion models to America [for fashion shows].
“Later, I brought more of them to enter into contracts with New York modelling agencies. As Chinese models’ English language proficiency improves, they have more work opportunities.”
Widely sought after by top-end Western brands, Chinese supermodels such as Du Juan and Liu Wen grace covers of magazines including Vogue and shimmy down international catwalks. Zhang says their popularity boosts racial diversity on the international fashion scene.
“Western designers want their clothes to look good on models of all nationalities. Their increasing use of Asian or Chinese models also has economic reasons, as using Chinese faces to display their works makes it easier to enter the big China market.”
A visiting professor at Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology since 2008, Zhang helped set up a course in fashion directing, which focuses on developing skills such as producing catwalk shows.
“The course is a world first. There are none in Paris, London and New York. A major in modelling [at the institute] lasts four years. That’s why Chinese models have good foundation skills. Their catwalk skills are better than [those of international models].
“However, some of the girls might find they are not suited to a career in modelling in the third year due to a change in their body shape. They can switch to fashion directing in the third year. We currently have around 18 students a year majoring in directing. In future, we will enrol those who want to major in directing for all four years.”
Hanna Belous from Ukraine is the only foreign student studying fashion directing at the institute.
Belous arrived in China in 2008 to work as a dancer for Shenzhen tourist attractions. She has starred in Chinese films including Cabin Crew. She later went to Beijing to study modelling at the fashion institute.
“I have just switched to fashion directing. I worked as a part-time fashion model before my studies at the institute began. Each fashion show is unique and I am intrigued by the goings-on backstage. While some [famous] models can work until they are 40, I want to get a change and not work on the front line. I am doing research for a dissertation on how to use hi-tech elements like virtual reality to stage a fashion show.”
Zhang says a fashion show is an art form just like theatre or film.
“Chinese film director Zhang Yimou used to tell me that filmmaking costs a lot, hundreds of millions of yuan. But the finished productions can be copied and spread around the world for 20 years. A fashion show is a one-off event. For example, it cost 800,000 yuan (US$115,000) to stage a 20-minute show. The unit cost is the highest among [all visual productions]. Therefore, the whole planning, including stage design and model management, has to be perfect.
“A successful show has to boost sales for the brand. Recently, we did two shows in New York and Beijing for Chinese outerwear brand Bosideng. After that, they racked up sales of over 400 million yuan on Singles’ Day.”
Other Chinese brands that Zhang has brought to the international catwalk include Cabbeen and Septwolves. Zhang says Chinese fashion brands started promoting themselves overseas around 2005.
“The first Chinese brand to go overseas was Cabbeen. We brought it to New York Fashion Week in 2005. From 1996 to 2000, we helped many foreign brands enter China, including Edenbo. They like to use Chinese directors to direct their shows in China as we have local connections.
“Last year, Victoria’s Secret’s Shanghai show [was marred by last-minute visa denials for some of their models and the local police’s abrupt shutdown of the lingerie brand’s after show party.] I was there. The issue had nothing to do with politics. It’s just their organising team didn’t know about China’s procedures like applying for permits.”
Zhang says that while Chinese brands have ventured overseas, they face big problems establishing sales outlets.
“It’s not that their products are not good enough. It’s that Chinese don’t understand foreign policies like quality accreditation, customs, taxes and so on. Like we have Chinese agents for Western brands when they go into China, we are looking for foreign buyers and agencies for Chinese brands to help with their overseas expansion.”
Zhang says Shanghai and Beijing will soon become fashion hubs on a par with European fashion meccas.
“China is the world centre of consumption. China sales for first-tier brands are often the biggest for all their markets. We have the hope of achieving the status of international fashion hub in five to 10 years.”