"Whatever I do is already Chinese, because I'm a Chinese designer" points out Huishan Zhang, fresh off the plane from Shanghai and gearing up to show his SS14 collection at London Fashion Week today. It's a good point, because there is lots of talk about Zhang being at the forefront of a new generation of designers from the East bringing their designs to a Western customer. Zhang does have a big studio in China and manufactures with specialist factories with whom he has built up a relationship but he is by no means limited to his native country when it comes to how he imagines his clothes will come to life; "I think about this elegant nomad who will go to an event in New York then pop her dress in a bag and head to London where she'll slip back into it again." What a glamourous, yet probably quite realistic, vision especially for a designers who describes their work as "couture-like ready-to-wear".
For SS14, Zhang has been thinking about the body, with particular reference to the photography of Man Ray whom he observes "transformed women's shapes" through his use of blurring double exposure. A key silhouette is a short fitted dress with flouncing 'pep-hem' with coats and trousers which support that idea. There is no fastening but instead Zhang has employed bias cutting- he cites it as "modernised Vionnet approach"- to create a close fit which "is neither tight nor loose". Then it gets complicated with traditional couture smocking which gives a waffled, textured look and re-uses the bias by twisting it back on itself 45degrees. My maths fails me here but Zhang tells me how he studies ancient Chinese mathematical theories so that "the pieces look very simple but it takes lots of equations to get there".
Swarovski have continued their sponsorship of Zhang this season and he's put a new spin on the idea of embellishment. "We used these teardrop crystals as a protection for the very delicate fabric beneath" he explains as he shows me the Man Ray image Tears which sparked the idea. Usually it's the gems which need protecting so it's nice to think there's a bit of role reversal going on. There are also big pailettes which look almost like fish scales layered like a second skin over tiny tops. The embellishment helps too with Zhang's colour mission; "I focused on this photograph by Erwin Blumenfeld- I wanted to take weird colours and make them look nice". Personally, I quite like jade green and rose but of course they do look lovelier when they're made to sparkle and glimmer- I'm looking forward to seeing them under the lights at today's presentation.
Amazingly, there are just three fabrics in the entire collection: organza, jersey (a new addition, sourced from underwear suppliers) and silk which has been specially treated so that it doesn't crease. Then there is an abundance of lace which acts as a trim and, in many cases, an extra veil. I love Zhang's story about spotting this incredible lace at an exhibition while he was at Central Saint Martin's. He wanted to work with the manufacturers but had no idea where they were based. After a bit of research, it turned out that the factory was round the corner from his parent's business in Qingdao and that their accountant's wife was the designer. The pattern is very different, Zhang tells me, to what you might find in Europe, "the flowers we use in China are very specific, and we always work in a figure of eight pattern". As I touch and admire the collection, Zhang exclaims "everyone has something Chinese now. Your toothbrush was probably made there so my coming along is just good timing." Indeed.
With thanks to the Swarovski Collective.