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Meet the Shanghai Eight

As Shanghai Fashion Week draws to a close, the city cements its position as the springboard for progressive Chinese design. BoF highlights eight of its most promising designers.
Pronounce SS18 at Shanghai Fashion Week | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Gemma A. Williams

SHANGHAI, China — "All eyes are on Shanghai now," says David Hadida, chief executive of Paris-based tradeshow Tranoï, who admits to being "seduced by the heady mix of creativity and business," and has been watching the evolution of the fashion week here for the past couple of seasons.

Shanghai is home to a range of established designers like Zhang Da of Boundless, Uma Wang, Ji Cheng and Masha Ma, who have studios and stores nestled among the city's backstreets, high rises and tree-lined streets of the Former French Concession area.

“The energy in this city makes the whole experience so much fun and eye-opening. It’s like entering a whirlwind of creativity, technology and youth,” Hadida adds, pointing to the growing variety of events at Shanghai Fashion Week that sustain the wider fashion ecosystem.

Over the last five to 10 years the landscape has been radically transformed as the city witnessed an explosion of independent designers. Yoanna Liu, senior fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar, China explains, “For a very long time there has been a big gap in the Chinese market between [international] luxury brands [and] local fashion manufacturers, who build their brands based on the massive production of cheap clothes in reproduced designs.”

However, Liu continues, "now, young designers like Angel Chen and Fengchen Wang and brands like Shushu/Tong are growing with their clients and showing their idea of what the lifestyle of the next generation is. They give the market fresh and original concepts on fashion and style, in good quality and at a reasonable price."

The city is home to a new wave of independent designers adopting bilocation-models.

More recently, the city has also become home to a new wave of independent designers adopting bilocation-models for running their business, using Shanghai as a base for production. Stavros Karelis, buying director at the London-based multibrand boutique Machine-A explains: "If we take into the account the vast number of factories and production facilities in China, as well as the amount of retailers that can sell in their country too, the chances of building a successful brand is much higher there than other designers have internationally. Shanghai is the obvious choice."

According to Shanghai Fashion Week's vice secretary general Lv Xiaolei, better known as Madame Lu, the city's strength is in its ability to attract top "new gen" design talent, especially those who attended prestigious overseas fashion colleges like Central Saint Martins in London.

“[This clustering effect in Shanghai] creates a healthy environment for their continued development, supported by a good consumption environment. Shanghai Fashion Week connects every element in the ecosystem and brings the very best media, marketing, commercial and business resources for our designers,” she claims.

Finishing yesterday, Shanghai Fashion Week drew international brands like Prada, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Ports; collaborations were launched between Alexander Wang and Pepsi, as well as Birkenstock and Ms. Min; and, alongside the inaugural BoF China Summit, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Kering also held events. The list of happenings, both on and off schedule, attests to the growing power of the fashion week over the last 15 years.

“We see that Shanghai Fashion Week’s dates are slowly shifting to better fit with other fashion weeks, which adds up to the inevitable truth that it will sooner rather than later become the fifth fashion capital. Numbers-wise, business-wise, it could be a fashion week of its own,” says Hadida.

Top left to right : Angel Chen, Staff Only, Feng Chen Wang, Xander Zhou.
Bottom left to right: Shushu/Tong, Xiao Li, Xu Zhi, Pronounce | Source: Courtesy

With showroom participation among designers growing by a third season on season, there are currently over 1,200 brands selling across seven showrooms in the city. Such an environment provides them with an incubator they can use to experiment commercially while developing their business at a reasonable pace. And while some of the names on the roster will no doubt be little more than a fleeting memory in a few years’ time, others have enough creative clout and commercial credibility to enjoy a much longer career.

As local industry leaders here begin to understand the value of longevity over buzz, BoF selects eight of Shanghai Fashion Week’s most promising menswear and womenswear designers on the cusp of going global.

Womenswear:

Xu Zhi

"Even though we come from the same generation and are riding the same wave, we all have really distinctively different aesthetics and identities," explains one of China's most innovative designers, Xu Zhi. Producing intricately handcrafted eveningwear infused with luxury yarn and embroidery techniques, Xu Zhi's focus on technique has secured him 50 stockists globally.

His first solo show at Shanghai Fashion Week took place in collaboration with the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the W Hotel, which according to Lucia Liu, fashion director of T magazine China, was his best collection to date. "He maintains his signature technique, incorporating the use of tassels, yet expresses new approaches to modernity," Liu adds.

We all have really distinctively different aesthetics and identities.

Julie Gilhart, the fashion consultant who helped launch the LVMH Prize for emerging talent, considers the brand "a classic example of Chinese craftsmanship heritage with Western influences." She explains: "You won't see this regard for textiles anywhere else, but you can really notice it in China. It's a sophistication that we need to acknowledge; it's really interesting and we aren't used to seeing it."

Angel Chen

A finalist from Lane Crawford’s creative call out in 2015, Angel Chen is focused on colour, print and texture. Chen studied at Central Saint Martins and cites youth culture as her inspiration. Her signature windbreaker, alongside other easily styled separates, has brought the brand into profitability, with a 40 to 60 percent increase in sales season on season.

Fresh from runway shows in both Milan and Shanghai, Chen summarises the situation: “In terms of our show and buyers schedule, we do Europe, and then repeat much the same in Shanghai. I think this speaks for itself in regard to [Shanghai Fashion Week’s] importance.”

Joanna Gunn, Lane Crawford’s chief brand officer, considers Chen a designer with an original point of view that resonates with the department store’s customer base. “It’s inspiring to see how Chen has started out as a graduate from Central Saint Martins, returned to China to focus on the Chinese consumer and is now part of a tight community of designers who studied in London, where they all help and support each other along the way,” she told BoF.

ShuShu/Tong

"We grew up with the booming development of the internet. Actually, we got our first order because a friend posted our lookbook on her WeChat Moments [stream]. Now we have around 30 stockists, steady growth and four employees," explains the London College of Fashion-educated duo behind ShuShu/Tong, Lei Liushu and Jiang Yutong.

Shushu/Tong Spring/Summer 2018 at Shanghai Fashion Week

Scrutinising stereotypes of femininity or “girlhood”, the designers are part of the post ’90s generation that grew up with access to a range of cosmopolitan cultural references. “We choose to use the culture which we feel is more connected to us and the collection. In some ways, West and East are merging spontaneously, therefore it’s very hard to unpick which part influences us the most,” Lei explains.

Shaway Yeh, style director at Modern Media Group rates them among the most outstanding young Chinese designers. "There is a very distinguished image of the Shushu/Tong girl which resonates with their peers and customers: sassy, well-bred, but curiously naughty; a Chinese Lolita," Ye states, adding, "Although the image is frivolous, the tailoring is quite serious."

Xiao Li

While Xiao Li's studio is based in London and she shows on schedule at London Fashion Week, the designer also has a base in Shanghai, meaning her team of five is split between both countries. Her conceptual exploration of shape and scale has won favour with buyers, resulting in between 25 to 30 stockists in Europe, the US, the Middle East and Asia, including Dover Street Market, Beams and Leclaireur.

“Our price point is very competitive for our international stockists because we produce in Shanghai,” Li outlines. “This market and city is very important for our business. I think the strong economy is also one of the biggest supports for Chinese designers.”

Harper’s Bazaar China’s Liu suggests that Xiao Li’s focus on the creativity of textile and fabrication marks her out as one of the industry’s most notable talents. “When designers purchase fabrics from Italy or Japan, [there are] factors like expensive and unreasonable pricing, [while on the other hand there is a] lack of variety and bad quality of Chinese suppliers. [This has led her to] produce her own textiles, while at the same time maintaining the balance of price and wearability. The only ‘creativity’ happening is in the textile technology. So I think designers like Xiao Li and also Xu Zhi could be an inspiration for Chinese textile manufacturing.”

Menswear:

Xander Zhou

“As a Chinese designer abroad, you have to work extra hard to earn the same degree of respect,” says menswear designer Xander Zhou, also menswear director at T Magazine China. When Zhou started, the fashion scene in China was still uncharted territory but this fact worked in his favour, meaning he could achieve many “firsts” — including being the first menswear Chinese designer to present on an international schedule when he showed in London in 2012 as the guest of GQ China.

Though based between Beijing and Amsterdam, he is quick to add: “Shanghai has always been very important to me. I officially took part in Shanghai Fashion Week in 2009,” and while it took almost a decade for him to return, his success has been the inspiration for many other independent designers. Zhou is creating what he calls “techno-orientalism,” where he mines his Chinese identity to produce intellectual designs and progressive silhouettes, which has resulted in a self-financing business with 30 stockists.

As one of the first buyers to pick up Zhou, Karelis from Machine-A told BoF, “Brands like Xander Zhou that we have been working with since the beginning have sell-throughs which are very strong. The seasonal increase is about 20 percent, as we satisfy the international customers and especially many Chinese consumers that want to buy into Chinese brands.”

Feng Chen Wang

Fengchen Wang studied at the Royal College of Art and is based in London, with a second studio and production base in Shanghai. Her intricately manipulated menswear incorporates words and logos — most recently the phrase “Made in China” was cheekily emblazoned atop sweatshirts on the runway at New York Fashion Week.

“The economic growth in China has allowed people more freedom to express themselves and I think that has driven interest for my brand, because people are becoming more open and interested in new styles and techniques of production,” she explains. “In Shanghai, they accept everything, they are open to new things. It’s the future!”

Consultant Gilhart remembers nominee Wang from her first show, part of New York’s VFiles. “She has this very cool way of doing outerwear and it was at this time when we were looking at genderless fashion,” she enthuses. “You could put it into the context of being this interesting take on streetwear, of being a currency. She has a cool, vibrant aesthetic, and her personality seems like a really good combination of Chinese grounded in a western culture.”

Pronounce

Pronounce debuted at London Fashion Weeks Men's June 2017 schedule after winning the GQ Menswear China Award in 2016. Co-founders Yushan Li and Jun Zhou are based between China and Italy: "Shanghai is very inspiring to us. It's full of dreams, inspirations and motivations. But we're not only satisfied with local domestic business anymore, now it is more about an international vision," Li says.

Dan Cui, fashion director at GQ China and editor-in-chief of GQ Style China, is a judge on the magazine’s menswear award panel: “When choosing a designer, I not only need to judge their design, I also look into their brand’s long-term operational planning, their judgement of the market, and their business potential,” he explains. “I also look at their social media presence [and] industry connections, as well as their capability to stage a show on a global scale. Pronounce fit the bill in all of these areas.”

Staff Only Spring/Summer 2018 at Shanghai Fashion Week

Staff Only

Educated in the UK, Staff Only is a female duo designing an innovative menswear line steeped in storytelling that is currently stocked in over 15 stores across China. “I believe our generation doesn’t feel a strong responsibility to represent our cultural heritage as much as the designers who came before us. I don’t mean that we don’t value these cultural treasures; just instead we have a range of ideas from very different sources and inspirations.”

GQ’s Cui says of the pair: “They’re so energetic, orchestrating every element in the right place… they’re the synthesis of this wave of young Chinese menswear designers in terms of showmanship and expression.

“However,” he continues, “outerwear is now slightly overused in the industry, so the challenge for them is to think about other mediums to express their fashion language.”

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