Given that the Mao suit is the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Chinese fashion design, you’d be forgiven for taking Chinese designer Xander Zhou less than seriously. And yet, since his label debuted last year, fashion insiders have been falling over themselves to be associated with this promising young designer.
With nary a Mandarin collar in sight, there’s little of the touristy kitsch one normally associates with Chinese design in Zhou’s work. Rather, the clothing is as striking as it is innovative. “I’m more interested in the cut and structure of the designs,” he explains. “Those technical basics are more important, and the design follows from that.”
Cutting and tailoring are an integral part of his spring/summer ’08 collection. Zhou plays with shape and form by slashing traditional shirts and suits, modifying the traditional tuxedo and merging different fabric types to construct clothing that covers up and exposes in equal measure. Stiff, heavy fabrics and PVC are blended with gauze and light silks to create an effect that is both masculine and romantic.
Zhou’s fascination with construction and technology is rooted in his childhood. His architect parents brought work home, and the blueprints intrigued him. “The construction industry, and technology has always amazed me,” he recalls. All of which inspired him to first study graphic design in Beijing, before moving onto fashion design in The Hague.
After studying in the Netherlands and working with Dutch designer Jeroen van Tuyl, Zhou returned to his native China to set up his own eponymous label. This could be seen as a surprising move given China’s reputation of expertise in mass-production and imitation rather than innovation, but the young designer was determined to return.
Rather than adopting obvious tropes, however, Zhou teases out the cultural significance of his homeland in subtler ways. For instance, the fabrics used in his autumn/winter ’08 collection pay tribute to China’s storied textile history: he uses traditional dyeing techniques from Yunnan to create abstract prints, and silk is a key component in the collection—though it’s fashioned to look, at first glance, like wool.
But while Zhou celebrates his origins through discreet touches, it is just one facet of his vision. “My culture and heritage are important,” he insists, “but there’s so much more to China than people often assume. In any case, I’m a designer, and that’s what counts. Design has no nationality.”