From the Expats

Chinese fashion designers need to connect to international customers

By Tiffany Tan (China Daily)
Updated: 2013-03-12 06:47

Last September in the Portico Rooms of London's Somerset House, Huishan Zhang watched as models donning his creations paraded at London Fashion Week. A show at one of the world's top fashion weeks was not bad for a designer who only launched his label a year before.

Zhang, 30, a native of the eastern coastal city of Qingdao, quickly grabbed the attention of international fashion watchers with his modern, feminine, Chinese-inspired pieces. His first fall/winter collection, after he attended design school in England, featured blouses, dresses and coats with double-layered lace and Chinese silk brocade. They sold out within a month at a London boutique.

"When I first met him, I thought he was the first young designer who was a perfect creative fusion between East and West, ... a voice we've been waiting to hear," said Sarah Mower, ambassador for emerging talent at the British Fashion Council and contributing editor to US Vogue.

Zhang's work has also drawn attention for redefining "Made in China".

This month, Fast Company, a business magazine in New York, recognized his namesake brand as one of the World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Style. The publication cited it for "proudly making fashion in China".

"Zhang and his team have worked with local manufacturers in his hometown of Qingdao to source intricate fabrics that typically are only produced for bulk orders," it said. "There's nothing cheap or ripped-off about it."

In the 21st century, China wants to become known as a design and innovation center - and no longer just as a manufacturing powerhouse. Its eye is set on creating brands and products that will win the world, much like Apple, Louis Vuitton and Ikea. But to build that reputation, it has to overcome the stigma of churning out subpar, imitation goods.

On the one hand, the government needs to tighten the enforcement of intellectual property rights laws. Besides stemming the flow of copycats, this will help innovators reap the financial fruits of their hard work. On the other hand, families, schools and workplaces need to cultivate thinking outside the box, which is critical to the creative process.

In order to produce pioneering ideas, it's important that Chinese culture evolves so that people are encouraged to be different, said Eric Lee, Shanghai managing director of JWT, one of the world's leading advertising agencies. "Otherwise," he said, "there would be no way for us to contend with outside competitors."

Meanwhile, Chinese designers need to more intimately understand their consumers. Domestic design schools can help by further widening and deepening the training they provide.

Design schools need to inspire students to look into the wider world, where consumers of all ages, colors, backgrounds, personalities and interests live, said Jane Rapley, former head of London's Central Saint Martins School of Arts and Design, one of the world's top design schools.

"If they read newspapers, if they listen to contemporary music, whether that be pop music or contemporary classics, if they go to films, if they read books, if they listen to social debates, 'What is the population concerned about, interested in', that's the way they build up a tacit knowledge about what's happening around them.

"It will help them design things - clothes, accessories, furniture, cars - that their target community wants to buy," she told me in Beijing last year.

At this point, industry insiders say, Chinese designers already have the professional knowledge and technical skills their jobs require. What's lacking, they say, is the ability to create products that connect with people's hearts, their dreams and desires, and to effectively communicate the distinctiveness of their products to consumers.

This is due to the fact that right now, design and branding are not a fundamental part of the Chinese management process, said Christine Losecaat, managing director of British consultancy Little Dipper.

As the Chinese design industry matures, and as more Chinese brands compete in the foreign market, China should find the path to truly become a design and innovation center. The emergence of designers such as Huishan Zhang is providing important pointers.

Contact the writer at