Thank you for letting me fly

Updated: 2014-02-16 08:35

By Mark Graham(China Daily)

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A young Chinese fashion designer's talent was spotted early and he is now wowing the world with his creations. Mark Graham reports.

Fashion insiders marked Zhang Huishan out as a designer to watch some time ago, praising his subtle and elegant way of integrating Chinese elements and motifs into stylish contemporary clothing.

Now, thanks to the awarding of a major international fashion prize, his name will have much more resonance in the mainstream, ensuring sustained demand for Zhang's dresses, jackets, skirts and blouses, all made in Qingdao in Shandong province.

Zhang, who was born and raised in the East China port city, designs the garments at his base in London, but insists on having them made in China. It is an unusual arrangement but allows the rising fashion star to boast that all his garments are made by Chinese craftsmen and artesans.

"I want to have a Chinese identity," he says. "I think fashion is one way of showing the world how China is changing.

"Qingdao is focused on manufacturing for Japanese and (South) Korean companies, so there are very good-quality factories and good-quality fabric. The lace we have is all made in Qingdao."

Zhang recently picked up the Dorchester Collection fashion prize, a hugely prestigious award that the hotel group bestows every year, along with a 25,000-pound ($41,000) cash prize.

"Zhang Huishan will undoubtedly have a thriving career, as have the previous winners," says Christopher Cowdray, Dorchester Collection's chief executive officer.

Receiving the award is a reward for long years of hard work, and occasional disappointment.

From his teen years, Zhang knew he wanted to be involved in the fashion business, but opportunities were few and far between at that time in northern China.

To broaden his horizons and improve his English, Zhang's parents sent him to study in New Zealand. A college there provided the neophyte designer with basic skills before he enrolled at the prestigious Central Saint Martins college in London, where renowned designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen studied.

"It was a new way of working for me, a different approach," says Zhang. "When I went there, I was good at pattern cutting but not so good at processing and creating a collection, because I had not been trained. I had to learn from scratch."

Promising designers are often monitored by the big brands and later offered jobs.

In Zhang's case, he attracted keen personal attention from a hugely influential fashion figure - Delphine Arnault, daughter of the giant LVMH group boss Bernard Arnault - who offered the student a job working at the head office of the Dior brand.

It gave Zhang insights into the luxury-brand trade, along with the confidence to launch his own brand, Huishan Zhang, almost immediately after graduation. It was an instant success, with pieces stocked by prestigious boutiques and his couture Dragon Dress selected as a permanent exhibit in the T.T. Tsui gallery of the V&A Museum.

The past few years have seen Zhang embark on an upward trajectory, with his clothing stocked by such upmarket stores as Harvey Nichols. The annual output is about 1,000 pieces; the cheapest item is about 5,000 yuan ($826) for a top and trousers, with more expensive dresses selling for up to 20,000 yuan. Couture pieces made to order can cost 40,000 yuan or more, depending on the level of intricacy.

"I want it to be a modern contemporary lifestyle brand," Zhang says. "Basically it is something associated with China but on a very international level and exclusive."

The collection is semi-couture with a price that is affordable. Every season is referenced by Chinese and Western culture, with modern-art influences. The Chinese element is more like a hidden trace rather than something obvious, Zhang says.

The clothes are for modern-day women who travel and have a real life. The fabric has been designed so it does not wrinkle, whether it is silk or cotton. That is the trademark.

Zhang is now based permanently in London, working from a Victorian building close to the British Museum in Bloomsbury, but he travels back to China most months to supervise production in Qingdao.

"I grew up in Qingdao which was isolated and conservative, but I had a big dream," he says. "I loved fashion. I always liked to put combinations together - an orange jumper over skinny jeans. I was big and fat at that time but I liked the look."

Zhang says he was very bad at school. The only thing he could pass was art class. "I told my parents that any further education would kill me. They were worried at the time, but they let me go and study abroad," Zhang adds.

Ironically, his father began his entrepreneurial career running a boutique in Qingdao before going on to found a successful electronics manufacturing business, which helped fund Zhang's education and career.

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Thank you for letting me fly

Designer Zhang Huishan brings a particularly subtle sensibility to the concept of blending elements of East and West in his fashion designs. Photos Provided to China Daily

Thank you for letting me fly

Zhang is the winner of the Dorchester Collection fashion prize.

Thank you for letting me fly

Zhang's latest collection is semi-couture with affordable prices.

(China Daily 02/16/2014 page4)