The Genteel
January 22, 2021


Source: Vogue Italia.

Why are there so few fashion designers from mainland China on the global circuit? One oft-touted theory suggests that status symbols trump sartorial savvy in China's newly-minted, logo-saturated luxury retail landscape. Consumers tend towards flash and trend rather than originality or a passion for fashion. Whether that is true or not, there's no mistaking that China's market structure makes it difficult for their homegrown designers. It can be challenging enough to cultivate a domestic market in a pirating-friendly economy and a climate that favours consignment. An international debut can often appear even further out of reach.

Zhang Da paints on a model during a workshop in
Beijing. Source:

Luckily, it seems that contrary forces are at work. The recent proliferation of street style blogs and other forms of fashion-oriented social media has inspired new excitement and effort in fashion throughout Chinese cities. More people are embracing the joy and artistry of dressing, and taking risks with what they wear. An increased attention to thoughtful, sustainable design (witness architect Wang Shu's recent Pritzker Prize win) shows that an interest in craft and an emphasis on quality materials may begin to take precedence over speed and economy. The time may be coming for a new crop of Chinese fashion innovators.

The leader of this group is arguably Zhang Da. The Shanghai-based designer was one of the first to "forge his own aesthetic in a place where copying is king," says Timothy Parent, founder of China Fashion Collective. The American agency is based in Shanghai, and represents top Chinese designers. Zhang produces capsule collections under his own label, Boundless. He now also designs clothing and textile products for Shang-Xia, a new Chinese brand backed almost entirely by French giant Hermès.

Boundless collections are each based on a distinct experimental design. Zhang's "Flatline" collection posited a new, two-dimensional silhouette of simple circular and rectangular shapes in stretch cotton blends. These shirts, dresses and skirts take shape only once settled on the wearer, falling differently depending on body type. Other lines, such as "Curvilinear" and "One-Size-Fits-All," take similar conceptual approaches, investigating and uprooting standard notions of form and asking wearers to conceive of alternatives to traditional silhouettes.

Shang-Xia is attempting to build a lifestyle brand for the Chinese consumer by embracing the value of heritage, materials, and craftsmanship in design - something that other domestic brands have not yet done.

In a 2010 interview with Artinfo magazine, Zhang said that he wants his designs to "transcend limitations" and "encourage experimentation and possibility." He hopes to inspire people to make new choices in a market that has not always offered abundant option. The aesthetic he has introduced forces a new perspective on the way we see materials and wear our clothes. For some, this gives fashion a new dimension. Charles Wang, owner of Dong Liang Studio boutiques in Beijing and Shanghai, says that Zhang's appeal lies in the fact that he is "very much like a scholar; he does a lot of research on culture, anthropology, nature, etc. His world is very pure and full of interesting ideas. We love him, and so do our customers!"

Zhang's ideas have also manifested themselves in projects that straddle the border between fashion and artistic practice. Together with Guangzhou's Vitamin Creative Space gallery, he conceived of a project called "Reuse." He called upon members of the local community to offer their old clothes, linens and other textiles with the promise of a specially-made and reworked clothing item in return. The project never came to large-scale fruition, but the idea made an important statement about materials and sustainability in a country whose expanding economy is driven by mass production.

Zhang's "Blue" collection was released for an exhibition-cum-fashion show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing in 2010. It drew upon vintage '50s and '60s clothing styles from East and West alike. The collection also integrated Chinese cultural and historical references, like the padded cotton often found in the Chinese countryside, and traditional indigo dyeing techniques. The line was more cerebral and literary than Zhang's previous ones, but no less purposeful. He also perhaps unwittingly provided criteria for defining contemporary Chinese design. In addition to drawing on historical Chinese fashion and on aspects of Chinese culture, Zhang says that he finds "a lot of influence and inspiration from Chinese people's way of thinking."

It was partly Zhang's interest in this cultural psyche that attracted the attention of Chinese brand Shang-Xia, which tapped him to design clothing and textile products for it. He has embraced the role with finesse, producing pieces for the label that reflect traditional Chinese craftsmanship and simplicity while shedding new light on materials and form for a modern, domestic luxury market. The pieces he designs for Shang-Xia (loosely translated to "harmony" and "balance") emphasise the same concepts and forms as his Boundless label while incorporating Chinese tradition.

Shang-Xia, 2011-2012 collection.

Parent notes that Zhang "really understands Chinese heritage, particularly China's sartorial heritage, while also having an appreciation for artistic, conceptual, and modern design." The designer himself sees his work with Shang-Xia as an opportunity to learn about this heritage. He says that the brand "pays attention to the quality of raw materials and craftsmanship, producing exquisite but practical items that reveal China's temperament…. This is a meaningful thing."

Shang-Xia is attempting to build a lifestyle brand for the Chinese consumer by embracing the value of heritage, materials, and craftsmanship in design - something that other domestic brands have not yet done. While the label's long-term success remains to be seen, Zhang fully supports the idea, stating in an email that he believes "innovation can create a way of life." That is a hopeful statement for China, one that reflects a burgeoning confidence in the power of such values and a willingness to change. Zhang says that he doesn't care about the age or occupation of his buyers; he only hopes that they have "a certain curiosity and ability to try new things."

Despite his abstract collections, Zhang doesn't believe that his designs are art. Yet he also does not believe that art, design and commerce are mutually exclusive. "Unreasonable design naturally will not be successful in business," he says. "Some design is aimed at exploring and trying something different and new…the value of such a design is not immediate commercial success, but lies in finding future directions. This is true in China and anywhere else."

His words represent a hopeful and practical look at the future of Chinese design, and remind us that China's fate is intertwined with that of the rest of the world. Wang, of Dong Liang boutique, puts it this way when asked if he thinks that Zhang is a particularly "Chinese" designer: "I think traditions from all over the world….are now [globalised] and should be studied and inherited by everyone in 'modern' society."

An intellectual approach, a progressive attitude and attention to craft and materials are the exciting new propellers of Chinese design, and Zhang is certainly at the forefront to share it with the rest of us. 



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