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A Chat with Designer Nicole Zhang on Individualism and Shanghai’s Fashion Future

Women, Fashion, Interview

In the shuttling lanes of Shanghai’s labyrinth lies the quaint studio of designer Nicole Zhang. Sunlight weakly emanates through the glass shafts of the roof, as the rays dance about the glimmering sequins of her slip dresses. On this misty winter morning, Zhang walks in clad in a devishly handsome leather jacket and ashen skinny jeans, profusely apologizing for being late. Besides her infectiously graceful demeanor, Zhang has a motley of laurels attached to her name having worked as Visual Merchandiser for luxury behemoths, such as Dior, Prada and Miu Miu, for over a decade.

Zhang previously obtained her degree in fashion design at the Raffles Design Institute in Shanghai. In 2012, she embarked on the mission of finally fulfilling her unfinished dream of starting her namesake label. Zhang’s dexterity and knowledge is evident through her fresh sense of inspiration. With every collection, she picks up on subtle subcultural concepts of the past and channels them into something modern. Her Spring/Summer 2016 collection oozes a sense of cool glamour through languid dresses, conical bra-tops and lustrous palazzo pants, all sealed off with sneakers.

As we review her clothes in the flesh, she talks about fabric, local culture and the wonderful journey that has been so far.

After working for so many years in the luxury industry, why did you decide to give that all up and jump into this new endeavor? What do you miss about it?

I have a degree in fashion design, and I always knew I wanted to be a designer. But 13 years ago, around the time I graduated, China did not possess a strong footing for local designers. When I worked with LVMH as the National Visual Merchandiser, at first I felt a little uncertain but I began to grow within the job. I’ve always loved space and architecture, and it was a great start. After dappling in this industry for over a decade, I felt it was time to move on and continue what I’d left behind. Also, I have a son now, so I must spend time with him! (Smiles). I also feel China is at a stage where it needs indigenous talent that can be appreciated, so not only do I want to fulfill my dreams but also contribute towards this society in a way.

I feel the only thing I miss about my prior career is that it was always easy to communicate with your peers because they’ve been working in the industry for a long time. When you start your own label, it’s a more organic process. You have measly budgets, and you have to start from scratch. This is quite a time-consuming process.

What were the initial challenges you faced?

I didn’t see competition from local designers or international brands as a challenge. For me, it was all about developing my own voice, my own aesthetic, and competing with myself. The challenge lies in maintaining a freshness and relevance. I also always like experimenting with innovative, untraditional fabrics.

Speaking of fabrics, which ones do you like working with?

I’ve always been fascinated by high-tech fabrics. Although I love the classic choices of silk and linen, I love mixing it up with unusual accompaniments such as canvas and denim. For my previous collection, we sourced a water resistant fabric from Italy with this paper maché like texture and turned it into a shift dress. I love the sporty aesthetic and this fabric blended into that perfect.

 

“…we live in an era of fashion clones today where everybody wants the ‘it’ bag — there’s no individualism.”

 

Your S/S 2016 collection encapsulates 80s disco glamour. What do you love about this era?

The ‘80s symbolize a very special time in my life. It’s that time of ripe teenage-hood when you’re so influenced by trends and fads. There’s a certain naivety attached to this period, and you’re always trying to be ‘cool.’ This collection was heavily influenced by the breakdance culture; it represents independence and this unashamed freedom of expression. I feel we live in an era of fashion clones today where everybody wants the ‘it’ bag — there’s no individualism. In the ‘80s, youngsters would tweak their outfits to lend it a personal touch — there was no herd mentality. It was all about the attitude, not about the money or brands.

As for the disco influence, I used a lot of sequins because I wanted to echo the garish disco fever of the period. I added a touch of contemporary athletics to give it a new spin but still retain its star-like quality.

A close look at all your collections so far depicts how your aesthetic has evolved from a mature, moody vibe to an edgy urbane feel. Tell us about this transformation.

It’s definitely been a process of evolution for me. My focus before was more on austere silhouettes and monochromatic color tones. Currently, it’s all about how a garment feels on the body — comfort is definitely a priority, and I like delving into the softer side.

In an interview you once said that Chinese girls tend to overd0 it in terms of flashy logos and overexposed branding. Do you feel your label is altering this aspect of local style?

Most of the times, people find the need to wear flashy logos because it’s a sort of defense mechanism to shield their actual insecurities. They feel the need to project a certain image that isn’t their real one. For me, the beauty of the clothes lies in the fact that it doesn’t require an explanation — that’s why most of my designs have a minimalist approach because I want the personality of my clothes to stand out through the fabrics and the cuts, not through the logos. Although I design keeping a particular consumer in mind, I want my designs to be a source of experimentation, where people with a different taste have a renewed perspective to style when they slip into my dresses. I want them to feel confident and beautiful, even if it’s without obvious branding.

Describe your personal style. Do you wear a lot of your own creations?

I am definitely a jeans and tee girl. For me, it’s all about comfort, especially since I’m constantly on my feet. I do wear a lot my designs, and the best part is they’re really versatile; a slouchy coat can be thrown over ripped jeans but looks just as good with a slinky dress. I keep this aspect in mind while I design them — they should have the ability to transition seamlessly.

How has your family been supportive and instrumental in your work process?

My husband works as a creative head in advertising so it really helps that we both come from a creative background. You can always understand the challenges and expectations of the field better. My five-year-old son loves coming into the studio and helps sketch out clothes from time to time! (Laughs)

If you could dissect yourself from your existing lifestyle for one day what would you be doing? 

I’d ride by bicycle very far away into the mountains. Some meditation and an escape from the city life would make up for some great respite. Shanghai has no nature!

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