This is a defining moment in fashion for Xu Zhi, a fashion house that has quickly become part of London’s up-and-coming designers that are already running the city’s underground fashion scene. Craftsmanship is at the heart of Xuzhi Chen’s design process. The Chinese-born designer has been globally celebrated by being shortlisted for the LVMH and Woolmark prizes, as well as being stocked at Dover Street Market. Chen is curating his path by interacting with customers but also with the rich history of China.
You’re originally from China but established yourself in London. How do you balance your design process by being in touch with London’s multi-cultural scene, but also staying true to your heritage?
I grew up in China and moved to London to study Womenswear Design at Central Saint Martins at the age of eighteen, and have been living here ever since. That’s why I always refer to my design as the hybrid of both eastern and western cultures. The Chinese roots help me form the very understanding of what beauty is, which is through subtlety, delicate and sophisticated designs rather than extravagance. Until now, nearly two thirds of my global retailers are from China, and we’re proud that Xu Zhi is achieving amazing performances in my home country.
How did Central Saint Martins shape your perspective on fashion and how was that later challenged by working with Jonathan Anderson and Craig Green?
Central Saint Martins taught me how to work more professionally within certain disciplines of the fashion industry, while on the other hand, the necessary of doing proper research and allowing your creativity, imagination and experimentation go free in order to make the best work. Regarding working with Jonathan Anderson and Craig Green, both experiences have been amazing and I owe very much to the busy months I spent in their studios.
With JW Anderson, when I was interning there, it was a turning point for the brand because LVMH invested in it. You’re lucky to witness how the brand developed from an independent and niche label to a company that had a more proper business structure, which certainly gave me lots of ideas when I started building up my own brand in the following years. Then, with Craig Green, he’s an amazing designer that had the ability to really touch you with his garments. His focus on material innovation as well as dedication to craftsmanship also taught me a lot, which now also becomes the very core of Xu Zhi and its philosophy.
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As a male designer, what process do you go through to understand the women you are dressing?
Though I’m a male designer, many amazing female figures around me have helped me understand what women want. The women around me constantly inspire each collection. They could be my family members, friends, colleagues, or just ordinary customers who appreciate Xu Zhi’s designs. I don’t normally start designing a collection with the idea of the male dressing the female in my mind. To me, design is a way to solve people’s needs and desires, and I wish all the women in Xu Zhi could feel they’re taken good care of and empowered with extra strength.
Do you have a muse? And what role do they play in your world?
I do always tend to find my muses in traditional artworks, especially oil paintings. I picture what it might be like to bring the figure within the frame into real life. My work is always about textures and manipulating the textile surface to add interesting effects, therefore what those master artists experimented and brushed on the canvas always resonate with me very much.
In a fast fashion age, how can high fashion stay relevant and innovative?
By keeping studying the most progressive craftsmanship to make the industry more alive. We do want people to understand that fashion isn’t just about the superficial effects, but in fact needs highly technical support to achieve the look. At Xu Zhi we believe that product should always speak for itself. The investment we put into the design and production is very energy-consuming, but the result is always rewarding as well.
“Though I’m a male designer, many amazing female figures around me have helped me understand what women want. I wish all the women in Xu Zhi could feel they’re taken good care of and empowered with extra strength.”
What does the commercial aspect of fashion mean for you and your brand?
It helps us grow and have the chance to try more advancing plans and projects. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing to go ‘commercial’. In fact, it’s complex to really differ what’s commercial and what’s not. Feedback from the customers and market could help you edit your collection, whereas you also need to dare to lead the market with your designs. What we design is always part of the Xu Zhi brand, and we treat each piece with equal attention and care.
In the Fall/Winter 2018 collection, neutral and dark tones were very predominant, as was the pop of orange. What was the inspiration for toying together the collection’s colour palette?
The starting point for the collection is Jane Morris, the celebrated muse during the Pre-Raphaelite art movement, and how different artists interpreted her images via different approaches. To reflect the brush stroke effect from the oil paintings that depicted her, we use our signature braiding technique to weave the pieces that have extra decorative fringes on them. Also, to add a more interesting texture, we especially choose polyurethane material and hand-paint each piece, then hot-stamp them all to make the very unusual fabric.
Diversity is an on-going topic in all industries. Fashion is finally calling it out and coming to terms with it. How have you contributed to this discussion, or wish to contribute? Being originally from China, have you ever felt personally discriminated?
I personally didn’t feel discriminated, but I do think it’s important for the fashion industry to reflect the diversity of real life.
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What has been the most challenging part of running a fashion label so far? And how has it been rewarding?
Balancing business and creativity has always been the most challenging part. Each season, I think about how to make my brand sustainable, both creatively and commercially. It’s so different from designing a collection in college because you actually have nothing to lose and could always have the second chance. But in reality you don’t. The rewarding part would be the moment you know there are customers that appreciate your work and are willing to purchase them. It makes all the hard work worthwhile.
Despite having founded your brand in 2014, you’ve already been nominated to major prizes like the LVMH and the Woolmark, and your clothes are sold in cult places like Dover Street Market. Also, Forbes included you in the 30 under 30 list of most important creatives. Do you consider all this a way of succeeding? What does this concept exactly mean to you?
Success is something you should leave other people to decide. Maybe it’s success in a way, but what’s more important is that I know clearly how I could make things even better, and not feel satisfied with the works we’ve done for now.
It seems like you’re taking the steps in the right direction. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects we should know of?
We’re carefully preparing to launch more product ranges in the next few seasons, such as accessories (including bags) and footwear. We wish to offer more options and choices to our customers. At the moment, we’re editing a special edition of a book, which is likely to come out by the end of this year. It’s out of my interest of reading and illustrations, and we would like to illustrate up-to-twelve different Xu Zhi girls who carry the qualities that we admire most.
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