New-York based Zhang Qingyun is the founder of the tasteful menswear label Cilantro+Ginger. If this young brand can seem quite classical at first sight, it is to catch us better at the second look… In fact, on condition of simplicity, Cilantro+Ginger actually reveals treasures of humor, inventiveness and refinement we cannot be impervious to. Very curious about it all, we settled a discussion to try and unravel Cilantro+Ginger’s mystery.
Zhang, you seem pretty mysterious. Could you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I grew up in southwest China, and have lived in New York for about six years. I didn’t intend to be mysterious, but it just felt natural for me to stay away from the spotlight, Cilantro + Ginger is not a designer brand. I wasn’t trained in fashion either. My professional background is in graphic design and art direction, and I spend most of my time doing that (at a two-man operation called Young Professionals). I’m an outsider to the fashion industry!
How was Cilantro+Ginger founded?
It was a bit random. A close friend of mine, Jiao Xiang, was making a womenswear line called Shrimp + Lobster. One day she half-jokingly suggested that I should start my own menswear line, and call it Crab + Oyster. I took the suggestion quite seriously and started researching. Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately – the domain for Crab + Oyster was taken. So I was forced to find an alternative name and really think about the concept. I have quite a few fashion designer friends, and they helped me finding the right resources to make the first collection happen.
How do fashion and photography work together to you? Why did you edit a photo book (“Open Spaces”, ndlr)? On your website, they are put side by side, literally…
Strictly speaking, I see them both as photography. For me, fashion is the physical garment. The lookbook is a highly curated collection of photographs that show the clothes in a very stylized way. I didn’t really edit the photo book myself. It’s a collaboration between me and photographer Ross Mantle. I’ve always been a big fan of his work and the sentiment in his depiction of ordinary American life. It was a very natural and engaging process. I told Ross my idea for the collection, and he proposed to shoot these areas in New York that were just designated as “Open Spaces” on a map.  There is an absence of people in his photographs, and there is just a blank background in the lookbook. I think they compliment each other in an abstract way.
Do you feel you “edit” clothes as you could edit photo books?
I certainly put a lot of thought into both, but they are two different processes. Photographs are two-dimensional and motionless. Clothes move and need to be functional. When I edit a photo book I think about the theme and the narrative. When I design clothes I think about functionality and the cohesiveness in style.
You are probably making a following collection right now, but is there some other parallel project to come?
Certainly! They may not be photo books. But I am planning to collaborate with more artists for the future collections.
Which photographers and designers do you like?
Besides Ross, I was very inspired by the work of Stephen Shore and Alec Soth when I was working on this collection. In fashion, I’ve always liked Christophe Lemaire. His collections are elegant and consistent, and his company is still completely independent. I admire his tenacity. I’ve also been inspired by some of the fashion scenes from the 90s, like Helmut Lang and Margiela. But to be honest my knowledge of fashion is quite limited, and I am often inspired by people outside of it.
There is a lot of subtle bittersweet humor in your way to communicate about Cilantro+Ginger, is humor a main value of the brand? What is the importance of humor to you?
There is so much seriousness in fashion, from the name to copy writing to art direction. In a way, I see Cilantro + Ginger as a parody of that. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet still provide the same level of quality. For me, humor is what breaks the ice between people. Taking time to laugh and be silly makes us feel more human. Clothing should be intimate instead of intimidating.
A weird neighbor, a guy drinking a beer and looking at his iPhone, open spaces… the subjects you choose are about everyday life. Why did you decide to play on that? Are those situations directly inspired by your daily experiences?
Clothing is everyday. Why not embrace it? I think there is great beauty in the mundane. We might not know the guy who has the perfect appearance and flies in private jet, but we all know this weird neighbor. There are many artists and photographers choosing ordinary life as their subjects. I am definitely inspired by them, as well as my own experience.
Well, everyday life is the main topic of our time, don't you think? Could there be a sort of new-naturalism movement in young creation today…?
Is it? To be honest I don’t think I know what is the topic of our time. I once read somewhere that we now live in the meta-modernist confusion. It sounded about right – whatever that meant. I think there is a lot of creative work today that concerns our immediate experience of things, instead of referencing or appropriating the past. Maybe that’s why they seem to be more natural or spontaneous? Who knows...
Maybe we just love things to be close to us, that's why we choose subjects like food, for example...
Well, I don't really know why all those names I picked up were food-related! In a way, I guess it adds to the everyday theme indeed. I think both Cilantro and Ginger are strong flavored. The name is also very down to earth, literally.
"Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal." – Albert Camus. Did creation become a normal thing today?
I think it might be the reverse, that normal becomes a creation today. “Normal” is subjective. It might imply mainstream, but what is mainstream these days? It seems to be a very self-referential fantasy of normality. Personally I think there is an important distinction between appropriating the normal and genuinely seeking beauty in the banal. I prefer to explore the latter.
Did you choose men's fashion because it was more a play on standard codes than women's?
Honestly I don’t know how to design womenswear! For me it’s easier to start with menswear because I know what I want to wear. It’s still a learning experience. There are a lot of traditions and restrictions in men’s fashion. It’s fun and challenging to come up with fresh ideas within that perimeter.