When we strip away the economics and the influencers, the cameras and catwalks, and all the trappings that make fashion the industry as we know it — what are we left with? It’s fabric that, in essence, makes fashion the medium that it is. And fabric is precisely what London-based designer Chen Xuzhi is mastering.
Founded in 2014, Chen’s eponymous label Xu Zhi is praised for its innovative approach to material and garment construction, as well as its emphasis on craftsmanship. Put in layman’s terms, Chen’s work typically takes common materials — satin, denim, jacquard — and de- then re-constructs them into pleasing, complex, and often chaotic forms. (Chen is also something of a “fringe king,” as his most memorable pieces employ a distinctive braiding technique used in the fringe, tassels, and similar adornments.)
Chen often looks to the classics — traditional oil paintings, flapper fashion, and poets like Emily Dickinson, for instance — to inspire his work, but in such a way that the end results are nothing but contemporary. Xu Zhi’s latest collection for SS20 — perhaps the label’s sunniest and most carefree to date — pares down some of its exquisite detailing while retaining the romantic softness and streamlined sensibility that have made the label’s designs a catwalk mainstay.
Industry leaders have attributed the label’s shrewd attention to detail in part to a China-wide “regard for textiles” and heritage fabrics among the nation’s emerging fashion designers. Chen himself was born in Shaoxing, a city considered the heart of modern China’s textile industry. He echoes other Chinese designers of his generation in drawing heavily from his background, telling Metal Magazine: “The Chinese roots help me form the very understanding of what beauty is, which is through subtlety, delicate and sophisticated designs rather than an extravagance.”
Chen graduated with a BA in womenswear from Central Saint Martins, and opted to intern at then-emerging labels J.W. Anderson and Craig Green, experiences which he says shaped both his aesthetic and business acumen. After founding his own label, he quickly began raking in accolades, shortlisted for both LVMH and International Woolmark Prizes in 2016, and was added to the BoF 500 index a year later.
Though the label built its reputation on womenswear, Xu Zhi expanded into menswear this year, premiering a handful of designs at London Fashion Week AW19 alongside its womenswear collection.
Chen told Business of Fashion that these designs were made for “someone who is confident with their masculinity” and “isn’t afraid to be soft and romantic,” adding:“I, myself, am not that masculine in the traditional sense, but I’m comfortable with the softer side of me.”
Chen’s approach reflects the changing face of Chinese masculinity, which is broadening to accept more traditionally “effeminate” types of beauty. At the same time, some of Chen’s design contemporaries are using menswear to rethink what it means to be a “man” in contemporary society.
As global demand for “made in China” design grows, designers have migrated from domestic fashion showcases — like Shanghai Fashion Week — to the “big four” fashion weeks in Europe and the United States. Xu Zhi is an exception to the rule; though appearing at all four fashion weeks (most recently, at New York Fashion Week’s China Day) the luxury label also dutifully appears at Shanghai Fashion Week each year. That could be because though the label is firmly rooted in the U.K., Chen considers his main market to be China, which until recently, had a majority of the label’s stockists based there. Both Xu Zhi and the designer behind it are a testament to the staying power of China’s rising design class, which merges an international perspective with Chinese aesthetic concerns to create a new language for fashion that is entirely unique — and entirely theirs.