Award-winning HKPolyU MA student Jessica Zheng just could be the region’s next big thing in fashion
When Chinese designer Jessica Zheng’s The Little Emperors collection appeared on the catwalk of The Mira hotel last June during the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s MA fashion show, the spirit of the onlookers rose with it. There had been some quirky and highly trend-driven collections, but Zheng’s was particularly distinguished from the rest by its boldness, exaggeration, decadence, eccentricity, satire, colour and, most importantly, humour. In its seemingly indulgent grandiosity, it felt like something of a design moment.
Zheng believes fashion is the carrier of culture and a tool for narrative, and she considers herself as fashion storyteller. The collection, which mixes traditional Chinese weaving techniques with laser-cut technology, handmade silk and six different types of leather, is based on the 80s generation in China, when every family was allowed one child only. Zheng’s collection tells the story of growth and strife of this generation through the work – the obsessive and overly protective parental love, and how though everyone thought the generation would turn out to be the nation’s weakest they have worked hard, succeeded and overcome their ‘little emperor’ status.
Six months later, Zheng won the Best of the Best Fashion Graduate Award, an initiative set up by the government-supported Fashion Asia Hong Kong. She cites a lofty group of designers as being inspiration: Iris van Herpen, “a haute couturist who creates works that push boundaries and uses materials that are specially created to communicate her concepts – her speciality is the use of rapid prototyping (3D printing)”; Alexander McQueen for his ability to “technologically transform garments from concepts into couture”; and Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, who are “deconstructive designers, though their designs are so different.”
With plans to head to the UK to continue her studies, Zheng credits PolyU’s Basia Szkutnicka, the programme director of the MA in Fashion and Textile Design, for much of the success of her collection. “Basia always had room for us to develop and find our own personality. She was leading me to arrive in my own space – she is experiential and unlimited. She specifically inspired my use of colour.” Previously, Zheng had tended to occupy the safety zone of black, but in this collection, she “finally created the red of my own.”
Szkutnicka joined PolyU in 2017 and has a considerable fashion pedigree. She graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins and worked with mentor Isabella Blow on a series of avant-garde projects photographed by Karl Lagerfeld, Michael Roberts and Judy Blame. The former director of the study-abroad programme at the London College of Fashion for 15 years, she’s also the author of two books on fashion. At PolyU, she aims to produce “creative, forward-thinking designers who will be encouraged to evolve their personal design identity and bring a new proposal to the fashion landscape.”
In other words, Szkutnicka knows raw talent when she sees it – and such is Zheng. “Jessica’s work contains her design DNA, which sets her apart from many other young designers who don’t necessarily know who they are or are unable to express themselves visually,” she says. Szkutnicka thinks time spent in the UK can only be positive for Zheng. “Going to study the technical aspects of design in the UK will be highly beneficial for her, as it will place her in a dynamic, foreign environment that will stimulate new ideas and emotions. Plus, of course, she will be challenged with a higher level of design experimentation and practice.”
Zheng already has a strong sense of her own fashion mission and hopes to launch her own brand shortly after. While she acknowledges Japanese designers like Miyake and Yamamoto, she wants to go beyond that influence. “Deconstruction does not follow the ruels of dressmaking – for example, the silhouette can be created however the designer chooses. My works will be different from these designers because it will be based on our country’s culture and traditional craft, which combines deconstruction and modern surface design technology.”
A colleague on the same design course, Rue Li, who admired Zheng’s combination of “unique fabrics with poetic silhouettes” and is now working as a brand ambassador to help broker cult sneaker brand Andrew Kayla’s entry into China, thought the prize marked as much a significant cultural as an individual moment. “I think the winning prize is significant for both Jessica and all designers in China,” she says. “It showed the public what a designer does isn’t just about following the current trends, but also about keeping an eye on exploring the symbolic relationship between human beings and our society.”
Szkutnicka thinks the sky could be the limit for the Guangdong-born designer. “Once she started to fly, there was no stopping her. I believe that she should start her own brand and I rarely encourage young designers to do this, as we have too much mediocre fashion product in the world already. But she has the drive, talent and ability to stand above the rest. She could, if she put her mind to it, become extremely successful and the next big designer to emerge in this part of the world.”
As for Zheng the mission is clear: “I hope that I can be a communicator to show our culture to the international world. This is China, this is our culture.”
Images: Leung Mo
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