Zhou’s unorthodox interpretations of contemporary menswear have earned the designer a cult fan base and distribution at high-profile stockists around the world. Zhou has a background in industrial design, which might explain his love of technology in art, fashion and collection building. He founded his namesake brand in 2007, and even though it’s based in Beijing, today he shows his collections at London Fashion Week Men’s. Glamcult got to know the future-looking designer and his magnetic vision.
Zhou grew up in China and spent his youth bouncing between the public school system and numerous private schools, which opened his eyes to contrasting social environments. “I think this has also shaped me into someone who doesn’t simply accept that circumstances are as they are because I was taught again and again that circumstances do change,” he explains. Zhou’s introduction to fashion began when he was still in primary school, but it was when he was 17 that he first discovered the universal language of fashion and its ability to communicate with culture. “I had some trench coats made by a tailor on demand when I was 17 in Beijing, and then, later on, I came across a trench coat by Moschino in a magazine that was very similar to one that I had made. At that moment I understood that there’s apparently some universal language in which you could express something that others would recognize and understand.”
Having spent five years semi-professionally making clothes in Beijing, Zhou’s professional career skyrocketed after showing his S/S13 collection at London Menswear Fashion Week in 2012, becoming the first Chinese designer on the British menswear schedule. “I could go back even further and tell you how I once got a second-hand sewing machine for my birthday, or how I would use scissors to alter my clothes as a kid, but let’s not go there,” he laughs. Zhou has an admirable ability to combine the essence of his identity and past with the uncertainty of the future, raising questions of the unknown while remaining true to his heritage. “I would identify both Asian and futuristic elements in my work. In the process, I try to rebel against stereotypes about what exactly should be considered ‘Asian’, and I try to promote tolerance for diversity in all aspects—even including life forms that may or may not exist.”
Zhou’s collections can best be described by looking at his aversion to anything that could be considered “boring”. His designs are injected with his own ideas of what the future holds and the uncertainty of humanity. “I am naturally drawn to the unknown, including the future. As for the extra-terrestrial, I’m not dreaming about a close encounter of the third kind or something, but when you get to thinking of the vastness of our universe and the vastness of our future, it’s hard to imagine any of them without any other form of intelligent life in it. And since I like diversity, these extra-terrestrial beings have not only entered my imagination, but also my collections.” Beyond the clothes, Zhou’s collections have changed the way we look at runway presentations. A theatrical aspect is essential to his shows, inspired by the statement shows of the ’80s and ’90s: “Whether it be in a pleasant or an unpleasant way, I hope my collections will at least hit a nerve with my audience,” he says.
Case in point: Zhou’s Spring/Summer 2019 show, for which he sent pregnant men down the runway, leaving the viewer in total confusion. “We should be careful not to see nurture as something diametrically opposed to nature,” he explains. “By sending pregnant men down the runway, I do not mean to disrespect nature in any sense—as some people seemed to think at the time. If anything, it goes to show that I deem the possibilities of nature endless, and certainly not confined to what we think we know about it.”
For Autumn/Winter 2019, the designer continues to toy with the idea of the future self, but on a deeper and more peaceful level. “My A/W19 collection was also born out of fear. Since my last collection, I have come to realize how frightening it is when people react very strongly to things they don’t fully understand. That’s why for this collection I created a world in which different life forms peacefully coexist, to make a statement that even if you don’t understand or particularly like the ‘other’, it doesn’t make sense not to acknowledge their existence and that there is no point in blindly rejecting them.”
On a personal level, Zhou tries to nurture his ability to be human, to not take his existence for granted: “I sometimes can look at myself in wonder, at a loss at how I ended up here. Functioning in this world in a coherent way for me requires almost continual and purposeful nurturing. But it isn’t just something I need to do actively myself.” His extra-terrestrial infatuation isn’t something that only lives in his collections; it is also an extension of Xander Zhou the man. “I feel that I am also being nurtured by an unseen force, which causes me to find myself in unexpected situations or have chance meetings with certain people at certain junctures in my life, acting from the outside to nurture me as a human being.”
Zhou’s collections provide a window to our future—without a guarantee of being accurate. With technology moving us closer and closer towards the unknown next, Zhou believes we should not be afraid of artificial intelligence, humanoids and extra-terrestrial life, but rather be excited for what they have to teach us. “I believe that once we create extremely intelligent robots, the way they perceive our world will help us to see our world from a new perspective as well. I think their intelligence will shed new light on issues that mankind has difficulties wrapping their heads around. I am sure raising such a robot will be quite an exciting experience.”
The uncertainty of humanity’s future is what drives Zhou. The unknown lies as a pivotal point and influence in his work. What the future holds is, however, equal parts unknown and exciting. “I believe the future will definitely be crazier than anything we can imagine right now. I don’t want to judge that craziness as something positive or negative, but I think it’s inevitable that our current beliefs and values will be completely overthrown if we look far enough ahead.” So, what will we nurture in the future? Is it the things from our past? Our roots? Our ability to reject compromise and grow? “I think it will be something that can be obtained on demand. But I find it really hard to imagine this in any concrete shape, way or form.”
Words by Madeleine Holth
Photography by William Tang