JH Zane tears fabric for the rebel girls

© Elise Rose

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Several seasons ago, a generation of Chinese students graduated from fashion design courses and launched their own labels. The question of what they were representing, how to classify their collective aesthetic and what separated them from the rest of the world’s young talent reverberated through the industry and its media.

It seems arbitrary now, this attempted classification of the sprawling artistic output of a particular national group. Of course, China’s stratospheric economic rise had huge effects on the world of fashion and so, naturally, many became increasingly curious about the the country and its people’s sense of fashion and style. But now, being a Chinese fashion designer isn’t a preset, just as it wouldn’t be if you happen to come from anywhere else in the world.

Juhao Zeng, the 26-year-old behind womenswear label JH Zane, emerged from this spring of designers, though his work is not defined by geographical context. The mood board on the wall of Zeng’s studio, for example, shows several pictures of chairs of mid-century modernity in black and caramel leathers and dark wood. “For autumn/winter, what I was looking at was homeware,” he explains. “I was actually just trying to buy a chair for my house and I came across this amazing interior designer, Finn Juhl, and I thought it was an amazing colour palette. He’s got a museum in Copenhagen, which is actually his house, and it’s just beautiful. I wanted to design something for the woman who lived in that house, like a character. That’s how I worked last season.”

The imagined girl in question wears a furry mustard jacket with a black and white checkerboard flare skirt, which is puckered and folded over at the waist. She wears flares, long and slender or cropped mid-calf, with ruffled off-the-shoulder shirts and tan tunics over grey polo necks. JH Zane has amassed a devoted following for such a clean, tailored and hyper-feminine take on womenswear where, for Zeng, the devil’s in the details. Growing up around his parents’ clothing factory in the Southeastern metropolis of Shenzhen, Zeng would pester workers to explain what they were doing, or why machines moved the way they did. But his decision to move into fashion wasn’t made until much later. “The factory was just a place to hang around for me, it wasn’t something I took seriously as a kid” he recalls. “I knew I was interested in art and design, but I didn’t know what I was going to do until I got into university and chose fashion.”

His decision proved to be a wise one, and after graduating from Winchester School of Art in 2011, Zeng went on to train professionally at Katie Eary and Gareth Pugh’s studios, as well as working as a freelance stylist in London. It was here he gained an understanding for the intricacies of fit, shape and art direction, sharpening his practical skills and defining his own signature aesthetic. “After those two years I discovered what styles I actually liked and what I wanted to dress women in. I have a better idea of what women’s bodies are like. It was a long process, to find what people call brand identity.”

© Elise Rose

Throughout the four collections he’s produced since launching JH Zane, several things recur, including tablecloth and kitchen tile-esque geometric patterns. “If you look back to all my old seasons, you can always see a touch of 60s or 70s,” he tells us. “I simply love it.” The route to the finished collection changes every season, with fabric being key to constructing the desired silhouettes. Each time, his girls have a particular attitude. And, as we talk, it’s clear that the strength of character of his girls – he repeatedly refers to them ‘my girls’ – is what defines them.

“Last season was rebellious, the season before that, quite energetic. Next season I want to do something fairly sarcastic … I want women to feel powerful wearing my clothes.” What makes a woman powerful? “Being themselves. Who cares what other people think? That’s the attitude I want my girls to have.”

Another recurring theme essential to Zeng’s romantic tailoring is one of carefully selected revealing and covering up, baring pockets of skin in unusual places. We wonder if it’s done to titillate, to tease or to provoke – he comes across as the type to enjoy a gentle wind-up, after all. “I am definitely quite conscious about the revealing nature to my work. I don’t like to show too much, but also don’t want to show nothing at all; classy with a surprising twist.”

"My design is always driven by feminism"

Slung on the rail, a monochrome dress with unfinished edges, pieced together as if from sections of torn fabric, demonstrates his idea of sex appeal. The back is tied, revealing a sliver of skin, and the whole thing feels as if it could fall off with the tug of a string. It’s all of these things: modest, revealing, and full of contradictions.

“Like I mentioned before, my design is always driven by feminism. I like to rebel from what some people think women should look like, or whatever they consider sexy. I might unconsciously provoke, tease or titillate certain people, but it’s never my intention. The whole idea or concept of my brand is never about anyone else but the women themselves; to be confident, comfortable, quirky, and, most importantly, strong and independent.”

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