Named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people in 2011, Hung Huang, an outspoken blogger, publisher of fashion mag iLook and founder of Chinese multi-brand shop Brand New China (BNC), has one of the most authoritative voices in China’s fast-evolving fashion industry.
The daughter of Zhang Hanzhi, famed diplomat and English tutor to Mao Zedong, the 53-year-old tells all about her accidental career in fashion, and future plans to revamp her magazine and shop.
How did you end up in fashion in the first place?
I fell into it, really. I started in the business because a friend of mine had invested in a fashion magazine [iLook] and it wasn’t doing well [so] he invited me to kind of help him out with the management.
You then spearheaded a retail platform for Chinese designers. How did that come about?
BNC wasn’t very well thought out commercially at the start, to be honest. We switched our focus to local designers in iLook because we felt that was the only way that we could stay relevant. We didn’t think we were relevant as a fashion magazine if we only covered international fashion, which has third-hand or fourth-hand reporting.
We had a lot of reader reactions and enquiries about these young Chinese designers. It turned out, they had nowhere to sell their stuff. The reality dawned on us at that moment. We were promoting people, saying they’re great designers and everyone should buy their products but there was nowhere to buy it! It was just so ironic. It was so ridiculous because it’s like, all of a sudden, you wake up one day realising you are in a farce [laughs].
Everything you said was irrelevant because there’s no context for it. You can say they’re great, or whatever, but nobody will ever be able to try on the clothes. It’s a very sure way of killing yourself. As it turned out, I knew the president of Swire Properties in China very well and told him this was one of my problems. Then he proposed the new development of Taikoo Li North, in the basement, an area which he would give us a discount – not only to myself, but to local Chinese designers. It just clicked.
Hung Huang's picks Go spying in Taikoo Li
‘I love people watching in the courtyard near Colibri in Sanlitun.’
So what was their thinking? Were they designing as a hobby if they weren’t selling?
The problem with Chinese retail is not the designers, it’s the commercial environment. In America or Europe, you have the buyer system. In China, there’s no buyer system. The stores are more like real estate. If you’re a designer and have a collection, the only way for you to show it is to go into retail yourself. You have to have your own shop, you have to have your shop girl, your business manager.
That’s a lot for a designer who’s just starting out. There’s no commercial way where you can borrow money for those China ventures. If your family doesn’t have the cash, then it’s very difficult.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m revamping the magazine. It was good for us to be the first ones to talk about Chinese designers. We survived a tense period where we could have just died because we had no identity. Ten years ago, there were no Chinese designers.
Now, Chinese designers are everywhere and everyone’s talking about them. We want to talk about a different attitude towards luxury and lifestyle. All around China, stores are selling clothes by Chinese designers. We have to work out a business model where we make money by ourselves because we definitely don’t want to be a chain store.
I really like Phoebe Philo because she has this whole philosophy behind her work. She designs for herself, her friends and for women like her. She tries to make fashion realistic for women. For me, she’s the champion of making clothes that are beautiful, but also comfortable.
I really like the Chinese brand Zuczug. The designer is Wang Yiyang and what I love about him is that he has a Chinese sensibility and tries to weave it into his clothes, but not in an ostentatious way. It’s nice to see someone making an effort to reference local things, especially local contemporary scenes – not from ten or 2,000 years ago.
Hung Huang's picks Keep an eye on He Yan
‘I like simplicity and dress in Shanghai designer He Yan a lot. Her cut is fantastic because it fits a slim or full-figured body really well and manages to weave in a bit of Chinese character.’
What’s a fashion faux pas?
Not knowing how to dress for the occasion. In China, they’re either underdressed or overdressed, but never just right. It’s because they think, ‘Oh, I just got this and I really want to wear it,’ and they wear it. What’s do you dislike about Chinese fashion? It’s so self-conscious and manipulated. There’s no fun, it’s all so mature. Women open an Italian Vogue and they say: ‘I want to look like that.’
Fashion, when something happens naturally, like Vivienne Westwood, for instance, is actually wonderful. When it’s forced, meaning when the person is really trying to be a fashionista, you want to say ‘Ugh, no! Get out! Leave!’
Any guilty pleasures?
One is shopping in Paris. My other guilty pleasure is Chanel jackets, because I’m thick for a Chinese woman, I’m not a small size. I’m a large or an extra-large, and not all brands have my size. Chanel is amazing in that, that jacket is so well cut. It would look good on anyone. You can throw it on with your jeans. If you want to look more formal, put on a fur and you can go for meetings, cocktails, anything. It’s one of the best investments in fashion I believe.
What’s something people don’t know about you?
I actually play a lot of video games. I read a Weibo post once and felt really guilty. It was by one of those big, influential Weibo people who wrote that he got on the plane and saw all the foreigners reading; some of the Chinese were working, but most were playing video games. He said, ‘That’s why we’re inferior and why we’ll never be able to catch up.’ I looked at that and thought: Whoops! I’m one of those people who take out the iPad and get into a game. I like to listen to music and play video games, it’s just relaxing.
What are you reading or watching right now?
I’m reading a book by Ryu Murakami called [in Chinese] The Lonely Gourmet. Actually, I wanted to write a short collection of stories about contemporary Chinese women’s sex lives here. I told that to a friend of mine at Amazon and he mentioned this book and sent it to me as inspiration.
When I got it, I thought, that’s nice, he knows I’m a foodie and sent me a foodie book. Then I start reading it and start cracking up and think, ‘This is evil!’ It’s actually about bondage, S&M, prostitution and oral sex.
Is it true some of your friends mock you for not using your ‘red lineage’ more to boost your career, has that changed?
They still think that. They’re billionaire tycoons with publically listed companies, right? They all ask, ‘Are you still doing that little magazine?’ But I’m used to it by now.
Hung Huang's picks Zuczug is the best local designer around
‘I really like Zuczug. It’s nice to see, once in a while, someone who tries to make an effort, to make references to local things, especially local contemporary scenes – not local scenes from 10 or 2,000 years ago.’
Brand New China (薄荷糯米葱) NLG-09a, B1 Sanlitun Village North, 11 Sanlitun Lu, Chaoyang district See full address details here