Xander Zhou’s AI-powered Fantasia – WWD

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Xander Zhou, the Chinese menswear label synonymous with “techno-orientalism,” is gazing into an AI-powered dystopian future with wander and play.

Marking the label’s return to the Shanghai runway after a three-year hiatus, Zhou chose to utilize generative AI tools to create new designs.

Machine learning might still lack creative chutzpah, but it gave Zhou a clear road map toward his sci-fi world-building. The result was a dystopian tale comprising manga superhero characters, a sense of “Clockwork Orange” eeriness, and a touch of futuristic Shanghai.

According to Zhou, the idea for the collection was “digital singularity,” which allowed him to indulge in a near-future where cyborgs, humanoids, superhuman intelligence, and human beings exist in harmony. Models walked briskly in the warehouse-like show space with face-molding masks and neck braces, busy talking on their see-through smartphones and dressed in business casual slacks. Their identity was further complicated by a dragon tail that perked up in the back. Viewers of the show, all 300 of them dressed in white lab coats, represented lab technicians who created Zhou’s sci-fi universe.

Li Cha

A look from Xander Zhou’s spring 2024 collection

“I wanted to create a cinematic scene that’s more surreal than fashionable,” explained Zhou of his version of the digital future. “I want everyone to be immersed in role-play, to experience the virtual reality I’ve created.”

Zhou has been a mainstay on the London Fashion Week calendar for the past decade, but the designer, who spends most of his time in Beijing now, said showing in Shanghai has its own perks and upsides.

“It would be hard logistically to congregate everyone in a controlled environment if I were in Paris or Milan, but in Shanghai, all the stars easily aligned. I know all 300 people personally who are sitting at the show. Some of my friends even cut their holidays short to attend the show,” added Zhou of the Sunday event, which followed the National Day Holiday and was a day ahead of the official start of Shanghai Fashion Week.

A few years ago, as an established menswear label, the 41-year-old Zhou acutely felt a need to come up with a proposition that could inject new energy into the local menswear market. He landed on the idea of “humanoid-wear” and took a positive stance on what it could mean for humanity.

“I just think that it’s impossible to imagine what that future looks like, the human mind and its imaginations are too limiting,” added Zhou.

Talking about using machine-learning to help with the design process, Zhou looks at it as hiring a free design assistant programmed by his longtime collaborator, the former eyewear designer Percy Lau. “It can help me with rethinking my design thinking and give me a lot of options to combine my design elements,” explained Zhou.

Looks from Xander Zhou’s spring 2024 collection.

“AI can assist a designer in the stage of processing content. They are highly efficient in presenting you with 1,000 sets of design ideas,” said Zhou. “Even if the machine can formulate a better point of view, I’m still more attracted to how self-righteous human beings can be in the creative process, which I think is cute.”

The shift to a more science fiction narrative first came about during his spring 2018 collection, when Zhou devised the concept of a “Supernatural, Extraterrestrial & Co.” Since then, Zhou has been coming up with characters, including the oriental master, the mad scientist, and the cyborg businessman.

Gentle Monster, Kappa, and China‘s EPO group came knocking to work with the designer, which helped the company gain commercial success and mass market recognition.

Zhou is taking his brand to higher ground for the next stage of growth. Zhou’s version of haute couture also made its debut in the latest collection, which he named Xander Zhou & Pro.

“Haute couture comes with too much historical baggage, and we want to be defined as a more tech-driven menswear brand, which is our DNA. That’s why we used tech jargon to name the spin-off line,” explained Zhou. “We use Pro to express our ultimate expression of each season in terms of material and craftsmanship, as well as various silhouettes and concepts.”

After the Shanghai showcase, Zhou will take his collection to Japan for in-store launch events. The brand is currently stocked at Japanese cult favorites like 11747391, Kiosque CC, GR8, as well as Beijing’s SKP-S, Shanghai’s Labelhood.

“I want to focus on Asia more. People know that I love Seoul. The creative energy feels next level every time I go,” said Zhou, who is keen to explore the local creative community more. “Although we don’t speak the same language, our unique cultural roots mean we can understand each other automatically.”

Zhou also believes that Asian youth culture will play a more significant part in creating new fashion narratives. “The fashion system’s rules are being rebuilt, old orders are collapsing. Rules? What rules?” said Zhou matter-of-factly.

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