China’s global production and technology domination is as matter of fact in 2019 as the galvanising quality its modern rap anthem Made In China has in a club. What’s news however, is the rise of independent Chinese labels and its community of designers putting the country on the fashion map of late — Sankuanz being one of them.

A cursory look at the five-year-old brand might have you dismiss it as yet another streetwear attempt, but what has fashion-at-large sitting up and paying attention — Sankuanz was shortlisted for the LVMH Prize in 2015 alongside the likes of Vetements, Jacquemus and Craig Green — is the Xiamen-based founder and designer Shangguan Zhe’s (pictured above) knack for on the pulse, period-defining collections. The eccentric, art school approach Sankuanz was born with in 2013 evolved into languid tailoring as fashion ousted the traditional suit and tie, and now its techwear-inspired (think apocalypse-appropriate) designs are part of a bigger movement with names like A-Cold-Wall* and Alyx leading the charge. Even when it comes to celebrity clout, Sankuanz is at the forefront of now — the brand’s garments clothe musicians that are part of the rising Chinese hip hop wave, such as DoughBoy and Bridge. All of this is probably not serendipity but reactivity, given that the designer believes fashion to be “one of the first things to reflect the times.” And on that note, we wonder: what has apocalypse-ready clothing got to say about our world today?

On occasion of the designer’s Spring/Summer 2019 collaboration with Puma (highlights include the latter’s tech-driven, chunky Cell Endura sneaker, first released in ’98 and now enjoying a renaissance with today’s appreciation for dadcore kicks) and at the German brand’s booth at Culture Cartel, we speak to Zhe about fashion today versus tomorrow, his obsession with youth culture, and why Chinese designers are on the up and up.

The original Puma Cell Endura sneaker, first released in 1998

You’ve said that you don’t just design clothes — you want to create a wider narrative for the Sankuanz consumer to have a complete experience. Tell us what you mean by that.

“I think being a fashion designer today is like being a film director. I’m using clothing as a medium, but it also includes a lot of other elements and the whole thing is a story — like a movie. Whether you’re doing theatre, films, or fashion, it is to project what you truly think and your view towards the world. It’s a form of expression.”

Having not studied fashion, why clothing and not other mediums?

“I was a graphic designer after graduating from university, but I thought that was quite limiting with what I could express. I thought about being an artist too, but that was also restrictive to me in the sense that there is smaller crowd that appreciates art. I chose fashion because it is one of the first things to reflect the times, and you have a mass audience for it. You can influence the youth.”

Chinese fashion brands are starting gain more traction internationally. With Sankuanz being one of them, what do you think Chinese designers can bring to fashion at large?

“I think China has a very strong voice in Asia nowadays, and with fashion being linked with the times — and, with the world looking to China for technology and things like that now — Chinese designers have very a strong voice in expressing what they are, and what they say and have an opinion on will be consumed.”

You’ve been called the leader of the Xiamen fashion gang. What’s that about?

“Xiamen is such a small community and it’s kind of an inside joke that I’m the leader. We’re just playing around because it’s such a small group. I’ve actually just been doing my own thing.”

You talk about youth a lot. While some might have the opinion that generations Y and Z are entitled and lazy, what about youth fascinates you?

“I think that the younger generation is lazy, but I think laziness is also a motivation — it might not be such a bad thing. When you’re lazy, you get creative and invent something to make your life easier. At the same time, I think that youth is both powerful and dangerous. It’s powerful because they’re the future of the world, but dangerous because if they’re not going down the right path, that’ll be disastrous for everyone. I express a lot of such views in my work; opinions that I think can lead the younger generation to have a better perspective. I don’t want blind consumerism, which is why I have a lot of messaging in my work. The world has changed so much these days and the youth have so much influence to spur change now on social media. I think it is so important to utilise it correctly. I hope that people will go down the right path on social media.”

Do tell us what you mean by using social media correctly, in context of yourself or Sankuanz.

“I actually look at a lot of stuff on there, but I don’t use it much myself. For Sankuanz, I prefer doing things in person, like concerts, parties and pop-ups. I like human interaction.”

There has been a blurring of lines between what’s street and what’s luxury in the last couple of years. We see Sankuanz as one of the brands that reflect this. How do you think fashion will further evolve from here?

“Luxury brands are becoming street and streetwear is also becoming more exquisite and polished. This is because they’re trying to communicate with the younger generation. A lot of new things will emerge, I think. It relates to how the youth lives; their fashion habits.

The main difference between a street brand and a luxury brand is that the latter has money to understand what they need to push out to the masses. The street brands are working towards to the luxury tier, and Sankuanz is doing this too. What we’re consuming now is like Dadaism in art that was a push back of fine renaissance and calligraphy art. In the future, the likes of Vetements and Balenciaga that are now, will be pushed away — just like Dadaism was as well. A lot of clothes have been done by designers of the past. We need new ideas. That is the future of fashion.”

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SS19 Backstage Photo by @synesthesia_xu

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Brand collaborations in fashion are aplenty, especially of late. You’ve also done a couple, like Puma for SS19. What do you hope to achieve from collabs?

“I like collaborating with different labels because I think I can get a lot of concepts and things I want to do to fruition through this. It’s a wider platform, and to have a bigger voice.”

Sankuanz x Puma Cell Endura sneaker

And you’re at Culture Cartel, a convention where many creatives spanning tart, music and fashion are gathered in one place. What do you hope to leave with?

“I think there’s so much of the same now whether it’s in China, the US or in Singapore. People are wearing the same things, and I find this interesting yet boring at the same time. But when your creative scene gets stronger locally, I think that this will bring more flavour.”

Main image: Instagram (@sankuanz_official)