Sat 13th June

Enter The World of Xander Zhou’s ‘Homo Multiversalis’

Text   Dino Bonacic

As part of the #LFWReset programme, the Beijing-based designer opened the doors to his “parallel universe” in the form of a VR video campaign.

After years of cursing the presence of technology at fashion shows (hello front row phone army), most fashion designers are finally starting to fully embrace the ability to project their work beyond the catwalk. Not Xander Zhou though. A technophile by nature, he has been utilising the digital realm for years, the climax being his spring/summer 2020 show where he swapped the catwalk for a life-sized wall projection of models wearing his skirt-focused garbs. But whatever the format, Xander’s shows are always about inviting his audiences into this parallel universe where earthly limitations don’t exist. Hybrid humans and aliens, yetis and androids – the list of Xander’s creatures goes on and now includes the Homo Multiversalis.

Xander Zhou AW20 Campaign; Photo by Zeng Wu

Xander’s latest hero character is a multifaceted creature who lives in an inclusive world with its own laws of nature. Also the name of his autumn/winter 2020 collection, Homo Universalis was originally shown back in January during London Fashion Week Men’s. Soon after, a ruthless global pandemic ensued, stopping Xander from returning to his Beijing home and forcing him to rethink plans for spring/summer 2021. “The past months have also presented an opportunity to me and my team for the first time in many years to take a time-out and make a very conscious decision to do things on our own terms and at our own pace,” he explains.

Being the first ever Chinese brand to show as part of London Fashion Week’s menswear schedule, Xander Zhou has been a presence on the British scene for almost a decade. So, when the opportunity arose to showcase his work digitally, as part of British Fashion Council’s gender-free, season-morphing #LFWReset virtual programme, Xander had a plan in mind. Instead of trying to replicate the feeling of a fashion show, he decided on creating a mix of photographs and videos capturing the essence of the past season and previewing what’s to come.

“These past years I have been showing in London, so many of my creative friends back in China have only been able to watch – they couldn’t get actively involved,” Xander says. Him being stuck in Europe didn’t stop him on this occasion, as he worked remotely with his team through WeChat. “One of my friends was wearing a phone around his neck through which I could interact virtually via a video link with everybody involved in the shoot throughout the day – it actually felt very intimate.”

The final outcome comes as a natural progression of the brand’s ongoing sci-fi narrative, therefore perfectly reflecting the process of its making. The video, created in partnership with Li Zhi, is separated into six parts, each capturing a singular theme from the AW20 collection. Initially inspired by the old-school couture salon shows, Xander drew a parallel with the recent phenomenon of QVC-style “livestream selling” that has been taking over China during the Covid-19 pandemic. “It allowed me to give detailed information about my designs, but also to express myself artistically, and ‘sell’ my work by adding this extra layer,” he explains. Each of the six parts is accompanied by an individual soundscape – while the opening sections have a robotic voice describing the garments in detail, you can later hear random names assigned to each of the pixelated A.I.-generated portraits which appear on the clothes. The final chapter of the film also previews the SS21 collection, or what Xander describes as a much-needed restart. “It is not about negativity or sadness – it merely reflects a certain state of calmness.”

The campaign photographs, shot by Zeng Wu, introduce a new layer to the story. Teleported from the white studio walls of the video, the models are positioned into undistinguishable locations that could probably be described as a very fashionable black hole. That ambiguous space is an ode to Xander’s creative dimension and its eerie similarities with the real world. “The selves that we encounter in parallel universes might be doing completely other things than we would ever do, and have abilities that we have.” 

Xander Zhou AW20 Campaign; Photo by Zeng Wu

While some of his ideas might sound abstract at first, one could argue that Xander is somewhat of a fashion fortune teller – just look at the presence of protective face masks and VR through the past few seasons. However, the designer argues those elements weren’t portraying his predictions. “It was more a reflection of my fears,” he says. But what is something he actually wishes to see in the future? “Let’s just all make sure there will be one. And if there is, let us try to be saner and happier than in the past.”