The quiet achiever behind the label ‘Itzme’ is hitting the highlights early in her career.
Any parent would be delighted to hear their daughter was debuting a collection at Fashion Week, but Shuai Zhang’s mother and father’s reaction to this news was primarily one of shock. You can hardly blame them. The 28-year-old design newcomer, whose fledgling label Itzme earned a positive reception at New Zealand Fashion Week 2014, had neglected to mention she had even gone into business, let alone that she was on the cusp of an industry breakthrough. “When I started my business I didn’t tell my parents I was going to do this,” admits Zhang, who lives in Auckland while her parents reside in China. “They thought I was still working at Karen Walker, but I’d already left a year ago. I didn’t want them to worry about me too much.”
Zhang’s natural flair for design, solid skill set amassed during three-and-a-half years working in the Karen Walker workroom, and a quiet manner that belied her steely will, meant the odds were in her favour. “When I first became interested in fashion, I dreamt that one day I would have my own label, because I have a strong passion for fashion and an unremitting spirit about doing this,” says Zhang, who graduated from Massey University with a Bachelor of Fashion Design in 2009.
The name Itzme sounds like a bold statement about the designer herself, and while it’s true that Zhang’s pieces are declarations of her personal aesthetic, the name is also an invitation to her customers to make their own testimony. With two collections to her name and a third underway, Zhang’s artistry forces collisions between masculine and feminine elements, and imbues sharp tailoring with a deft delicacy. “It shows my personality, a strong female personality,” she says. “Your style is who you are; you wear the clothes that let you be yourself.” Zhang’s sewing machine was still cooling down from creating her first collection when she was invited to join the New Generation showcase at Fashion Week, just three weeks out. That narrow window would send most rookie designers into a spin but because Zhang’s pieces were newly polished, the timing was perfect. “It was exciting and a good experience. The feedback was great, people said I was really fresh and unique and I now have two retail stores that sell my clothes and two online. I did try to promote my brand to stores before Fashion Week but it’s really hard to get a new label to the market.”
A runway encore then followed in January this year when Zhang was selected to join Hong Kong Fashion Week’s World Boutique Designer Collection show – valuable exposure for expanding into Asia. “I was the only New Zealand label there,” she says. “People were really excited about having a New Zealand label and I’m still communicating with people there.” Her runway events have ushered Itzme into an exciting new phase and reassured her that going it alone was worth the risk. Her parents, for the record, fully agree. “When I started my own label it was a big challenge. It’s scary to manage the whole thing by myself – design, production, everything – but I feel very happy when people wear my clothes and find their own confidence and happiness.”