Thursday, 1 August 2019

Focus On Xiwen Zhang - Co-Founder For Arts Sake

I was very lucky to photograph and interview Xiwen the morning after her boyfriend and For Arts Sake (FAS) co-founder Yannis, proposed. It was a morning filled with happiness. X: “And you are the first person I have seen since last night.” Really grateful she still let me come along. I first met Xiwen when I was shooting streetstyle for Vogue outside Graduate Fashion Week 6 years ago. This is a woman on a mission, with drive and focus. Read on to see what she has managed to achieve in that short space of time.

D: I like to tell all of your story so the reader can see the influences in your life that help shape the person you are now. Lets start with where you grew up.

X: In China, in Shenzen. This is where manufacture our glasses and have our second office. If you don’t know it, it is the place where Apple, iPhone and all the other devices are produced. It is a massive everything city. You can do everything there. There is a lot of manufacturing, quite famous for sunglasses as well, a lot of big brands produce there. So I feel quite lucky that I happened to grow up there too.

D: And your family are still living there?

X: Yes, yes they are still there, it’s only me in London.

D: Do you have any siblings?

X: Yes I do, I have a younger brother, he is based in China. I also have a ½ brother who is around 8 now. He is so adorable, I see him almost as my own son.

D: Were you always interested in fashion and art when you were growing up?

X: Yes definitely, because my family was in fashion manufacturing, actually part of my family were running their own clothing factory, so I guess growing up I naturally thought this was the road I would go down. When I was about 10 I always thought I would do exactly what my family does, but it didn’t quite turn out that way.

D: When did your direction change?

X: When I went to Uni, I didn’t study fashion I studied costume design because I thought I wanted to work in the movies, because of period drama and all that. I just love it and the costumes are amazing. So much detail, its so theatrical, I just love it so that’s why I studied it. However I became impatient with the fact that as a costume designer you have to make the same sample so many times. For example if you are making a sample for one character you have to make another 3 replicas of that piece because lets say that character jumps into the water, they have to change to continue filming. All of this was unexpected and I am not so patient. When I want to do something I want it to happen quickly, that’s the issue so I dropped out of costume design.
(It was very fortuitous I met Xiwen as it was at the end of this 1st year and she was getting ready to move on.)
I went to study art history at Goldsmiths. Basically the name or our brand For Arts Sake came from that. Both from research and the fact I am passionate about art.

D: What is your favourite period in art?

X: Contempory. The now.

D: When you finished university what was the game plan? What direction did you think you were heading in?

X: That’s funny because I dropped out after the 1st year of costume I only had to do 2 years of  history of art because I had to go straight into my second year. That meant I had to graduate in 2 years time and start looking for a job. I knew I wanted to create something, I wanted to build some sort of company. Because my whole family produce I felt that is something I should be doing too.
I met Yannis when he was working as a lawyer and I was still at Uni. When we met he was kind of supporting me because I had no income then. One day we had an argument, he said “you need to start looking for a job, you need to start contributing because you are going to graduate soon, next year.” So my response was “OK, give me a year, I want to work for myself.” So this is when I thought I’d better come up with something. I knew had to start making a living without having to work for someone else. I then started trialing different things until eventually the sunglasses idea came about. We were on holiday in Yannis’s hometown in Greece. I was looking for a pair of sunglasses in an optician and could not find a pair that I liked at the price point I was willing to pay as a student. I wanted to invest in something with quality but I could not pay anything over £200 or £150 but I didn’t want to buy something cheap that doesn’t stand for its quality. We could see there was a gap in the market. When we got back home I did a lot of research and it took of from there.

D: Once you did your research how did you grow your knowledge of sunglasses design?

X: I went into the industry without knowing anything apart from the knowledge that I wanted something good quality, that doesn’t break my bank but that is fashionable, that I could not find from any other brand. So I tried and failed, tried and failed, I learned from any mistakes and every season we try and improve, even now. We see how our customers react, so I would say I learn from all my own mistakes and lessons.

D: So you learnt from creating and taking your learning’s as you went.

X: Yes and always trying to improve, it’s very important.

D: I am not surprised your sunglasses are doing so well they are beautiful. They are original designs, they do stand apart from everyone else. Your creative mind has been playing wonderfully.

X: We try, we have to stand out.

D: What inspires you when you design?

X: What is not on the market and always trying to do something new. I don’t necessarily work from a moodboard, the traditional way that art school would teach you with moodboards or inspiration. I think my inspiration comes from everything. So if I think of something I draw my idea and see how it comes out. Actually I don’t like working on an idea for too long because I think if I am not going to fall in love with that idea super quickly, in lets say in the hour it takes to create and fall in love with it, then it must not be good enough. If I spend a few days on a design it usually means it won’t work, it’s the same if I keep changing it too. It’s so funny because so many of our best sellers are from quick ideas. I learnt my lesson, that every time I overwork something people don’t like it.

D: You have doing good and making the customer feel good down to a fine art.  When I walked away after buying a pair of your glasses at a recent event I was  wonderfully surprised to find to find a leaflet enclosed that informed me that my purchase also meant I had helped plant a tree and give the gift of vision to a person in need (see more here). Both causes resonate strongly with me. What made you champion these two charities?

X: We chose both of them at the very beginning of starting the brand because we believe that every brand, every company should give back something. All should be involved in charity from the beginning not only when you are big & profitable. The 2 charities we work with are in the U.S. One is Restoring Vision, for every pair of glasses purchased we donate to Restoring Vision and they will donate a pair of prescription glasses to people in need. We also chose that because it was relevant to what we do. By restoring peoples vision they are able to get back to their normal life, they are able to work and make a living. So, although it sounds like you are only giving them a pair of glasses, actually it might change their life. With ‘Trees for the Planet’ the second charity we work with, we plant trees and crops for underprivileged families to provide the family with food and an income, which is amazing because it is life changing again. Secondly planting the tree, we feel as a business that produces waste, it is important that we offset that whenever possible so the whole planting trees with the CO2, we try.

D: Do you have a sustainable model for your business?

X: I would say with the charity and sometimes, for example with our packaging. I would say we try and eliminate waste by spending more money on good packaging and product that people would want to keep.  Also most of the glasses are metal based, stainless steel and titanium which means they can be recycled in the future.
D: You have very clever marketing, its great to see JLO and Beyonce on Instagram wearing your glasses. What’s it like to have these amazing women as fans?

X: We are happy, it was unexpected.

D: Did you reach out to them?

X: We reached out to their stylists. The stylists really love what we have and have been using them ever since. JLO and Beyonce wear them regularly which is amazing.

D: I love your store, the blue and gold it is sumptuous. Your whole look and presentation really. Your packaging is extremely tactile I could sit and stroke it all day. As you said earlier it really does make you want to take extra care of the product and its two boxes. Not only the sunglasses case but also the presentation box they arrive in. My great aunt exclaimed  ‘you can keep your jewellery in there’.

X: Oh, my gosh, she knows, that was exactly my point, its why I made the outside box. Usually other brands come with a paper type box or thin cardboard but we wanted our customer to keep it as a jewellery box or for use on their dressing table. It is also collapsible so you can take it on holiday with you just pull it flat.

D: What was the inspiration behind your look and packaging?

X: I guess I love blue, or green and in the beginning we tried using green but it wasn’t super well received. Funnily enough green not considered the luckiest colour. In China green in the stock market means down and as China is one of our biggest markets, I had to do something you know.  When the customers were complaining about the colour we knew we had to do something new. As we are always trying to make different and new things, getting a feel for everything I stumbled across this amazing blue velvet that is so strokeable. We wanted something with a more powdery look a more millennial, young fresh look and not too dark. The gold came from our sunglasses, because we use a lot of gloss, stainless steel, gold. We wanted the stores to represent our frames and our packaging. Its like you just walk into For Arts Sake.

D: Its amazing how much you have achieved since I 1st met you 6 years ago when you were finishing your 1st year of costume design and unknown to me then, you were heading off to study history of art. You have built your brand, opened your 1st store in Covent Garden and I have heard there is another in Tiawan.

X: There is one in Shanghai, we are planning one more and are looking for the right opportunity, so we have our eye on a few major cities around the world. Only when the right place comes up will we go. We are already in many different outlets around the world.

D: Where do you see the brand in 10 years?
X: Definitely want to become one of the most prominent eyewear brands in the world. There are so many things we want to do and achieve. Our own retail stores in major cities around the world. Grow, expand. I cannot say what the ultimate goal is because everything is changing and constantly evolving.

Head over to For Arts Sake to see Xiwen's brilliant sunglasses.

Xiwen is wearing -

Shot 1 - For Arts Sake sunglasses, style - Horizon, colour Amber with a Seventy Official blazer.

Shot 2, 5 & 7 - Sisley suit with Essentiel Antwerp shoes.

Shot 4 - Alias Official shorts and Ithk boots.

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