All Articles
All Articles
CULTURE

Interview: Nathan Zhang

We talk to the Beijing-based founder of Brandnü about his upcycled fashion operation

by Alessandro De Toni
on 10 December 2012
Brandnu-1.jpg

Waste is one of the dark sides of development, especially in fast growing-country like China, and Beijing is no exception. With massive urbanization bringing crowds of mostly unskilled rural workers to the city and a literal ring of garbage dumps and unauthorized recycling centers besieging the capital, it's often difficult to see the few making a positive impact in their community. Fully aware of these issues, designer Nathan Zhang has gone beyond recycling to come up with an unconventional solution in his own field. With his label Brandnü and the Upcycle Project he has managed to build a virtuous circle involving professional designers, migrant women, charity activities and fine handcrafts.

In Wudaoying Hutong, a refurbished alley of old Beijing that's fast becoming a popular hotspot for local trendsetters and expat crowds, Zhang set the base for his many activities. This is where we recently caught up with him to talk about his shop and discover more about Brandnü.

Brandnu-Beijing-2.jpg
Secondhand and social enterprises are not something you see very often in China, how did you have the idea to start Brandnu?

I started three years ago when I moved back to China from Canada, where I was a project manager for a telecommunication company. I really wanted to do something to promote Chinese handcraft and to work with rural or migrant women. I have a friend, professor Wu, who's a founder of a skills training center for rural women. She is 70 years old and my wife was really inspired by her. On the other hand we had many friends who are designers and we thought that maybe there was a way to build a connection between them.

Moreover I wanted to open a shop, a secondhand shop, like in Canada there are Goodwill shops, but in Beijing we don't have such thing. So I opened my Brandnü shop and I started taking secondhand donations, clothes and stuff, working with rural women and selling their crafts and just afterwards I decided to do my own products.

Brandnu-Beijing-4.jpg
Your Upcycle project involves garbage collectors, designers, migrant workers and rural women, how did you manage to build this virtuous circle?

At the beginning I was sourcing only clothes from the the migrant workers' community. There are a few shops in the outskirts of Beijing and just about 60% of what they have is still wearable, all the rest is sold by weight and it's like garbage for them, sold for five yuan per kilo. I was pretty amazed myself and then I had a friend who's a well-known fashion designer, and she said, "Oh my God they have so much good stuff," and we both loved so much of that '90s style, we were just like, "Wow! We should do something together with that, maybe we can use secondhand clothes to make new things." That was last April. She designed some models and we wanted to involve migrant women in the process.

The problem was that they could fix old clothes but they didn't really have strong tailoring skills. Finally one day I had the inspiration, and I thought that if we just cut the old clothes, we could simply work with the fabric and do some patchwork. I contacted more designer friends, a whole bunch of different people, and now I have a team of five or six designers I split the profit with. Along with the clothing there are some accessories like bags made by migrant woman, since they don't require really good sewing skills. At the same time this year, by collecting secondhand clothes and reselling them, we managed to raise money for a rural women's organization and fund sewing classes in Guizhou Province.

Brandny-Beijing-5.jpg
How do you manage to get in touch with rural women, to get them involved in your project?

I got in touch with the migrant female community because I've been donating clothes to them, I knew some rural women when I built a literacy class organization and we also raised money to build a rural women's library. We got the funding from some international private schools in Beijing and we created this library in Beijing, where women can find a lot of books about women's health, raising kids etc. but they can also use the space to gather and do different things, to relax, play mahjong together and things like that.

Anyway it's not always easy to gain their trust. At the beginning they didn't believe I could do any good for them, they thought I was just talking too much because I was young, but when they saw the real money they were shocked.

For more information on Brandnü visit them online. Images by Alessandro De Toni.

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking
Loading More...