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ORDOS, China — Graeme Black is no stranger to dressing powerful people, but his newest career turn places him on a path no international fashion designer has yet taken.
As the newly appointed creative director for the high-end Chinese cashmere brand Erdos 1436, Black, who has worked as a designer for Armani, Hugo Boss and Ferragamo, will head up design for a conservative and relatively new luxury brand that is worn by some of China’s most powerful women, including executives and the wives of top government officials. Black joined the company in November, signing on to a five-year contract, but is only now going public about this role.
“They told me, ‘We have this amazing international vision and we want to create something on a global scale,’” Black said of his first meetings with the company’s owners.
“It is a global market, as we all know, but I feel it was kind of destiny and we clicked immediately,” he continued. “If the owner has a vision — if someone really wants to do something and has a passion, they will make it happen, and I, as a designer, can create that.”
Black’s first collection for 1436 hit the runway in China’s Inner Mongolia province Aug. 12, when nearly four-dozen contestants in the Miss World competition walked in his designs down the runway in front of 600 people. A wider audience saw the collection, with an estimated 1 billion people watching the Miss World finals.
The new collection, which took Black two months to design, included everything from sportswear to evening gowns, highlighting bright knits of fine cashmere in blues, greens, reds and melons.
“Initially, I honestly thought it was going to be a smaller gig,” Black said of the Miss World show. “After a few meetings with the Miss World committee, they said, ‘We want a big show. We want something that entertains people.’”
Black’s challenge working with the Miss World pageant: translating a cashmere and sportswear brand into eveningwear.
“So a woman who wears our daywear, who has never considered Erdos 1436 as anything more, could start seeing us in that light,” he said.
Black’s partnership with the label is part of the company’s larger strategy to expand its reach within China and, eventually, go global. The company, a division of the world’s largest cashmere maker, based in Inner Mongolia, is named for the measurements of its cashmere fibers, the highest grade possible.
The brand’s current demographic, he said, “is a serious woman — a working woman.”
“I don’t think it’s someone flash, it’s someone who wants to invest in the piece,” Black said.
Jane Wang, general manager of Erdos 1436, said she had been searching for an international designer for two years when a friend led her to Black. Wang said Black will be an integral part of the company’s plan to double its number of stores in China within a few years and eventually expand to wholesale and boutiques in Europe.
The company has 22 official stores in China, as well as a lucrative made-to-order business for high-end clients. By bringing Black’s international experience to the brand, she wants to increase its appeal.
“We have the background, we have the material, we have the techniques, we have the best machines,” she said. “With all that, I believe we can make something different.”
In an interview with WWD after the Miss World fashion show, Wang discussed her plans for the eight-year-old brand and Black’s role in taking it global. She also acknowledged 1436’s unique position as a luxury brand worn by officials as well as a favorite gift. In 2008, President Hu Jintao visited its premises, then asked the brand to make special sleeping gowns and blankets for him to give to officials when he visits other countries.
But while such high-level ties can be helpful for business, they can also be troublesome in tightly controlled China. Following the interview with WWD, Wang said she was summoned by local government authorities to account for the fact that foreign journalists were in Ordos. This was despite the fact that the city hosted the Miss World pageant.