Wuhanese fashion designer Terrence Zhou shares his dynamic approach to building a New York-based Avant-guard brand
TongTong before Terrence
Originally from Wuhan, China, Terrence Zhou is a promising fashion designer based in New York City. Having a background in design and mathematics, Terrence leans on his multifaceted understanding of Chinese tradition, mathematics, Greek mythology and artistry to create collections seemingly out of this world. Shortly after the launch of his brand, Terrence was recognized by Elle, Vogue and Paper magazine. He now shares moments and mentalities influential to his success with Lampoon.
Before there was Terrence Zhou, there was Tong Zhou (TongTong). Growing up in Wuhan, China, TongTong found comfort escaping within the pages of paintings and drawings. TongTong refers to himself as being a “loner” who was content in the company of his work. Raised by his mother, who worked as a CPA, and his father, a businessman, TongTong introduced himself to his artistic expression by allowing his fantasies and imagination to lead the way for creation.
«My mom would bring home draft papers, and I would use that to draw and paint—I would spend a whole day at home on the floor just exploring. I would save money to get Japanese manga books filled with vibrant illustrations. I spent so much time on paintings, so my grades in school were not good. When I was in middle school, there was a period when I stopped drawing and painting and focused on mathematics, and I fell in love with it. I grew better and better, eventually becoming the top tier in my class and finding a different way of expression to understand how the universe works».
Terrence’s pivotal shift toward his passion
By high school, Terrence made a conscious effort to channel his energy toward academia and fell in love with mathematics. He later attended college in America to receive his B.S. in Mathematics and Engineering. Despite his accolades in the STEM profession, his desire to create initiated his transfer to Parsons School of Design. After coming to the states, he realized the power, courage and talent unique to his individuality that added to design innovation. Terrence admits the judgment that discourages aspiring designers in China from pursuing a career in design and reveals normalized, preconceived notions that initially lead him astray from designing. We ask Terrence about the thoughts and opinions he circumvented to take a chance on his passion, despite his original plan to complete a degree in mathematics.
«It’s an epitome when someone describes ‘art having no place in China’. Even when I was a kid, people would tell me that as a Chinese designer/Chinese person, ‘you can not do art.’ I felt that this was just who I am …but I also knew I had a passion for it…not until I came here did I realize those words aren’t true. After studying at both Central Saint Martins and Parsons, I realized international students bring a lot of cultural background and creativity to the campus. You’ll always find that people with different cultural backgrounds or coming from different areas usually have a lot of nuances in understanding different cultures and are more accepting».
Navigating stigmas in the fashion industry
As early as the seventeenth century, China was known for exporting silks and textiles worldwide for fashion consumption. Unfortunately, historical events led to trade embargos that seized the exchange of passive cultural learning. As a result, the history of Chinese fashion traditions, customs, and clothing went unknown, so as China transformed over the course of dynasties, so did its fashion without the knowledge of the majority. In 2001, China re-entered the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was pivotal to improving global engagement and economies. As economies continued showing exponential growth through exchange with China, companies migrated affairs into China, including fashion production.
Since the reopening of trades, China has received backlash and skepticism in fashion because the country is assumed to be the location primarily used to produce mass-scale counterfeited luxury designs. Fashion tastemakers have often characterized China as a producer of imitative rather than innovative design. Lampoon explores Terrence’s journey navigating stigmas and opinions to prevail amongst western influences to guide others to understand the essence of Chinese design.
Chinese culture is a cake with multiple layers
«I think the distinction between modern Chinese Art and/or fashion is understanding the subtleties. The nuance is something that I personally find intriguing, and I believe that is the case for most East Asian artists too.
Chinese culture has a history of five thousand years. I think it’s incredible that we have a lot of layers. When looking at Chinese culture, you’re looking at a cake with multiple layers. Each layer has a different flavor—our culture and way of thinking have already built a massive and abundant vocabulary for us to visit when we need something from it. That’s something hugely lacking in western education. Western culture seems to highlight rational thinking, functionality, reasoning and results to describe a fact rather than trying to be subtle.
I think it’s heavily related to our words (characters) in literature. The Chinese language alone had natural sentiments already within their language. In Chinese, each character can give you a totally different picture in your mind. For example, you will see that each character has components representing a full picture. The words have evolved from complicated pictorial things to simplified representations.
East Asia design is about spiritual legacies
Through all the historical events, the literature carries on the philosophy. That is where the innovation of East Asia design lies…not tangible, but more spiritual elements carried through generations are portrayed in the subtlety of designs.
My culture is sensitive to emotion and has been reiterated over generations over five thousand years. We naturally have sentiments in our language; we just need a platform to let it release—let it shine.
I have to think deeper about where the roots are in my culture; it’s not directly that as a Chinese designer, you always have to do phoenix, dragon, or something about red to be a Chinese designer. It’s the capability of understanding the subtleties or nuances of emotions».
Terrence’s mathematic and artistic approach to managing a brand
Terrence is renowned for his body of work being abstract, faceless, and monochromatic to create a minimalist presentation for the viewer to draw a collection of thoughts for interpretation. Some may feel the designs are a product of his dual faceted passion for mathematics and Art. However, after further discussion, Terrence references mathematical inverse function to help visualize the existence of his two entities that help him navigate the challenges of a young designer.
«Math is how I understand the world works; Art is how I want the world to work—they are two different outlets.
Math helps me get deeper to the truth of the universe, and then Art is an outlet for me to express how I want the universe to be. They never collide with each other; they are focused on different functions for specific tasks. I never feel like they are conflicting with one another.
Embracing the fear
When I was studying mathematics, I didn’t find it romantic until I was in Art. I suddenly noticed the romance in mathematics, seeing it as an outsider. Understanding it from a different perspective. Math and Art are like an inverse function: the Y-axis always tries to connect with the X-axis, but they never touch. I feel like these extremities, and these ways of abstraction are so beautiful. It’s something that you can not draw or project, but it’s there; it’s how our universe works.
Although many people think it’s a big jump from one subject to another, I never give myself this type of frame to think jumping from one frame to another is challenging. I always encourage myself to see it as another way of thinking; everything has two sides or multiple aspects, depending on how we see it.
For me, the other challenges are on the logistic side or on the business side. Like how to make your work seen and heard—I think that’s hard. It seems my work is like a stock market going up and down but, over time, going up. The logistic side is so practical, and it has less room for imagination, and sometimes I can lose the vision.
The challenge is how to overcome fear when I see those problems popping up and how I embrace the fear with the perspective of having a whole vision in my mind instead of focusing on the little petty error».
Terrence’s venture and perspective utilizing the Metaverse space
As the world becomes more digitized, viewers are intrigued by Terrence’s integration of “illusions” engaging within their reality. His avant-garde brand has created a signature ambiance trending from those perplexed by his way of normalizing fantasies amid the comfort of a home. Terrence’s choice to display a contrast between his sculptural designs within his apartment created a collective appreciation for a euphoric experience of existing within reality just as it lives in digital spaces.
Terrence reveals his process of materializing his visions. He credits the “spiritual house” being the place he visits within his mind via meditation and introspective analysis of self to execute making fantasies a reality that excites. In his process of creating the Little Mermaid, one of his first digital designs, he shares his pioneer in metaverse space. He elaborates further on how the foundations of fashion are evolving in the execution of his work.
I draw my inspiration from unresolved fantasy
«I do have a fascination with underwater creatures like mermaids. I’ve always found it fascinating; even as a kid, I wanted to be a mermaid, and I would ask all the tailors if they could make a mermaid tail for me—and even if they did, I wanted it a real mermaid tail, not a fabricated costume.
I draw my inspiration from unresolved fantasy in my mind, and then it is restored in my spiritual house.
Now I have learned the tools to access the door encasing my fantasy. Whenever I need inspiration, I just grab from my spiritual house, vocabulary, dictionary, high dimension, etc., in my brain. Often, I will have a specific image in my mind when I do meditation, and the colors, shapes, or pose on Instagram will be immediately popping up in my mind.
I call it spiritual downloading that I download from the spiritual house I have. In a way, I feel like I’m guided by a higher power— it’s not planned, which is why I found it hard to fit into school because things are required to be done step by step, and there’s no belief in spiritual downloading and taking action on something from your immediate thought».
The conveniences of working in the Metaverse space
Terrence’s handmade designs frame the body into figures of the imagination. His designs for both the digital and tangible dimensions have allowed his pieces to coexist in different areas of fashion, serving both couture concepts and ready-to-wear functionality. His work challenges fashion identities to refrain from consolidating designs into categories.
Only a year into his brand’s career, Terrence collaborated with Xtended Labs to market his designs on a platform called Dematerialized. The Mermaids Tale went viral and has nearly sold out in sales. Investigating further, Terrence shares how metaverse is in support of the artistic vision, sustainability, and boundless fashion.
«I think the metaverse is brilliant. It provides an open platform for many designers to express what they can’t express in the real world but is totally possible in the digital world.
From a societal perspective, I think metaverse is fair game for many people, especially for marginalized groups. It takes away the factors of racial profiling, age, gender, etc. and uses an artist’s work for representation. These mindsets, in reality, limit our potential and eventually, the metaverse is a way of getting rid of the centralized power. Everyone can directly connect to the world in the way they want to.
From a futuristic perspective, it may be a way for our future consciousness to live forever. Maybe in the future, if science and technology develop to the point that we can transfer our consciousness to the metaverse, we can talk to people who’ve already passed away and reconnect in another dimension. Although there are voices against the metaverse and digital world, I just think this is such a brilliant concept, and why not give it a try.
Digital fashion definitely requires less waste. Overall, digital fashion seems scalable for business and creativity. Thinking about people all having social media; involves so much time online. The online world is becoming extremely real and authentic, and we want to wear things extremely different online to present to people in the world, whereas those close cannot be worn in daily life.
I think digital fashion definitely requires less waste. From a business model perspective, you have to get fabrics, materials, etc. For digital fashion, it’s scalable as a business and scalable at your creativity. In addition to limiting waste, digital space unlocks the potential of your work. The online world is becoming extremely real and authentic, and we want to wear something completely different online. My clothes may not be ideal for daily life. However, people like to wear clothes and take pictures to post online and get connected with others. Digital and tangible pieces represent different aspects of our personalities.
People can wear what they want to wear. Before digital fashion was invented, I think this aspect was never unlocked. Now, I think the term “ready to wear” limits us and is non-constructive. It seems like we are sacrificing the individualities of each garment. However, It can be contradictory because we always need to put the pieces in a box to identify them.
I personally disagree with how the fashion system puts you in a box. My work could be ready to wear—it’s so ready, it’s just there. You don’t have to be simple to be considered ready-to-wear, and it doesn’t have to be crazy to be avant-garde. If my work can be worn in daily life and in the digital world, it could be avant-garde, couture… it can be anything. Using words to categorize is not enough».
Terrence’s design and thought process
The Bubble Dress, one of Terrace’s popular garments, is a bulbous dress with a silhouette resembling the Greek Omega symbol created about human’s initial emotions surrounding unrequited love. He shares that the excessive curvature of the dress represents the subconscious barrier humans surround themselves with to distance themselves in response to intimate relationships. Terrence shares his playful approach to interpreting his fears within his work and following a voice of discernment to make the right decisions to promote himself, leading him to pioneer into the metaverse space and expand his designs’ usability.
Bubble dress and mermaid tale
«When I was in school, I remember one of the professors told me that I have tendencies to over design, and I think now, when I look back, that is where the thought of not doing enough originated—that’s why I kept adding and changing things. Now I still have the fears, but I learned how to make friends with the fear, embrace it and identify what the fear looks like—sometimes it looks like an octopus, sometimes a siren.
The story behind both the bubble and mermaid tale is intriguing. We wanted to launch on Valentine’s Day, referencing a story we were told of the mermaid sacrificing her tail and voice for a pair of legs that don’t belong to her to attract the prince who is from a different world.
This is an unrequited love being told through thousands of generations. The otherside of the story is in Greek Mythology. Sirens use their voice to seduce sailors and use their tales to kill them. The bubble dress represents a heart beating, but on the flip side, they are actually two sides of the story from the same creatures. I found that empowering for me».
Terrence Mission in Fashion
Terrence expresses how his work reflects his mental efforts in releasing himself from fears, stigmas and type-cast projected onto him. He emphasizes focusing on the present and being unapologetic is the secret to drawing a viewer’s attention to his authenticity.
«As an entrepreneur, we have this fear because we are unemployed, and we just want to make sure that when we are solving problems, we have a vision and not just performing a task—we have to have vision when we are doing things.
I hope to inspire people to look at things differently and have different perspectives. As an Asian artist whose voice is marginalized in western society and the world, I believe my own voice and thoughts are unique and deserve to be heard and seen. I wish no matter what changes or doesn’t change, I should not lose my voice in the change and focus on the bigger vision to inspire people to look at things differently to embrace more possibilities.
I understand there will be a lot of challenges and more ups and downs as long as people find me and connect with me through my work; that makes me happy. We have to focus on what makes us happy and what can inspire us and just go with it; I think the facts can be changed. What doesn’t lie to us is our emotions. If I have an impulse to do it, then just do it. Stay present; many times, we can not plan what’s coming, and we can not reverse what has happened. What we can do is stay present, and the right thing will come—and stay true to our feelings».
With Metaverse, Terrence Zhou addresses a nuanced approach to fashion that makes vanguard accessible and valuable to everyone. Having a portfolio diverse in both the digital and physical universes is an exciting and unsuspecting journey for many designers. However, this concept is fascinating for artists like Terrence. He sees this new space as a solution to environmental issues, an equilibrium for high-fashion connectivity and a decentralized approach to design. In the interview, Terrence shares his journey navigating the changes, challenges, and creative contributions to inspire people to look at things differently to gain perspectives that propel fashion innovation.