The strikingly dressed models on Aizhan Zhuzbay’s website regard the viewer with something like disdain – bold, assertive and androgynous. Aizhan’s eponymous Zhuzbay fashion label, which was featured in British Vogue’s Designer Profile pages in 2018, brings the symbols and natural materials of her native Kazakhstan edgily up to date with men’s and women’s collections that are sold worldwide.
Zhuzbay was in her mid-twenties when she held her first catwalk show during China Fashion Week in Beijing, having graduated in 2015 from the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology with a BA in Fashion Art & Design. She describes her clothes as “wearable art” and a sense of theatricality and performance runs through her work. “Brave” and “unbroken” are the words she uses on her site to describe her creations, suggesting the inner strength conveyed by the clothes themselves as well as the strong Kazakh cultural scene they have grown out of.
The designer, now more likely to be found in her offices in Beijing, Astana, Paris and Hong Kong, was born in southern Kazakhstan. It is a region of unspoiled landscapes, beautifully bleak steppes, snow-capped mountains, fertile valleys and green-blue lakes. Although stunning, there is a toughness to this wild terrain, which Zhuzbay celebrates in her creations.
A recurring motif in her work is the silhouette of the curly-horned Argali sheep. For the hunter nomads of Kazakhstan, the horns of the Argali represent prosperity. Zhuzbay uses it repeatedly: the horns might be fashioned, for example, out of patent leather in the form of extravagant horns springing from an evening dress, or stitched as a discreet symbol onto the tail of an angular, outsize wool coat.
Felt, sheepskin, wool, velour, broadtail and luxurious silk – fitting for a region that was central to the ancient Silk Road – are used in chic, slimline black evening dresses, suits and coats. Zhuzbay references traditional Kazakh costume with embroidered tunics and flowing coats. Her choice of accessories again recalls the intricate jewellery of her home, with ornamental hand chains and heavy silver necklaces.
This distinctive mixture of ethnic detail and couture quality is bringing Zhuzbay an international audience, who also appreciate her timely blurring of the line between male and female clothing – androgyny with attitude.