Technical fabrics and oversized silhouettes are essential elements of young Dingyun Zhang’s designs. Resulting out of a deep desire to connect sustainable ideas to functionality and innovative materials Zhang raises awareness for different cultures and their individual struggles. After working for Kanye West’s brand Yeezy where he nurtured his love for footwear, he currently is inspired by workwear.
Creating a more sustainable future is what fires Zhang’s desire to design. From a spirit of utility rather than luxury, the young designer explores material to create long-term change and comfort that lasts.
Cosy by Dingyun Zhang
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Your shoe prioritises sustainability – how can designers approach sustainability in an innovative and creative way?

One of the main polluting textiles in luxury goods is leather, and designers should take responsibility for the use of these products. Finding alternatives to animal products is a key part of increasing sustainability. In my collection, I’ve used bonding techniques with nylon and neoprene to create imitation leather, maintaining a strong quality and long-lasting material.

What did you make of the judging panel’s comments and why do you think they were impressed with your concept?

I took the concept of comfort, from the most comfortable place for us all - our duvets. The concept of wearing duvets on our feet is a simple yet versatile design than can be worn without thinking. I think they appreciate that it achieves simplicity and comfort without going too far from the original Birkenstock design.

You were born and raised in China. How has your heritage shaped your vision as a designer?

When I was young, I was into traditional Chinese ink paintings and sketching. Traditional Chinese culture’s strong connection with art and craftsmanship sparked my interest in art in the first place. I then began to learn about clothing techniques from traditional Chinese Qi Pao, including Chinese embroidery and Chinese knot buttons. Inspired by the cultural practise of meticulous attention to artistic detail is how I approach the design and production of my collections, from selection of details to fabrics

The functionality and comfort of Birkenstock footwear was a central inspiration for you. To you, what makes the brand and its signature shoe so special?

Birkenstock always manages to keep its signature identity, even throughout its collection of collaborations. The footbed was the best component to combine with my concept of comfort, given it moulds to the foot of every individual - I like how this technology combines function and comfort as one concept.

Was there anything about the Birkenstock archive or story that surprised you?

The story of the footbed is definitely the most surprising and important part of the archive; it is now being made with natural materials and changes its shape to support the wearers foot over time. This piece of technology contributed to the concept of comfort in the footwear industry, seeing as shoe soles were typically flat in the past. Its ability to satisfy consumer needs meant that it was able to transcend the stigma of an ugly shoe to something that’s trendy and comfortable.

Textile innovation is a key focus in your practice. How did the various materials that make up a Birkenstock shoe – the cork, the latex, the leather – inform your design? And, within your work, how do you try to use materials in a new, or unexpected way?

The technology behind the cork and latex used in the footbed are engineered for comfort. I wanted to select materials and a silhouette to compliment that concept and create a cohesive product of comfort. I experiment with combining synthetic fabrics with different processes to create alternatives to animal textiles for long-lasting accessories and luxury goods.

How do you hope that people feel, when they walk in your Birkenstock shoe?

I want the wearer to be able to express their individual style. Anyone should be able pull off these shoes, but the duvet style silhouette still makes it an eye-catching part of the outfit.

What role can fashion play in making people feel comfortable in their own skin and body?

Fashion has the ability to satisfy so many niches and subcultures, meaning there’s always something for everyone to express their own individual style. Presenting true images of different identities means making honest connections with people from different backgrounds and orientations.

Longevity is a key focus in your design. Birkenstock is a brand that excels at this – people wear their shoes for years, and they mould with age. Was this something that inspired you about the brand and how did you celebrate this ethos within your own design?

The long-lasting technology that goes into their shoes was a good foundation to work from, and I continued this concept using sustainable man-made leather and bound edges on the shoe design. In my own collections, I use highly durable textiles to give the wearer long lasting protection from the environment.

What do you hope that the world of fashion will look like in 10 years’ time?

I hope that fashion can achieve a higher level of sustainability. Fashion changes so fast so it´s hard to predict what’s to come in 10 years’ time, but if it becomes a community that’s more understanding of different cultures then it´s going in the right direction.

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