20 May, 2022
10 : 00
Helen Zhang, our featured YWIES Gubei alumni (Class of 2012), is a remarkable young designer. The route to her career was fraught with impediments — not least of all, parental disapproval — but she overcame all obstacles thrown her way to emerge the proud owner of her very own brand.
It was not a tidy start. She smiles wryly at a recollection. Before graduating from Yew Wah International Education School Gubei, her veritable pigsty of a studio was so messy it earned her the jocular title, the 'lady with the worst aesthetic sense'.
She was back at her alma mater to share her story at assembly. Casually dressed and with long blonde hair, Helen strode towards us for a quick chat later. She had a disarming smile and struck us as someone quite different from the usual aloof fashionista.
Helen Zhang majored in Fashion Design at the Parsons School of Design, New York. During her undergraduate years she also worked with well-known fashion labels like Ralph Lauren and Maison Margiela. Her own brand is called SOCIAL-WORK. Helen also serves as a fashion consultant for some local and overseas brands.
During her years at YWIES Gubei, Helen was always alone in the studio, spattered with dirt and paint. Like all true artists she never paid any attention to her appearance. She never dressed up or aped any fashion brand.
Oddly enough, this eccentric young lady ended up at Parsons — a hugely prestigious address — that she describes, as a place for all sorts of weird people. Interestingly, all these 'weird people' were extremely tolerant of others' idiosyncrasies.
Helen participated in competitions and projects, winning a scholarship from the Council of Fashion Design of America. These experiences taught her how to adapt to market needs and offered much useful insight when she decided to roll out her own brand.
At every turn, she encountered fierce competition. Self-study seats, for example, were hard to come by. She sometimes placed items on the seat to hold the space if she had to move around, but it was always occupied when she got back and the personal effects would be on the floor. No one looked up and no words were exchanged. It was each one for herself. Experiences like this taught her to become independent. She learned to be strong and to rely on herself.
What! You want to study art?
Unlike other classmates who came from artistic backgrounds, Helen’s parents were both in finance. Developing an interest in art as well as business, Helen determined to run her own startup in an art-related area while in her second year at Yew Wah. She is grateful to an aunt who spent time chatting with her about her future aspirations.
In those days, in many circles, studying art was regarded as a rather unwise and eccentric decision. It simply did not make sense to the family. Helen recalled, with tears in her eyes, that her parents could not comprehend why she persisted. It made her feel 'rebellious'. Despite the opposition, she prepared to apply early in November and sat for all the relevant tests — SAT, TOEFL and IELTS. Her scores were excellent.
Helen decided to do the sensible thing and focused on her portfolio. Her passion for art and the huge amount of creative work she was generating helped relieve much of the stress. A Yew Wah teacher recalls that Helen always had an English art book her and would read whenever she found time.
Her hard work paid off. Helen received offers from top art schools including Parsons School of Design in New York and Central Saint Martins in London, another notoriously difficult school to gain admission in. Despite all the challenges she had faced, Helen realized she could now take responsibility for her own decisions.
Helen Zhang has been pushing herself to engage with real-world opportunities since her freshman year. She interned with Thom Browne, Phillip Lim, and other interesting brands. After four years of hard slog, in 2018 she saw her own brand, Social-Work, launch in New York City.
From snacks to shares — business success
For Helen, a truly memorable moment at Yew Wah was when she set up a vending machine. There was no snack shop operating at the time. It was clear, kids wanted to snack and this created an obvious business opportunity.
At first, she thought it was easy. She would make a phone call to the vendor. But then the vendor informed her that the potential number of users didn’t meet the minimum requirement. They would not be able to service her request.
It would have been easy to give up. But Helen was undeterred. She found that a vending machine would cost 14,000 yuan. Without enough pocket money to cover that sort of outlay, she decided to issue shares. She arrived at a price of 50 yuan per share and 500 shares were publicly distributed providing start-up capital of 25,000 yuan. This covered the purchase of a machine as well as the first round of snacks. It was her first attempt at crowdfunding.
Helen had no idea how the project would fare but her enterprising spirit and entrepreneurial flair succeeded well beyond her imagination. The new vending machine aroused so much interest, everything was sold out on the first day.
The profits from the vending machine then went into funding a range of Student Union activities. The business went well and the stock offered dividends every two months. A secondary market also emerged later with some students selling their shares for 200 yuan apiece, a handsome profit. It was an interesting learning experience for all.
In addition to gaining welcome income, the students also learned about the relationship between demand and supply. Helen adjusted the price of the products modestly upwards, above market price, but though fewer people made purchases, the profit remained the same. And there was no need to replenish items constantly. This flirtation with entrepreneurship was a great inspiration and perhaps pointed her to her future career. Looking back, Helen was thankful for the school's support in encouraging the project on campus.
Helen is direct and unpretentious and she is willing to try anything. During the pandemic, many people moved out of New York city, and they would throw unwanted furniture on the street, much of which was relatively new and clearly expensive. She spotted an opportunity and hopped on a bicycle along with her roommate and scoured the area to collect items to sell online. This way they earned enough to cover their room rental.
Under the glamour, the sweat and toil
Nowadays, art is no longer some unworthy subject relegated to the sidelines. Aesthetic education is constantly emphasised by the Ministry of Education. Art and design continue to climb to new heights. Art exhibitions and creative workshops flourish in Shanghai, attracting more and more people to what is commonly perceived as a trendy and glamorous world.
YWIES Gubei has divided art and design into three sections, allowing students the flexibility to pick courses that match their interests as well as the needs of future colleges. All art classrooms have been upgraded. It is easy to see, a creative spirit thrives on the new campus, and this makes Helen proud.
"I think self-reflection is important each day," Helen advised students. You have to constantly say this to yourself. "A lot of things happen every day, and you have to find out what you like through introspection." You need to discover "whether you are working hard enough; and whether you still keep that passion alive".
Behind each success is hard work and toil. Taking the fashion industry as an example, along with the passion that drives you, there is a need to understand the production process, public relations, capital needs, and talent sourcing. It is clear that the market response does not always follow expectations. Though Helen has acquired a solid base of customers, she still spends a lot of time on business trips to decorate showrooms and to plan pop-up stores.
“Working in the art industry needs years of effort and it is also important to find the right pace that suits you,” she says. “We need to be mindful of and remain true to our original aspirations — to always be creative and to think out of the box.”
High school passed in a blink of an eye. Looking back, Helen is glad she doggedly pursued art despite numerous obstacles. This creative world connects her with beautiful and exciting things that catch the eye and excite the senses. It is an industry in which one never grows old. Moral of her story? Follow your dream.
△ Helen shares her story at assembly
△ Helen displays merchandise for her store
△ Helen’s design work at college
△ SOCIAL-WORK (Mediative Rose) pop up
△ Promo article on SOCIAL-WORK in The New York Times
△ Helen’s wish list at Year Book upon her graduation from Yew Wah
△ Helen visited Dia: Beacon, a museum in New York
△ Art classroom at Yew Wah Gubei
△ Helen and her co-worker
△ SOCIAL - WORK 2022 SS series