Beyond community: Zipeng Zhu on a bolder, brighter Pride
The NYC-based artist on delivering meaningful messages in vivid wrapping and the importance of a defiant Pride.
Artist & creative director Zipeng Zhu (he/him) owes much to Richard Gere’s sequin-clad performance in the movie Chicago. The actor’s legendary rendition of the song Razzle Dazzle sparked a light-bulb moment for the NYC-based creative. ‘As soon as I saw it, I immediately changed my mission statement to “I want to make everyday a Razzle Dazzle musical."’ For Zhu, this shining, shimmering ethos extends way beyond his eye-popping imagery. ‘I try to deliver that, not only with my work, but also with how I dress, how I talk. I just want to bring some musicality, some sparkles to life’.
One of three creatives chosen to apply their own unique aesthetic to the COS Pride Collection, for Zhu, the celebration has taken on new significance of late. ‘For me, Pride has always been a way for us to express love. But that perspective has shifted a little. I feel like over the past few years, Pride is less for us and more for the people who are against us. We’re here to tell you, we’re staying, this is what we do and this is why we love each other.’
‘I want to bring sunshine into people’s lives through my work.’
Dazzle, his multi-platform creative studio, aims to share a brighter vision far and wide, winning big-name clients including The New York Times and Apple, with work displayed across the globe from Barcelona to Mumbai. Zhu’s proudest achievement, however, occurred a subway ride away from his Williamsburg home, when his simple, powerful messaging for the Stop Asian Hate campaign filled the screens of Times Square. ‘I felt more useful as a human being, I got to do something for my community, I got to be a part of a movement and contribute my effort. I think everyone can play a part, for me it’s the same as my work around trans rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, all of these things.’
While tongue-in-cheek humour and exuberant colour define his output, a glance at his wildly popular Instagram account reveals the political punch behind the playful graphics. Zhu’s ability to deliver a meaningful message in attractive wrapping makes him a force to be reckoned with. ‘We as a species like shiny things, so how about I package some of the issues I care about in things that people want to look at.’
ON DESIGN HEROES
‘When I was a kid, I had zero design heroes, no references or contacts. Paula Scher, my boss at Pentagram and an absolute design legend, she was my first hero, she was my North Star, oh, and of course, the amazing writer Debbie Millman, she was my professor at SVA. I feel so lucky, blessed by the design gods. I try not to be limited by graphic design influences though. Keith Haring, Yayoi Kusama, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, they’re a huge part of my life, everything they did was so groundbreaking, so genius, they gave me something to reach for.’
‘So we have three words that guide us at Dazzle: colourful, relentless and exuberant. One fun fact, my name is Zipeng and that name means exuberant child – I always try to live up to my name.’
‘The origin story of my activism work is really that I’m an immigrant here, I can’t vote, I can’t really do anything, the only thing I can do is use my work, my voice. I’m a visual communicator so if I can’t convey a message, I’m not doing my job. Ever since the election cycle in 2016 I felt I needed my news to be sugar coated with comedy, the headlines are sometimes just too harsh. I recently created a post against the Florida ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, I felt so clever coming up with that idea, ‘SAY GAY ALL DAY’ – it was catchy, witty but also very beautiful. I was proud of that.’
‘I feel like over the past few years, Pride is about saying “this is what we do and this is why we love each other”.’
‘I was born and raised in China. Funnily enough, I didn’t actually touch anything creative until I was a teenager. My dad was a painter, an unsuccessful painter, so he thought it was a terrible path. I didn’t have any contact with art until I went to middle school and became obsessed with Japanese manga. I really wanted to become a manga artist so I would just draw and draw and draw. Turns out I was very bad at it; I had no talent at drawing whatsoever. But while I was doing that I learned Photoshop, and through that I would help my friends retouch their photos, design my own posters, that kind of thing. One of my art teachers suggested graphic design but at the time I was destined to study biochemistry. I got into a huge fight with my parents, but being an only child I won the battle. So I moved to the states in 2009, went to the School of Visual Arts in NYC and the rest was history.’
ON COLOUR & DAZZLE
‘The colour, the vibrancy, the boldness – that was all very much a big part of my work when I was at art school. Everyone in New York wore all black, that was so boring to me. Plus, the winters here are brutal. I’d come from a tropical island and I wanted to make something that was fun and warm and loving, I wanted to bring sunshine into people’s lives through my work.’
ON GOING SOLO
‘My life decisions are instinctual; all the big decisions I’ve made have come from my gut. One day I sat down at my desk, I was working at Sagmeister & Walsh at the time, and I just knew. I realised that I’d been like a sponge, I’d absorbed so much, but now it was time to release some of the things I’d learnt, to go forward and learn even more.’
‘Community is inclusive, but sometimes it can exclude, when you speak on very specific causes you sometimes alienate other groups, so I always try to see the bigger picture. I’m trying to do my best to educate myself, do my side of the homework, to be more conscious and aware of everything. There are so many fights out there and I want to be effective.’
ON FIRST PRIDE
‘My first NYC Pride was cool, I was fresh out of college, it was a really hot summer day, I went to support my friend who was on the NBC float, this ginormous muscle queen. I was with all my straight friends, that was so cool to me because they were going harder than I was at Pride, it was nice that we got to celebrate it together. That’s what I love about my city, there’s this shared love and appreciation.’
ON PRIDE TODAY
‘Now, for me it’s about expression, not just of love but of self-acceptance, of being a part of the community. It’s like, for the longest time I was resistant to the word ‘queer’ and then suddenly I just got it, I was like, ok, I see why we need this definition, the word gay doesn’t cover everybody anymore. That’s what I mean about community, we need a broader umbrella to include more people.
Pride took on a new meaning since the pandemic. I think as a result my pride work has got better over the past couple of years. Not having Pride gave me something to really look forward to, now I’m like, this is going to be a great summer, now I’m ready.’
ON NYC INSPIRATION
‘The other day I made a decision that I was going to be New York ride or die. It’s one of those cities where I can just walk outside and get inspired on every single corner. I live in a Hasidic and Spanish area in South Williamsburg. What’s cool is that I have Hispanic delis and bodegas, and all the wonderful packaging and typography in the Mexican shops, so inspiring. Then in the stores a block down, it’s all Hebrew typography and it’s such a unique, beautifully structured language. NYC enables all that for you, it supercharges all that inspiration and I get to embrace all these vibrant cultures that are so different to what I grow up with, it subconsciously fulfils my creative brain.
I had the honour of working on another project with Times Square, it was called ‘NY loves you’ rather than ‘I love NY’ because I think the city that we love loves us back more than we think. In the past two years I’ve really seen that.’
‘We as a species like shiny things, so I package some of the issues I care about in things that people want to look at.’
‘The reason I decided to come to New York was two TV shows, Project Runway and Gossip Girl, I was so silly. The second I got here, I realised clothing is such a walking billboard for people, I can tell you what I’m about with the outfit I wear, I don’t need to introduce myself. Walking down the streets here, I have these power-walk moments, I feel like Samantha from Sex and the City, stepping on the concrete with the full force of my life.
Fashion is in a new place now, not just with the developments around sustainability, but it feels like the first time everyone really cares about how they’re being seen, and the internet has provided so much richness and so much innovation, that’s fascinating to me. In New York, everyone gives each other compliments, when you do something right, they’ll let you know and I love that. I have this theory; every compliment you receive on your outfit is like 20 dollars back.’
ON CREATING FOR COS
‘I couldn’t believe it when I got the email from COS, I screamed into my pillow for a whole minute, I’m a big fan. I love that all three artists have completely different approaches to the project.
With the design, I thought about how I could illustrate using type. I needed to communicate, not just a word but its meaning. I decided to work in the smiley face, but it needed to be stronger because I’m making a monogram here, and a monogram needs to make a statement, be precise, concise and punchy, so when people see it from afar they’re intrigued and then when they see it up close it’s like, “bam, I get it”. So, with the team, we decided to use embroidery, which allowed us to get in all the shades of the flag, which I love. I just want people to have a little smile on their faces when they see it. That’s all.’
What was the last book you read?
‘It was a graphic novel, Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast.’
If you could catch a flight to anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?
‘This will sound sentimental but to see my parents in China, I haven’t seen them in four years. I miss my mum.’
What’s the one album you couldn’t live without?
‘The first Adele album, 19. Daydreamer is my favourite song.’
What’s your most treasured possession?
‘I have a few, but if I had to choose, a blanket that my mum gave me.’
How would your friends describe you?
Words by Lena Dystant
Photography by Collier Schorr
Styling by Esther Matilla
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