When Nan Zhou was hired for a GQ Magazine shoot featuring filmmaker Chloe Zhao, it was a remarkable moment. These two Chinese women and film professionals found themselves deep in the heart of Hollywood to collaborate on a production for an American fashion institution; it all seemed somewhat surreal for Zhou who was witnessing Zhao at a time which would soon catapult her to international stardom. This is a prime example of the talent which other countries contribute to the U.S. film and entertainment industry. The presence of international talent in Hollywood has always been visible to some extent but it is becoming increasingly undeniable. Even more impressive is the fact that it is present both in front of and behind the camera. Events like the Unforgettable Gala display Hollywood’s celebration of Asian talent in the industry. Whether it’s Chloe Zhao, recipient of multiple Oscars as well as a BAFTA award for Nomadland, or Nan Zhou whose work for Disney and others has garnered its own attention, the talent of these remarkable artists is receiving louder praise than perhaps ever before in the American film history.
Working as a stylist on this photo shoot for GQ was not so different from her typical costume designer role on films as Nan confides, “A stylist and costume designer have a similar way of working. We have to know the importance of picking the right combination of clothes on the talent but more importantly, we have to know the talent as an individual. This is where the divergence occurs. In film, we use costuming to help bring the character to life but as a stylist, the idea is to serve the brand through the talent’s assets.” The perception of this key difference in the point of origin for truth and the power, this is precisely why Ms. Zhou has been able to vacillate so easily between these two avenues that are related yet vastly different with intent.
When Chloe Zhao became the first Chinese female director to win the Golden Lion Award for her film Nomadland, it was striking for a number of reasons. Her film “Songs My Brother Taught Me” displayed an adept understanding of the cultural and racial environment of the United States. When Nomadland resulted in multiple Oscar Awards for Zhao, the industry and the public resoundingly acknowledged her mastery and unique voice. It was this unique voice that Nan was already well aware of and committed to honoring in the GQ photo shoot; easier said than done. The shoot was mainly sponsored by luxury brand Giorgio Armani and Loro Piana. In addition to selections made from their Fall 2020 Ready-to-Wear Collection, Nan selected other options based on Ms. Zhao’s own personal style. Though she admits that the choices from the Giorgio Armani collection were particularly striking, Nan reveals, “The clothes worked well on Chloe, but it wasn’t the ‘real’ Chloe standing in front of me. I could sense an uneasiness in her body language toward these clothes.” What followed was an uneasy communication which saw stylist and director facing off against a fashion giant. Ms. Zhou recalls, “There was a very intense conversation which Chloe and I had with GQ. The producers wanted these luxury brand clothes but it simply was not Chloe Zhao. I value my integrity in representing the artist with their own truth more than anything and so, with a great deal of convincing, we finally went with the clothes that were most natural and authentic for who she is. I’m very proud of this. Chloe Zhao stroke me as one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever worked with, despite her growing fame. She has a clear and precise opinion about everything, especially about herself. We approached the photo shoot with a filmmaking method: to bring the character out to serve her narrative. This makes my job more challenging and of course more exciting.”
What speaks so profoundly from this one-time collaboration between Zhao and Zhou is the struggle and opportunities that will allow the Hollywood film industry to survive. Artists must persevere even against immense pressure from those holding the reigns of the entertainment industry. Only through an unflinching commitment to this unique voice and vision will the industry be able to adapt and continue to stay relevant; even continue to thrive. These two Chinese women exhibited an awareness of themselves and the respect that they must demand in order to make honest and extraordinary art. The photos testify to Nan Zhou’s staunch ethos of presenting a subject in their truth. The completion of these photos with the style that both Chloe Zhao and GQ approved of also proves that like any great professional, Ms. Zhou understands the need for talent and temperament in achieving the optimal final result. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Nan solicited advice from this celebrated filmmaker. She informs, “I asked her what should I do when it gets too hard and she said, ‘Keep trying. Remember it’s your responsibility.’ Chloe’s words brought me courage. Now I feel I’m not alone anymore. Her words will always be there for me.”
Writer: Coleman Haan