One of the biggest showstoppers at New York Fashion Week last year was a collection of flashy Chinese sportswear in bold red and yellow, the colors of the Chinese flag.
As if the message wasn’t already clear, the Chinese characters for “China” were also emblazoned on the front and back.
The pieces were from athletic wear brand Li-Ning, founded in Beijing in 1989 by the Olympic gymnast of the same name. After years of losing ground to international sportswear brands such as Nike and Adidas, Li-Ning is fighting for the hearts of Chinese consumers by tapping into an overtly homegrown, nationalistic message.
And the brand isn’t alone. Today, shirts, sweats, and jackets with Chinese characters are replacing tacky T-shirts with broken English on the fashion-forward streets of Shanghai, as homegrown fashion takes root.
“In Chinese, we call this 文化认同感 (wenhuarentonggan),” says Angel Chen, a designer who has been making waves in China and abroad with her eponymous brand. “It’s hard to translate, but it means something like ‘shared cultural identity.’”
As China’s political and economic status has grown in recent years, so has its confidence in the realms of culture and fashion. Chen’s trademark pieces—unisex windbreakers printed with giant Chinese characters and designs from traditional Chinese stories—often sell out.
Part of the reason for their popularity is a desire by younger people to push back at the dominant narrative that China is a polluted monolith or factory for the world.
Another popular collection turned that idea on its head with an unapologetic “Made in China” design. The words were splashed across T-shirts and sweatshirts in red block letters in the spring/summer 2018 collection of Beijing-born designer Feng Chen Wang.
“Once they arrived in stores, one or two weeks later, they were sold out,” Wang says.
Homegrown designers, already fully immersed in the country’s cultural nuances, are positioned to understand the Chinese market better than other designers seeking to lure Chinese consumers.
International brands have had varying degrees of success breaking into the market. But some have fallen afoul of Chinese consumers for apparently tone-deaf attempts to win their favor.
In 2016, Victoria’s Secret was criticized for showcasing lingerie embroidered with dragons, a case that rang of cultural appropriation for some.
“As a Chinese, when we are using Chinese cultural elements, it’s very important to know the background,” Chen says. “It’s the same for Victoria’s Secret or any other foreign brand using Chinese culture. They need to feel full respect for the culture, and they need to use it properly.”
The popularity of minimalist streetwear with social media-friendly slogans has provided Chinese designers with a creative outlet to highlight Chinese culture and traditions as they see it—and to push back on perceptions of China as a copycat mill.
“It’s time to tell people, ‘This is the new China,’” Chen says. “It’s not what you think it is.”
China’s Project Runway
That new China was on full display last June, when the state-run broadcaster, CCTV, wrapped up the first season of its version of Project Runway.
The show, Fashion Master, proved to be a runaway hit. Each episode was watched by over 20 million people, more than eight times the viewership of Project Runway in the United States, and challenged designers to create clothing that incorporated elements of traditional Chinese culture.
Meng Yueming and Daniel Wang were two contestants on the show. Out of 32 designers on the show, Meng won the coveted “Most Promising Designer” title and Wang walked away with the accolade of “Designer of Excellence.”
Beyond the recognition, the designers were with provided studio space, investment, and mentorship from more established designers.
“Working in the Chinese market now is a great opportunity,” Wang says.
Aside from programs like Fashion Master, which give up-and-coming designers more exposure and recognition, e-commerce sites like Taobao, China’s Amazon, have made it easy for them to set up shop and connect directly with consumers online.
And a rising middle class with more disposable income is itching for brands beyond well-known international names like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Chanel. They’re seeking clothing that expresses their own individuality and personal values, and that is a boon for local designers who know how to articulate what it means to be stylish in China today.
“It is not a closed system, right? While I am a Chinese person living in China, I can also access information and inspiration from anywhere, just by having a good internet connection,” Wang says.
Meng, who used to work for Paris-based Chinese designer Gaowei, says the previous generation of designers was able to take advantage of lower manufacturing costs in China to sell Chinese-made clothes with a European price tag, but that opportunity is gone now.
“The cost of manufacturing clothes in China is no longer cheap,” he says. “The lowest rates are now in Southeast Asia, in countries like Bangladesh.”
That means many designers are competing in the Chinese market on quality rather than price.
“Eventually, I would be happy to share my designs with an international market,” Meng says, “but first I have to succeed in my own backyard. To do well in the Chinese market is not easy, even for a native Chinese designer.”
And online consumers can be fickle. A single negative comment can quickly erode a brand’s credibility. While establishing a popular Taobao store is an “I made it” moment for many designers, the achievement is precarious because customers are sending feedback 24/7.
“You have to be on your toes,” Wang says.
But Meng believes competition is healthy for local designers.
“I’m confident that if a brand can survive the domestic Chinese fashion market, it has the ability to do well in an international one,” he says. “The quality will be there, that’s for sure.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.