Culture

Facekini: Meet the woman behind China’s most infamous beach accessory

Sep 23, 2019

The facekini may be China’s most unusual fashion phenomenon.

A full-face mask that covers the entire head, it’s the ultimate protection against beachgoers’ worst enemy: the sun.

The latest facekinis on display at a beach in Qingdao in August 2019.
The latest facekinis on display at a beach in Qingdao in August 2019. / Photo: ImagineChina

The infamous beach accessory was invented in 2004 by Zhang Shifan, an accountant in the seaside city of Qingdao in northeastern China.

Her original intent was to create a mask that would prevent beachgoers from getting stung by jellyfish. But over the years, it’s evolved into a Chinese fashion anomaly—to the amusement of both domestic and foreign media outlets.

Zhang Shifan, the inventor of the facekini, with some of her creations.
Zhang Shifan, the inventor of the facekini, with some of her creations. / Photo: ImagineChina

Fifteen years after its debut, the facekini continues to evolve. What started out as a simple neoprene mask with holes now comes with elaborate prints and patterns.  

We met up with Zhang in her small office in Qingdao to talk about the facekini’s origins.

How did you come up with the facekini?

A lot of people came and told me they were being stung by jellyfish. So I started selling these thin wetsuits that go from neck to feet. People said it was really effective.

But then someone noticed that this could also be sun protection. “It’s good,” they said, “but it’s only done halfway.” I asked, “What’s missing?,” and he said, “Your face and neck.”

Asian people—our skin is yellow, so we tan really easily. We don’t think it’s pretty. We think being pale is pretty.

Then I came across the scuba diving hood and thought it could work for us. So I made a modification to the hood and just added to it.

My goal was to protect people from the sun and jellyfish stings. But Asian people—our skin is yellow, so we tan really easily. We don’t think it’s pretty. We think being pale is pretty.

You started this in 2004. When was the turning point? 

I went to a lot of trade shows, and in 2012, Reuters filmed us. That’s when we became famous internationally. But people thought we looked like masked thieves. They thought it was something scary.

People thought we looked like masked thieves.

I think the peak was probably 2014. I was reluctant to do interviews, but a friend urged me to do more media appearances and put a patent on it or else people might steal it. She had a point.

How have your designs changed?

I heard this one story about someone walking on the beach at night and seeing two people with facekinis on. He was so scared that he couldn’t even walk. It was only when those two people started talking that he realized they were human.

A woman adjusts the facekini on a child at a beach in Qingdao in August 2018.
A woman adjusts the facekini on a child at a beach in Qingdao in August 2018. / Photo: Reuters

I noticed a lot of other people were scared of the facekini, so I started making the designs more extravagant and realistic. I came up with one that looks like a Beijing opera mask. Older people tend to like those more.

We went to a beach in Qingdao yesterday and didn’t see any facekinis there.

It’s the tourist season right now. You need to find Qingdao locals. Not all of them know what it is, but a majority of them do. If you’re in Qingdao around 6 or 8 in the morning, it’s mostly locals, and it’s really natural for them to wear a facekini. They don’t think it’s ugly. They think it’s beautiful.

Chinese fashionFacekini

Credit

Producer and Host: Clarissa Wei

Videographer and Editor: Nicholas Ko

Mastering: Victor Peña