As China’s economic outlook cools, its fashion palettes have sobered up. The once-prevailing dopamine look, emblematic of the post-pandemic spending frenzy and widespread optimism that marked the early months of this year, has given way to the rise of subdued fashion.
A rekindled appreciation for timeless looks, calming colors, and culturally rooted crafts is reshaping young China’s fashion scene.
Maillard reaction (美拉德反应) and Chinese old money (中式老钱风) are among the fastest-growing trends on Chinese social media. While the former promotes neutral color palettes and the latter features heritage-inspired outfits, both trends signal a departure from the high-energy, bold styles that dominated the country’s fashion scene earlier this year.
Maillard fashion: China’s answer to quiet luxury
Maillard reaction, a cooking term first coined by the French chemist Louis Camille in 1912 to describe meat’s browning process, is having a revived fashion moment with young consumers in China. In August this year, GQ China and Douyin co-launched a Maillard Digital Fashion Show, featuring celebrity hosts wearing neutral-color outfits in a vegetable market during a livestream. The word “Maillard” went on to become a socially viral term to describe neutral-tone dressing.
Today, the hashtag #MaillardStyle (美拉德穿搭) has gained over 1.6 billion views on Douyin and 400 million views on Xiaohongshu.
Max Mara, the Italian luxury brand famous for brown and beige wardrobe essentials, has already tapped into the Maillard aesthetic. In September, Max Mara collaborated with China’s premium bakery chain Butterful & Creamorous on a product drop of butter croissants and caramel lattes wrapped in brown logo gift bags. Last month, Maybelline co-launched a Maillard-inspired city walk campaign with five local cafés in Shanghai to promote its new latte shade lipstick.
“The main colors of this viral Maillard trend are brown and beige, and these are colors to convey stabilizing, cocooning effects. I think the Maillard trend in China now is different than the generic neutral-tone wear that we see every season, as it often combines dark colors with fun highlights and warm textures,” Xiaojing Yang, founder of trend research firm Yang Design, told Jing Daily.
Classy, but not basic, call it young China’s answer to the quiet luxury aesthetic.
A local spin on the old money aesthetic
While the old money, stealth wealth aesthetic has swept the global fashion scene over the past two years, China has recently put a local spin on the trend.
Chinese old money, a style blending heritage-inspired elements with modern luxury, is Chinese Gen Z’s latest obsession.
On Xiaohongshu, there are now over 880,000 posts on Chinese old money styles, with the platform’s fashion-conscious crowd on the hunt for clothing made of traditional Chinese artisanal fabrics, such as satin brocade and gambiered canton gauze.
Actress Yang Mi has led the charge among fans of this new aesthetic. Earlier this year, her outfit posts on Weibo began to gain traction for their unique mix of traditional Chinese elements and street cool. In one post, she wore a traditional Chinese embroidered tassel blouse paired with a satin jacquard midi skirt. In another post, she styled a Song-style satin brocade jacket with baseball caps. She mixed and matched jade, a jewelry material often associated with granny style, with both traditional Chinese wear and contemporary labels.
From Maillard style’s neutral tones to the culturally rooted Chinese old money aesthetic, young China’s shift towards timeless, understated fashion marks a sharp departure from the bold dopamine looks that prevailed in the post-lockdown period. Other emerging subtrends, such as clean fit and academic chic, also point to a preference for sobriety.
In part, the rise of these fashion trends in China is influenced by similar economic factors seen in Europe and North America. Signs of an economic slowdown, like rising youth unemployment and a housing crisis, are putting pressure on aspirational consumers, while the ultra-rich remain largely unaffected.
According to a report by research firm Yaok Institute, in 2019, China’s high-net-worth individuals contributed to 73 percent of the country’s luxury consumption. In 2021 and 2022, the share increased to 80 percent and 82 percent, respectively.
However, this shared macro social backdrop does not mean that China will follow the same trajectory of quiet luxury as the West.
“I believe big logos will never entirely go away, even in today’s economic downturn. Chinese consumers have long associated luxury with big logos and bold expressions, and this association will stay,” said Yang Design’s Xiaoqian Yang.
Just like the cooking-inspired Maillard style, and the Chinese old money look, China’s fashion scene will evolve alongside the world’s macro themes, yet always with a creative spin.