China’s Best Retro Brands

Homegrown Brands Like Forever Bicycles, Huili Sneakers Making Comeback

Over the past several years, “fugu” (复古, or “retro”) style has been steadily growing in popularity among some of China’s younger, or more adventurous, urbanites. With brands like Nike and Adidas becoming ubiquitous from Shanghai to Xiji, and even the smallest third-tier city getting its own Louis Vuitton boutique, we’re seeing a growing nostalgia for home-grown Chinese brands take hold, often mixed and matched with major imported brands by Beijing or Shanghai hipsters and fashionistas. But as old and outmoded as some of these brands seem to most urban Chinese, they’re virtually unknown to the outside world. So what are China’s best fugu brands? Here’s Jing Daily’s list:

Clothing

Meihua/“Plum Blossom” (梅花服)

This Tianjin-based sports apparel brand, which fell out of favor when European and American competitors flooded into the China market in the 1980s, has remained virtually unchanged since the ’70s. The company has found new fans in recent years, particularly on Taobao, among those put off by the pervasiveness of sports brands like Adidas, Nike and Asics.

Meihua is a popular alternative to Adidas or Nike

Meihua is a popular alternative to Adidas or Nike

Bicycles

Forever C (永久C)

Earlier this year, the Shanghai bicycle brand Forever unveiled its retro “Forever C” (永久C) line, which hearkens back to China’s former reputation as the “Bicycle Kingdom.” As China Daily wrote earlier this week, The Forever C line retains “the simple structure that made the classic Forever black bikes so popular, but the two-wheel renaissance is bright with non-traditional colors such as yellow, blue and pink.” With an ad campaign featuring models leaping over the new bikes, and exclusive online sales on Taobao, Forever has its eyes set firmly on China’s young, hip demographic.

Forever's "Beishan" bicycle retails for 899-999 yuan (US$135-150) on Taobao

Forever’s “Beishan” bicycle retails for 899-999 yuan (US$135-150) on Taobao

Flying Pigeon (飞鸽)

Forever isn’t the only home-grown company to capitalize on the interest in fugu style in China, however. The nearly 80-year-old brand Flying Pigeon — long a favorite among hipsters on both sides of the Pacific — still produces classic lines like the PA-02 at its Tianjin factory.

Flying Pigeon PA02-9

Flying Pigeon PA02-9

Cosmetics

“Friendship” Brand Vanishing Cream (友谊牌雪花膏)

This old Shanghai brand, with its iconic white porcelain bottle and green cap, hasn’t completely shaken its “old-fashioned” image among the younger crowd, but some netizens say they favor its natural scent and non-greasy feel. (As well as its low price.)

Friendship brand vanishing cream

Friendship brand vanishing cream

Xiefuchun (谢馥春)

One of the oldest brands in China — and certainly the oldest on this list — Xiefuchun’s 180-year history stretches back to the Qing Dynasty. In recent years, despite the popularity of domestic competitors like Yue Sai and imported brands like Lancome and L’Oreal, Xiefuchun continues to draw plaudits for products like its duck egg powder. Along with other historic brands like Zhangxiaoquan scissors, Xiefuchun is one of the brands featured in Shanghai’s recently opened “Time Honored Chinese Brand Shopping Mall,” which Jing Daily covered last month.

Xiefuchun is available at Shanghai's Time Honored Chinese Brand Mall

Xiefuchun is available at Shanghai’s Time Honored Chinese Brand Mall

Shoes

Huili (回力, “Warrior”)

Huili recently kicked off an official brand relaunch of sorts, opening a new specialized boutique in Hangzhou’s swish Yintai luxury mall. Now labeled with the brand’s English name, “Warrior,” Huili will stock around 70 variations of its classic models through the remainder of 2010, raising this to 120 next year. Home-grown brands like Huili have benefited (both at home and abroad) from the attention gained by retro competitor Feiyue, which made inroads in the European market after being acquired by a group of Shanghai-based Frenchmen in 2006.

Huili sneakers run for US$27-44 at the new Hangzhou boutique

Huili sneakers run for US$27-44 at the new Hangzhou boutique

Feiyue (飞跃)

Perhaps the most well-known Chinese retro brand both domestically and internationally, in recent years Feiyue has appeared on the feet of Hollywood stars like Orlando Bloom, been involved design partnerships with Celine and Steph.Cop, and achieved “omnipresence” among Beijing hipsters. Even more recently, Feiyue has inspired new retro brands like Shulong. Based in Shanghai, as the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, Shulong’s shoes, which sell in China and Europe and online, “are similar [to Feiyue’s] in [their] simple construction but have been updated for modern styles with flashier colors and patterned fabrics.”

Feiyue is possibly China's most successful retro brand

Feiyue is possibly China’s most successful retro brand

Cameras

Seagull (海鸥)

Last year, the Chinese camera maker Seagull, which had fallen on hard times over the past 15 years, approached the photographer Chen Haiwen (陈海汶) to help revive the brand. After getting the company’s last assembly line back on track and assisting in the development of several prototypes, Chen Haiwen gave the thumbs-up to the first batch of new Seagulls, which will retail for upwards of 5800 yuan (US$870).

Chen Haiwen and his Seagull dual-lens reflex camera

Chen Haiwen and his Seagull dual-lens reflex camera

Watches

Shanghai Watch (上海手表)

Once the favorite of Communist Party chieftains like Mao Zedong and Zhou En’lai, Shanghai Watch has enjoyed a second wind following its 2008 collaboration with Jellymon and W+K, launching new high-end models that range in price up to US$100,000. Vintage Shanghai watches have also become collector’s items on Taobao.

The Jellymon/W+K/Shanghai Watch collaboration in 2008 helped revitalize the historic watch brand

The Jellymon/W+K/Shanghai Watch collaboration in 2008 helped revitalize the historic watch brand

Drinks

Arctic Soda (北冰洋汽水)

This Beijing-based soda brand, which ceased production in the 1990s not long after being acquired by Pepsi, was revived in 2009. Despite mixed reviews, this classic orange soda still does the trick on Beijing’s notoriously sweltering summer days. Although many Beijingers say the “new” Arctic Soda is inferior to its original iteration, reminiscence is proving a strong draw: as one shop-owner told Sina last year, 80-90% of customers who purchase Arctic Sodas do so purely out of nostalgia.

Arctic Soda for sale in Beijing last summer

Arctic Soda for sale in Beijing last summer

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