Chinese Characters in Fashion Design: Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?

Michael Zhang, 24, is a Beijing native studying in New York City (NYC), and says he always tries to bring something China-related back to New York when he visits home. His latest souvenir is a pair of white sneakers from Chinese brand Warrior (Huili 回力) recognized by many young Chinese as a local street sneaker icon.

“Funny you mentioned luxury brands, I actually tried on all different kinds of white sneakers, including those from luxury brands like Saint Laurent, Gucci, and Burberry – but decided to go with Warrior,” Zhang said.

Like many of China’s children of wealthy families, Zhang said he has no problem paying for a pair of luxury sneakers, but its the Warrior sneakers’ retro appeal that drew him to them. Zhang pointed towards the back of his shoe where the Chinese character for the brand 回力 is labeled in red, and said: “If you recognize these two characters, its like you’re saying you know what old school life was like in the 80s and 90s in China, it makes them special in a way that money can’t buy.” Warrior sneakers start at 78 RMB (12 dollars) on Tmall. 

Photo: Tmall

Thanks to popular reality shows like The Rap of China and Street Dance of China, street fashion has been pushed from underground into the mass market. Chinese consumers have long enjoyed showing off the logos of traditional luxury goods, however with a growing pride in local brands, Chinese millennials are now showcasing streetwear designs displaying Chinese characters. 

If before, wearing luxury goods displayed wealth, then wearing goods with Chinese characters now signifies the wearer’s personality, heritage and culture. Luxury or not, Chinese millennials are eager to announce their identities to the world.

Foreign Brands Accused of Appropriation 

Recently, foreign brands have experimented with the trend of Chinese characters in designs but seemed to miss the mark, being accused of cultural appropriation by many in the industry. 

“I noticed this trend began in 2015 when Nike launched its Air Force 1 High ‘NAI KE’,” said Xin Yi, KOL Marketing Director from luxury e-commerce platform OFashion, “In 2017 and 2018, there was a boom in brands adding Chinese characters to their designs, foreign or local, from Li Ning, Clot to Adidas, Nike, and Supreme – they all started to use this design element.”

According to Xin Yi, the recent sneaker collaboration between American hip-hop star Pharrell Williams and streetwear brand Adidas was one that left an impression on her, “When I first saw a picture of the design, I thought it was a bit awkward.”

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She is referring to the Hu NMD “Greater China Pack” set to be released on May 12. The collection comes in four colors, with each color corresponding to a different word, labeled on the left shoe in Chinese, and the right in English. The four words, “Happy”, “Peace, “Passion” and “Youth,” also stand for the four natural elements of metal (gold), water (blue), wood (green) and fire (red). Upon release, many Chinese netizens criticized the design.

“The design seems out of context, how are these characters related to local Chinese culture? They would have more luck selling the design if they’d put together a theme using core socialist values,” one Weibo user suggested.

Another example Chinese netizens still use to highlight the inappropriate use of Chinese characters, is the 2017 Spring Summer Collection from Designer Han Kjobenhavn. The Chinese print on the shoe reads: 回旋踢和麵烤面包. In English: “Roundhouse kick and bakes white bread.” This isn’t some cultural idiom- and according to Chinese netizens, the phrase makes as little sense in Chinese as it does in English. On the official website of the brand, it said the design is “to pay tribute to Eastern culture with Chinese character embroidery.” A GQ China article commented that “when designers face enormous cultural differences, reducing Chinese culture and language to simply an aesthetic element just will not resonate with local consumers.”

Local Brands Using Characters to Demonstrate National Pride

So, what kind of design is appreciated by the Chinese sneakerhead? Yi gave one example of the collaboration between local streetwear brand Clot and Converse One Star 74, released in September 2017. Building upon the classic Converse One Star style, Clot founder Edison Chen and Kevin Poon took inspiration from Chinese Philosopher Confucius, using opposing black and white colors to represent the idea of Yin and Yang. On the side of the shoe is a statement by Confucius in Chinese: “Past scholars studied to improve themselvesToday’s scholars study to impress others.”

Edison Chen in Converse One Star 74. Photo: Clot

“Many post 80s and 90s generations are looking for designs with Chinese characters that can make a statement, but first those characters have to stand the test of time,” said Yi from OFashion, “To really make a collection stand out in today’s competitive market, there has to be combination of a thoughtful design, the appropriate choice of collaboration, accompanied by a limited edition release – all of those elements have to work together.”

Luxury Brands Should Localize Their Message 

One local icon, founder of Clot, Edison Chen, is often coined as “The Godfather of streetwear in China” due to his determination to represent Chinese culture on the world stage, in fashion capitals like Paris and New York. 

Edison Chen was born into a wealthy family in Vancouver, Canada, and moved to Hong Kong at an early age. About ten years ago, at the height of his acting and hip-hop career, hundreds of naked and highly suggestive pictures of Chen with female celebrities were leaked, leading him to announce that he would no longer be a part of the entertainment industry in China. Chen then went on to build streetwear brand Clot from the ground up, with the company reaching an annual turnover of 10 million dollars in 2016. 

Chen’s successful comeback story helped to give shape to the emerging spirit of Chinese hip-hop – that despite obstacles, an underdog can rise up and gain success. Though hip-hop is still often shunned by mainstream Chinese society, streetwear as a fashion statement continues to thrive through a sense of new rebellion.

For luxury brands hoping to incorporate Chinese characters into their designs, its vital to be cautious about the message being sent out. Foreign brands need to learn the balance between relating to this rebellious crowd, and being politically and culturally sensitive. 

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Architecture & Design, Creative, Culture