For more than a decade, the global media has described China primarily as a place of luxury consumption and investment rather than a place to go for creative production. A discussion on the subject will often contain an argument like “China is the world’s largest fashion market, but Chinese fashion talents are not at the same level as their Western counterparts.” Naturally, Western media tends to focus on China’s maturing luxury consumers and their consumption of western brands while overlooking how the rise of Chinese designers could add to fashion’s global picture. But now, the imbalance between China’s luxury fashion consumption and its production might’ve finally hit a turning point.
In 2019, the word “国潮,” which means “Chinese heritage hip,” went from an online buzzword to a legitimized concept that even appeared in China’s official government mouthpiece, The People’s Daily. The newspaper published a piece on February 24 dedicated to the influx of Chinese designers at recent fashion weeks, praising the rising style of “Chinese heritage hip” as showing a new “cultural confidence” in the field. For decades, the country’s lack of soft power around homegrown luxury creators allowed for a huge appetite for Western products, but those inclinations have been changing. A fading aura surrounding Western brands, a consumer base with ever-evolving tastes, and the continued refinement of Chinese designers are starting to transform the way people think about fashion in China. In short: Chinese fashion isn’t what it used to be, because China is not what it used to be.
Though Western fashion brands are still desirable, they’ve lost the air of total authority they owned a decade ago. Fashion scholar Juanjuan Wu, now a professor at the University of Minnesota, wrote about how the influx of Western luxury brands profoundly impacted Chinese consumption values in her 2009 book Chinese Fashion: From Mao to Now. Ten years later, Professor Wu explained to Jing Daily that “since a great number of Chinese consumers gained access to global luxury fashion, luxury brands start to lose their appeal to the Chinese fashion leaders, precisely as they are no longer exclusive. Thus, they can no longer provide the social distinction that the fashion leaders desire.” Besides Western labels’ diminishing exclusivity, China’s increasingly woke consumers have become less tolerant of Western luxury brands that commit egregious cultural faux pas. “The new generation of Chinese are less forgiving than their parents on any cultural mistakes that global fashion brands may make, such as the recent Dolce & Gabbana case,” said Professor Wu. For that, we can thank that nation’s booming economy, which has bred a steroidal sense of cultural pride into China’s younger generations, who use social media to facilitate massive-scale brand boycotts against offending international companies such as Zara, Burberry, Balenciaga, and the aforementioned D&G.
China’s unprecedented level of interest in fashion has also contributed to the shifting consumer attitude towards the country’s own fashion makers. “China was never short of fashion talents,” said Steven An, the founder of Chi Design, a made-in-China overseas rebranding organization that brought seven Chinese designers to showcase at Milan Fashion Week 2019. “It’s just nobody was noticing them in the past. [It’s] only when material life has become better and people start to care about fashion that they become the center of attention.”
The new generation who grew up in relative wealth not only cares about fashion in a way unknown to older generations, but it also internalizes the “you are what you buy” consumerist message. Easy characterizations that put the entire demographic into boxes like “logo manic” or “sneaker lover” no longer work, as China’s new consumers demand the same level of nuance that brands give to their global audience. “Today’s Chinese consumers appear to be more like their western counterparts than like their parents,” said Professor Wu. “Individual tastes, instead of social status, have become defining elements of fashion identity.” And to Chinese designers, a more sophisticated fashion audience is a good thing. “Young people, especially the post-’90s and post-’00s, have a much broader sense of aesthetic tolerance than fashion customers ten years ago,” said Zac Zeng, founder of the designer brand F/FFFFFF, which has been shown around the world, including New York and Milan.
This ever more affluent and discerning audience has thus provided a fertile market for today’s Chinese designers, and that could be the determining factor for Chinese fashion to find the global relevance it craves. In a 2017 essay “Why Haven’t Chinese Designers Taken Over the World Yet?” published on Highsnobiety, writer Alec Leach argues that Chinese designers haven’t gone big because they had looked to expand overseas first because they sought western approval instead of looking into the domestic market. The shift from looking out to looking in is only just happening now. Chi Design founder, Steven An, told Jing Daily that “after 20 years of American-style capitalization, [the fashion market in] China is very commercial now. A Chinese brand is more probable to achieve success in China more than elsewhere.” After all, China is expected to account for almost half of global luxury spending by 2025, and its own designers are likely to have a better grasp of this massive market’s shifting taste.
It doesn’t mean that there aren’t any hurdles left for Chinese fashion. Alex Liu, the founder of the designer fashion brand Alexstorm, which has been shown in Paris and Milan, told Jing Daily that “I do believe this is the best moment for Chinese designers. Our manufacturing is growing, we have the world’s fashion market and all that, but we still lag decades behind in fashion background and taste development.” A conservatism within the traditional fashion centers paradoxically poses a problem, too. According to Steven An, traditional fashion circles are simultaneously welcoming and defensive towards Chinese designers. “Many say how much they welcome Chinese talent, but they don’t want the existing rules to be touched,” he said. To designers like Zac Zeng and Alex Liu, they think it’s only a matter of time before a more distinct genre of “Chinese fashion” appears. During the 1980s, Japanese designers had succeeded in Paris by challenging the prevailing seat of fashion — both aesthetically and intellectually. Whether Chinese designers can also infiltrate fashions reigning circles will depend upon the kind of questions they provoke on the runway over the coming seasons.