After nearly three years of COVID-19 border restrictions, hyper-localism has become a key engagement strategy for China’s experience-hungry consumers. Currently, a series of diverse retail and fashion scenes are thriving across the country’s variously tiered cities, all with their own distinctive identity.
From established fashion capitals to emerging style hubs, we highlight the top five trend-setting hotspots to know: Shanghai, Chengdu, Aranya, Hangzhou, and Chongqing. To stay ahead of the curve, brands need to recognize that China is local. Each of these distinct cities has its own nuanced needs and unique peculiarities. Targeted strategies, ones that understand the subtleties of regional character, are now a dealbreaker for consumers that know exactly who they are — and where they come from.
Shanghai — The De Facto Culture Capital
Cultural marketing is the new keyword in capturing the sophisticated Shanghainese. In 2022, the city’s rich and diversified cultural scenes led to an explosion of art collaborations by luxury brands.
In November, Loewe hosted a monochrome ceramics-themed exhibition in Shanghai to supplement its Spring 2023 campaign inspired by Chinese ceramic crafts. Earlier in July, Marni opened a store at JC Plaza shopping center — its fifth in the city and the most ambitious yet — with a dedicated exhibition space called “Yunshi” (meaning “Meteorite”) on the second floor to host art openings. In addition, brands like Dior, Lancôme, and Jaeger-LeCoultre have mounted art exhibitions here, while Chanel has patronized the museum Power Station of Art as well as FIRST, a film festival focusing on emerging talents.
China’s most discerning, well-traveled, and cultured luxury customers often call Shanghai home. To get a glimpse of their tastes, check out the C-fashion incubator Labelhood, a major force in homegrown fashion, and the Instagram account @shanghai_fashionweek for updates on the city’s creative scene. Brands, such as Prada with its Rong Zhai space, that tap into culture-led strategies rich in local art inspirations and meaning will succeed, as consumers in Shanghai increasingly gravitate towards brands with a legitimate cultural story to tell.
Chengdu — The Youth Culture Center
Home to the viral #Chinese street fashion# hashtag on Tiktok, Chengdu has a population of over 20 million and can claim several impressive firsts. Last year, it became home to the nation’s first Louis Vuitton restaurant and Ralph’s Bar, as well as the world’s first Maison Margiela café. As such, it’s clearly on luxury’s map: In November, Hermès chose Chengdu as a destination for its global campaign “Le Monde d’Hermès,” bringing Parisian newsstands covered in the brand’s iconic orange to the local retail landmark Taikoo Li.
Chinese fashionistas know the city to be the ground zero for youth cultures. A slower rhythm of life, lower living costs compared to first-tier cities, and a metropolitan culture that embraces pleasure and indulgence have made Chengdu the hub for China’s most exciting music scenes and hottest new subcultures. On Xiaohongshu, Chengdu was voted the top city for “maximum dressing freedom” in an opinion poll. Think an eclectic mix of baggy streetwear, statement bags, and bold sneakers. Edginess and self-expression are what make young Chengduers tick.
Aranya — The Best of Chinese Vacation Glam
Located in the city of Qinhuangdao only two hours from Beijing, the resort town of Aranya is a favorite weekend getaway for China’s northern urbanites. Starting life as a real estate project, Aranya now features a curated community of art galleries, bookstores, cafes, and lifestyle hotels.
Luxury brands have been alert to the opportunity presented by Aranya’s wealthy tourist crowds. In June, Louis Vuitton presented its men’s Spring 2023 collection in Aranya, turning the town into an enlarged playground. Valentino then debuted its iconic Pink PP collection with a town takeover in September, covering community facilities in the brand’s signature hot pink hue.
A search for Aranya outfits (阿那亚穿搭) on Xiaohongshu will give you the best examples of China’s new vacation glam: Zimmermann or Self-Portrait floral chiffon dresses with designer sunglasses for the summer, and Après-Ski comfort chic during the colder months. In June 2022, Xiaohongshu hosted a glamping-themed influencer festival in Aranya, further cementing its status as the mainland’s most stylish vacation spot.
Hangzhou: Big Tech Meets Heritage Chic
Often overlooked by brands in favor of its more glamorous neighbor Shanghai, Hangzhou represents the best of both old and new China. Apart from being the home to Alibaba and many tech startups, the city boasts a long legacy of Chinese literature, art history, and tea culture.
The combination of a booming economy and breathtaking natural scenery has paved the way for an increasingly vibrant fashion scene. Trendsetters flock to lifestyle retail complex Tianmuli for its many Instagram-worthy spots: ranging from Japan’s high-end Tsutaya Books, to the curated buyer shop B1OCK, to C-designer home decor stores. In October, Burberry’s 7-meter-tall Lola bag installation and pop-up on the city’s lakeside pedestrian street became the background for many a post on China’s socials.
In addition, Hangzhou’s rich cultural history makes it a fertile ground for Guochao, China’s “heritage chic” fashion trend. Sportswear brand Asics collaborated with local Guochao players Xsneaker and Redcharcoal on a sneaker collection inspired by the city’s West Lake in March. To satisfy the city’s heritage-proud consumers, brands should make an effort to integrate Hangzhou’s cultural symbols and scenic beauty — neither of which is in short supply.
Chongqing — The Emerging Southwestern Hub
Chongqing, the southwestern mega-city of over 30 million inhabitants, is an emerging fashion powerhouse. Thanks to its photogenic cityscape and “bon vivant” charm, Chongqing ranked as the nation’s second most traveled city (after Beijing) in 2020, according to Chinese media outlet Jiemian.
The local fashion scene is fast catching up with Chengdu, with concept buyer stores SND and The Warehouse bringing niche international labels and disruptive interiors to the region. Moreover, Chongqing’s layered streets and neon-lit urban sprawls offer an ideal setting for the “cyberpunk” aesthetic. In May 2021, domestic sportswear giant Li-Ning launched a Chongqing capsule with limited-edition sneakers and streetwear accessories to celebrate the city’s youthful energy.