As millions of Chinese migrant workers head home to see their loved ones for Spring Festival this week, many of them are touting oversized plastic travel bags with a distinct plaid pattern that is typically considered anything but high-end fashion. However, the ubiquitous print has cropped up somewhere else this year—on the runways of top global fashion designers.
In 2013, both Céline and Stella McCartney created looks with a specific red, white, and blue tartan that appears on large, shiny bags that cost about $3 in China. Because they are so inexpensive and durable, the totes serve as a convenient form of luggage for poor migrant workers making the arduous holiday train journey between their work and home.
The pattern ended up becoming a major trend for the year as it was spotted on magazine editors and celebrities like Kate Upton, filtered to fast-fashion giants like Zara, and was featured on numerous fashion blogs.
However, one demographic that isn’t showing much love for the style is the vitally important Chinese consumer market, which associates the bags more with the working class than the fashion world’s elite. Chinese media outlets recently picked up on the trend, paying special attention to a photo showing Korean actress Jun Ji-hyun wearing a Céline jacket with the pattern. The starlet is “playing with fire” by wearing the “Chinese spring travel season red, white, and blue pattern,” said one article.
China’s fashion commenterati has also taken notice. Chinese fashion blog Fashion Moon posted a street-style “migrant-worker plaid” slideshow on Sina Weibo, stating, “The red, white, and blue plaid bags borrowed by the by the working masses haven’t retreated from the fashion arena, and are bound to draw criticism every time they’re promoted.” Poking fun at the origins of the style, it states, “These trendsetters on the street are having fun with ‘The Celestial Empire’s [China’s] Chinese New Year travel style.’”
Users’ comments on the trend are overwhelmingly negative, and they can be brutal. “They’re really ugly… I don’t even like them a little bit,” said one commenter on Fashion Moon’s slideshow. “Too ordinary! Everything they’re wearing is too commonplace. The last one looks like a baofahu! [Chinese nouveau riche],” said another. “In picture six, I’m amused by her incompetence,” quipped someone making fun of the photo subject’s choice of outfit. Even the widely admired Jun couldn’t make Chinese fans come around to the trend. “Even though she’s wearing the red, white, and blue plaid bag pattern, she’s still a goddess,” said one sympathetic devotee.
A small number of users were more positive about the pattern—but some of their comments had a twinge of irony. According to one writer, “Local flavor has made it to the international arena!” Another liked a sweater worn by Kate Upton, saying it was actually “beautiful.”
The world of high fashion often borrows from working-class styles, but China’s fashion-forward seem to be uninterested in copying the looks of the country’s migrant workers. One reason may be that these workers aren’t as romanticized in Chinese culture as, for example, “blue-collar” workers in the United States, who have given rise to the immense popularity of items such as chambray shirts and rugged worker boots in recent years.
This isn’t the first time this specific pattern has made it to the runways. In 2006, Louis Vuitton sent models down the catwalk with an actual imitation of the plaid bags, an item which is still mocked by Chinese netizens to this day. A recent photo of Chinese actor Huang Bo (黄渤) wearing a high-end factory-style jumpsuit posted to Sina Weibo caused one user to quip, “It can be paired with LV’s red, white, and blue plastic bag,” complete with chuckling emojis.
Without the critical support of Chinese consumers, the trend may once again be short-lived. For those who actually like the look, that may be a good thing in terms of deals—one Western fashion blogger found a Céline top with the pattern selling for 40 percent off in Florence.