In the past few days, the fashion world has been almost unanimously fixated on the Met Gala, and Chinese consumers are no exception. Thanks to Chinese fashion bloggers and a controversial Chinese theme in 2015, the Met Gala has become one of the most discussed topics on Chinese social media this week.
The once Western celebrity-dominated event—arguably one of the most high-profile celebrations in the fashion world—has appealed to an increasing number of A-list Chinese actors, models, and designers, acknowledging China’s growing influence on the Western fashion world and the luxury industry in general.
What are Chinese consumers saying about the Met Gala?
This year, Chinese actress Yang Mi made her debut at the Met Gala, whose theme was “Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between,” honoring Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. Yang was an invitee by U.S. luxury brand Michael Kors. While Yang enjoys a huge fan base among Chinese millennials and has worked with many luxury brands, such as Estée Lauder, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, reviews have been mixed on both her black-and-nude outfit at the event and her being invited to attend the gala in the first place.
For those who chose to take the theme to an extreme, fashion bloggers on WeChat were not hesitant to challenge and criticize them either. In a similar fashion to the overwhelming amount of disdain over celebrities’ outfits at the Met Gala 2015, which went with a China theme, Chinese internet users ridiculed Western celebrities’ gowns, likening them to food, home decor, and local memes.
One fashion blogger on WeChat said about Katy Perry’s John Galliano–designed dress, “To the onlookers who do know anything about ‘fashion’, Katy Perry’s veil looks like a red mosquito curtain. As for Madonna, the poses she made resemble those by Sister Furong.” Sister Furong is a controversial, narcissistic figure from a small county in the northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, who made her fame by posting stories and pictures of herself on Chinese online forums in 2005.
On the other hand, the other two Chinese attendees—supermodels Liu Wen and Fei Fei Sun, have generally attracted positive comments on the internet. Liu Wen, in particular, who wore a denim look by Milan-based label Off-White and was named among the Met Gala 2017 Best Dressed Stars by Vogue, received a large number of “likes” and generous reviews on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, Instagram, and WeChat.
“Every year, Liu Wen is a beautiful scene [at the Met Gala],” wrote one Weibo user. “Off-White’s founder, Virgil Abloh, was Kanye West’s officially appointed designer. Rei Kawakubo’s work is known for asymmetry. Liu’s dress clearly fits in with the theme of the gala and the original idea of Rei Kawakubo’s designs. I am super proud of our national supermodel!”
How did the Met Gala become a big deal in China?
Liu Wen’s confidence and success is partly due to her abundant experience with the Met Gala—this is her eighth time attending the event. Liu is also not alone. In the past decade, more and more Chinese icons have been making appearances at the Met Gala, accompanied by the event’s increasing publicity among Chinese audiences. The reciprocal relation epitomizes China’s growing influence on the world’s fashion, luxury, and cultural industries.
As early as 2009, Du Juan, one of the first Chinese supermodels who made her fame in the international high fashion world, was invited by luxury make-up brand Lancôme to attend the Met Gala. As one of the first mainland Chinese fashion icons to walk the red carpet at the event, Du Juan and her success was quickly followed by others. Luxury brands and designers including Chloé, Lane Crawford, Philip Lim, Tory Burch, and Vera Wang have extended invitations to rising Chinese supermodels, such as Liu Wen, Xi Mengyao, Qin Shupei, and Chen Bige to walk the Met Gala red carpet over the years.
Since then, Chinese stars have become more and more high profile and significant to the Met Gala. Besides supermodels, actresses such as Zhang Ziyi, Fan Bingbing, and Zhao Wei have all been invited by Vogue China.
The year 2015 was perhaps the most significant and attention-grabbing year to Chinese audiences and the Met Gala’s outreach to China. That year, Anna Wintour and her team made the Met Gala theme “China Through the Looking Glass,” and Chinese A-list actress Gong Li and well-known businesswoman Wendi Deng Murdoch were invited directly by Met Gala’s organizers to be the co-chair and host of the event.
Not only were Chinese stars out in full force, but millions of Chinese internet users were producing a huge social media buzz about the 2015 Met Gala on Sina Weibo and elsewhere, many of whom were hearing about the Met Gala for the first time. While Western celebrities’ choice of outfits and interpretations of Chinese fashion were ridiculed on Chinese social media, many felt proud to see the strength of Chinese culture through the fashion industry and expressed that they “welcome the world to come and understand China.”
Why should luxury brands care about China during the Met Gala?
While Western fashion houses and luxury brands have begun working with Chinese celebrities since the early 2000s, the high level of attention directed toward the Chinese market these days is relatively new. The enormous purchasing power of Chinese consumers has undoubtedly fueled China’s decade-long ascent to the top of the fashion game.
Michael Kors’ partnership with Yang Mi at this year’s Met Gala, though controversial, is just one example of how luxury brands are leveraging the influence of Chinese celebrities on Chinese consumers. Off-White, a brand previously known to very few in China, is now being featured on Chinese media and fashion blogs on WeChat, as a result of Liu Wen’s outfit choice. Even before the official launch of the gala, Chinese consumers were following guides written by fashion bloggers on topics like, “where to buy Rei Kawakubo’s clothing,” and “what to buy based on the theme of the Met Gala.”
Despite the recent decrease in Chinese luxury goods consumption due to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, the growing Chinese middle class still comprises the heart of luxury retail sales. As Anna Wintour predicted, the luxury industry will be the one that unleashes Chinese spending power. The swelling influence of Chinese celebrities and designers, and the increasing attention Chinese audiences have for the Met Gala, is a demonstration of this trend.