Is China’s Gen Z jumping on board ‘indie sleaze’?

    An alternative style subculture that formed out of the noughties' Great Recession, ‘indie sleaze’ is slowly gaining ground among Chinese Gen Z consumers.
    British TV show Skins led the way for indie sleaze fashion choices among teens in the 2000s. Photo: Channel 4
      Published   in Fashion

    Young millennials have reached the age when fashion is resurrecting their teens, with Gen Zers moving from the early to late noughties for style inspiration. Accelerated by the popularity of box office sensation Saltburn — set in 2006 and 2007 and grossing $1.7 million in its opening weekend — “indie sleaze” is back.

    Reaching 179.7 million views on TikTok, #indiesleaze refers to the era when Western fashion was steered by indie guitar bands, a hangover of 90s grunge, and (in the UK, in particular) a hit TV series called Skins that followed the tumultuous lives of a group of teenagers.

    The aesthetic is a concoction of colorful box-dyed hair, or overexposed roots, purposely ripped fishnet tights, Dr Marten boots, and flannel shirts. Gaining momentum at the height of the Great Recession, it was about looking good on a budget, forgiving holey clothes and buying everything second-hand.

    And just like the “Ivy League,” “blokette core,” and even “Asian baby girl” trends, indie sleaze is making its way to the mainland.

    The interplay of East and West influences continues to be a driving force of youth style in China

    Same, but different#

    Taiwan-born, London-based founder of agency NNN Creative, Liren Shih says the accessibility of Western fashion on social media has played a pivotal role in shaping the fashion landscape for the younger demographics. "The interplay of East and West influences continues to be a driving force of youth style in China.”

    On Xiaohongshu, #indiesleaze has around 167,000 views so far, indicating that it is early days. Netizens have recognised the fact that the trend represents anti-consumerism, with lookbooks presenting second-hand clothing, taken on vintage film cameras. Amid China’s current economic downturn, the timing is conducive for indie sleaze to take off.

    View post on Instagram

    Indie sleaze is steeped in Western culture, from British boy bands like The Arctic Monkeys and American singer Taylor Momsen, with noughties party photographer Mark Hunter, aka The Cobrasnake, famously capturing it all. But when a Western trend spills over to China, it undergoes changes in terms of cultural semantics, historically or socially.

    Heavily influenced by 20th century rock and roll and anti-establishment concepts, indie sleaze does not reflect the mood of the noughties in China.

    China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, a time when young people looked forward to growing opportunities and greater wealth, as opposed to the hard economic times the West was experiencing.

    Indie sleaze styling advice on Xiaohongshu. Photo: Xiaohongshu
    Indie sleaze styling advice on Xiaohongshu. Photo: Xiaohongshu

    Borderless transmission#

    Indie sleaze is the latest example of how the internet’s globalization effect has helped produce a melange of fashion trends.

    Everything [is] everywhere all the time on the Internet. You want to see and know everything

    “As a video content creator, I am inspired by all kinds of cultures and trends from all over the world,” Chinese influencer Guo tells Jing Daily. “Whether that’s American cult movies, British rock/indie music, Russian sports looks, or Japanese animations. You know how those platforms work, everything, everywhere all the time on the Internet. You want to see and know everything.”

    As indie sleaze has only just hit Chinese consciousness, most of the available content online comprises either explanation videos, or styling advice.

    Xiaohongshu videos breaking down indie sleaze reference the likes of artist Sky Ferreira, models Kate Moss and Agyness Deyn, and designer Jeremy Scott. Featuring layers of fur, leather, and lace tights, the Chinese take so far is more immaculately grunge than the origin of being rough-around-the-edges.

    View post on Instagram

    That is a natural evolution — when a trend resurfaces years later, whether it is Y2K or 80s punk, it takes the form of an aesthetic rather than a cultural movement or subculture. And today’s visually-led generations are renowned for appropriating movements and subcultures rather than genuinely being a part of that community, simply for enjoying the way they look.

    Many people say subcultures are dead today due to their aesthetic influence overtaking any level of interest in the music, art, or culture that produced them. So, there is not much difference between China borrowing Indie Sleaze from the West than today’s Gen Zers wearing ripped tights and tartan mini skirts, as the majority have probably never watched Skins or listened to The Strokes anyway.

    Judging from the rise of sex-positivity, self-expression, and incorporation of Western trends among Gen Z, China's indie sleaze era is definitely on its way.

    "China is 49 times the size of the UK. There are tons of different lifestyles, which generate different fashion tastes and trends. But indie sleaze might just spread very fast on the internet," says Guo.

    • Joining style subcultures such as Ivy League or Quiet Luxury, Indie Sleaze is taking on Xiaohongshu, with #indiesleaze at around 167,000 views so far — it is early days.
    • Chinese netizens have recognized that Indie Sleaze represents anti-consumerism, with lookbooks referencing second-hand fashion, and vintage film photography.
    • Brands can attract young Chinese consumers by incorporating elements of American cult movies, British punk rock, and Eastern European vintage sports looks into their offerings.
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