Can ‘guochao’ give Chinese brands an edge globally?

    Traditional cultural elements can help brands win favor with local and global audiences, but caution must be exercised when incorporating them into designs.
    Feng Chen Wang Spring/Summer 2024 collection. Image: Feng Chen Wang
    Linzy LamAuthor
      Published   in Fashion

    This story was translated from a Chinese article published on Jing Daily’s WeChat channel.

    Fashion is witnessing a resurgence of traditional clothing elements and intangible cultural heritage crafts, ushering in a wave known as “New Chinese Style.” Horse-face skirts, Zhang satin, brocade, and embroidery are redefining elegance and sophistication, captivating a new generation of consumers with their timeless appeal.

    With China’s growing national strength, recognition of local culture among Chinese consumers has also risen. Consumption is not just about owning new products but also expressing personal values and attitudes through brands.

    Given Chinese consumers’ changing preferences, how can brands integrate Chinese culture into their products to enhance their competitiveness both locally and abroad?

    China’s cultural confidence surges#

    As China advances swiftly in technology, manufacturing, and various sectors, Chinese brands are increasingly earning acclaim. In 2024, 73 Chinese brands made it onto Fortune’s list of the world’s top 500 brands.

    In 2017, the establishment of May 10 as China Brand Day by the State Council marked a milestone for local brands, underscoring efforts to enhance their influence and recognition. Since then, an increasing number of domestic brands have garnered mainstream attention, shedding past stereotypes of being imitative, inferior, and cheap.

    In particular, guochao (national trend) has enabled Chinese brands to stand out, blending local Chinese culture with international aesthetics. In 2018, Chinese sports brand Li-Ning showcased its unique fusion of Chinese elements with trendy designs, fabrics, and cuts at New York Fashion Week, signaling the official start of the Guochao trend.

    Li-Ning’s inaugural New York Fashion Week show presented a Chinese spin on streetwear. Image: Li-Ning
    Li-Ning’s inaugural New York Fashion Week show presented a Chinese spin on streetwear. Image: Li-Ning

    The guochao phenomenon is only expected to continue as China’s cultural confidence and self-identity grows.

    “China’s 5,000-year history has accumulated a profoundly rich culture,” Eric Wang, CEO of Yingfan Technology and founder of CBNData, says. “However, in recent modern times, due to the century of hardships our country has endured, the cultural confidence of the Chinese people has, to some extent, been ‘broken.’ Rebuilding this confidence from a ‘broken’ state will take more time.”

    Gen Z seeks cultural fulfillment #

    Part of this rebuilding effort will undoubtedly come from China’s Gen Z. In recent years, young Chinese consumers have revived interest in traditional culture and increasingly integrated practices into their lives. This has sparked trends like temple visits, stove-boiled tea, and wellness and beauty rituals inspired by traditional Chinese medicine.

    According to the 2024 China Consumption Trends Report by Zhimeng consultancy, over 60 percent of consumers value spiritual consumption, seeking to create a fulfilling world through emotional richness, cultural nourishment, and self-enhancement. Products that embody cultural significance play a crucial role in influencing purchasing decisions.

    CBNData’s Wang Yang notes, “Consumers gain emotional value from cultural recognition when they engage with products related to Chinese traditional culture.”

    Traditional culture has also skyrocketed in popularity thanks to social media. During the Spring Festival, horse-face skirts became the most popular item in the Hanfu category, with the hashtag receiving 1.46 billion views and over 1.39 million posts on Xiaohongshu.

    Chinese netizens pose in horse-face skirts. Image: Xiaohongshu
    Chinese netizens pose in horse-face skirts. Image: Xiaohongshu

    By posting about wearing these skirts, Chinese netizens strengthen their cultural identity and spread the beauty of traditional fashion online.

    Guochao helps brands go global #

    In addition to influencing consumer preferences, China’s cultural heritage can provide brands with an ongoing source of creative inspiration and a competitive advantage.

    Feng Chen Wang, founder of the eponymous designer brand Feng Chen Wang, believes that deeply exploring traditional culture and integrating it with modern aesthetics can differentiate domestic brands from international ones. This unique cultural design style not only attracts local Chinese consumers but also garners attention from international markets.

    Inspired by traditional Chinese tea culture, Wang showcased her 2024 Fall/Winter collection at Paris Fashion Week. She views tea as an emotional bond that connects people and as an important cultural tradition from her hometown, Fujian.

    Feng Chen Wang’s Fall 2024 collection, featuring earthy hues, was inspired by Fujian’s tea traditions. Image: Feng Chen Wang
    Feng Chen Wang’s Fall 2024 collection, featuring earthy hues, was inspired by Fujian’s tea traditions. Image: Feng Chen Wang

    “I hope to convey the concept of ‘a hundred flavors, a hundred shapes, and a hundred colors’ of my hometown’s tea culture to everyone through the language of fashion design. These inspirations not only carry my love for my hometown but also express my respect for traditional culture,” she explains.

    However, brands must be cautious when incorporating cultural elements. Product design and marketing strategies should be based on a deep understanding and respect for the culture.

    “Brands need to go beyond superficial imitation of cultural symbols and deeply explore the inner spirit and philosophy of Chinese traditional culture, combining its essence with modern design concepts to create unique products with both cultural depth and fashion appeal,” Wang adds.

    As China’s national pride continues to swell, Wang from CBNData expects brands to become important carriers of cultural inheritance.

    “In the future, we look forward to more Chinese brands standing out in the international market with distinctive and characteristic appearances. At that time, brands might not need to emphasize ‘Chinese culture’ labels deliberately; their existence will inherently embody Chinese culture,” he says.

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