The “e-girl” and “e-boy” trend became mainstream knowledge in the West when TikTok gained popularity with Gen Z in 2018. Standing for “electronic,” the “e-” persona is nothing new. It describes youngsters that create online profiles and personas for attention, especially on platforms like Tumblr.
But as TikTok gained global momentum, the kids did something different with it — ironically deconstructing the terms’ derogatory connotations to create a new aesthetic. This e-kid culture pulled away from its rock music roots, while at the same time returning to the emotional vulnerability of 00’s emo. Adherents are now strongly associated with “sad boy” music: genres that deal with themes of depression and mental illness, such as emo rap.
Celine partnered with Noen Eubanks, one of the pioneers of the "e-boy" trend on TikTok, to reach global Gen Zers.
China’s Gen Zers, though still shaped by TikTok and Instagram, have grown up in a totally different social media ecosystem to their Western counterparts. It is impossible to understand them without taking recent domestic changes into account. The same goes for e-kids, and the homegrown variant of the trend represents a dazzling hybrid of hip hop, anime, and goth, as well as indie rock-and-roll and K-pop culture.
This is not to say that e-girls and e-boys don’t share similar looks and styles worldwide. But, crucially, to be an e-boy in the mainland is a political statement, one that seeks to challenge gender stereotypes by experimenting with traditionally feminine styles. Though not all e-boys identify as LGBTQ+, the trend shares many techniques associated with the culture, for instance, manicure and colored hair.
However, these fashion statements are not encouraged in China. In September 2021, authorities announced a ban on “sissy men and other abnormal esthetics” on TV, encouraging broadcasters to “promote excellent Chinese traditional culture” instead. Before the regulation, the Ministry of Education even proposed “masculinity” training for students through physical education classes. These all created obstacles for the e-boy community in the country.
Carminel Chen is a 20-year-old college student living in China who identifies as an e-boy. Speaking to Jing Daily, he describes himself as “a sentimental, sensitive person who hopes to figure out and establish self-identity in some way.” For Chen, every accessory on his body — including nails, hair, ear piercing, tattoos, and even perfume — is a statement of identity.
Brands, too. Chen references big names such as Miu Miu, Saint Laurent, Versace, and Craig Green, as well as niche labels like Ludovic de Saint Sernin and Enfants Riches Déprimés. From these, gender-fluid designs are a theme. And he tells how “I bought some women's clothing and women's bags that I may not wear at all and piled them in my closet. I feel very satisfied to have them, even if I don’t have the chance to wear them in my daily life.”
Chen is not alone in this. The online identity of e-boys is usually very distinct from their real-world personas — and the expectations that accompany them. The anonymity of social media allows them to dauntlessly express their “real” selves outside the dominant value system. However, Chen notes that e-boys here “don't deviate from the mainstream in pursuit of being different. We just want to make manifestos that represent ourselves.”
Celine, under the creative helm of Hedi Slimane, is one of the luxury houses pivoting to accommodate the e-boy trend: see, for instance, the unmistakable TikTok vibes in the recent menswear line it rolled out. Miu Miu also presented several men’s looks in its Fall/Winter 2022 collection, featuring low-rise shorts and skirts — which understandably sparked whisperings as to the possible comeback of its men’s line. Luxury companies have clocked the importance of this subculture to the global market; but can this approach pay off in China?
Though the mainland’s e-boys have been influenced by global trends in terms of styling inspirations, there are nuanced differences in their mindset. As Xiaolei Gu, director of the innovation consulting agency Fabernovel China, explains, “the e-boys in the Western context are trying to take a stand against the mainstream while those in the Chinese context are not really rebellious despite being in a subculture community.” This might make growth more difficult. But as recent advances have shown, inclusivity and diversity have become an unstoppable force in the global fashion scene. It’s not wise to bet against them, especially with so many disruptive brands taking their baby steps in the domestic market.
Gu points out that the e-boy community and the shoppers who appreciate the e-boy style are separate things here. She also references the pitfalls of disingenuously China-specific strategies. “The young kids who identify as e-boys always have access to brands’ global campaigns, which means brands’ values in different markets need to be aligned.” On the other hand, those shoppers who are not in the community but show interest in the style will refer to e-boy KOCs.
Though the scale of the e-boy phenomenon is smaller than it is in the West, there are still more than enough e-kid wannabes among luxury shoppers to make this a lucrative prospect. Beijing’s regulations on effeminate masculinity are still an issue. But this shouldn’t mean that it’s impossible to connect with this demographic: especially one that prides itself on newness, technology, and communication. Though the country’s narratives are dominated by their parents’ generation, players with long-term vision need to be patient with power dynamics and values — which are always changing, and could easily shift in the coming decades.