Could Streetwear Be a Global Gateway for Chinese Brands?

    The gray area between sportswear and streetwear is where Chinese brands might see the greatest potential to capture global interest.
    Li Ning’s partnership with Erik Ellington has launched the Chinese sportswear player into the global skateboarding market. Image: Courtesy of Li Ning
      Published   in Finance

    Key Takeaways:#

    • After success with professional sports, Chinese brands are looking for new opportunities to go global, with streetwear showing strong potential.
    • Li Ning recently expanded into skateboarding via a collaboration with Erik Ellington, while Edison Chen’s Emotionally Unavailable label went for the luxury angle through its collection with Longchamp earlier this year.
    • Driven by celebrity culture and reality TV, streetwear spending grew nearly four times faster than spending on non-streetwear apparel between 2015 and 2020.

    Over the past decade, as China has taken its place as one of the world’s most important fashion markets, many have wondered when China will develop its own globally influential brands. And while Shein has become a worldwide sensation among teens for its ultra-fast, ultra-cheap products, luxury efforts such as Shang Xia have maintained a somewhat lower profile, generally targeted towards Chinese consumers (although Shang Xia has also operated a boutique in Paris since 2013).

    In sportswear, Chinese brands have managed to carve out a niche for themselves among overseas consumers, predominantly via high-profile (albeit politically sensitive) pro basketball sponsorships. Among these, Li Ning has become the most visible on the world stage thanks to its endorsement deals with more than a dozen NBA players, with now-retired NBA star Dwayne Wade as the biggest name.

    Li Ning competitors Anta and Peak have also actively recruited NBA players away from other brands. Anta signed Klay Thompson and Gordon Hayward and Peak is endorsed by Atlanta Hawks point guard Lou Williams.

    But the area where sportswear and streetwear overlap is where Chinese brands might see the greatest potential to capture global interest through innovative collaborations and the use of content-commerce strategies honed in the Chinese market. The recently announced collaboration between Li Ning and skating legend Erik Ellington on the Chinese brand’s debut skateboarding line is a good example of a move into new product categories that could appeal to Gen Z consumers outside of China.

    Li Ning x Erik Ellington. Image: Courtesy of Li Ning
    Li Ning x Erik Ellington. Image: Courtesy of Li Ning

    Turning in a different direction from China-facing efforts like its $900 Way Of Wade 9 sneakers, Li Ning’s skateboarding collection is designed to appeal to the premium side of the skating market, with a lookbook shot in New York City by street photographer Lukas Gansterer featuring skaters Zach Allen, Tinga Johnson, and Davey Sayles. The Li Ning x Erik Ellington signature model shoe will retail for $180 and will be sold at trendy U.S. retailers such as KCDC and Black Sheep and online via SSENSE and Luisa Via Roma.

    Driven by celebrity culture and reality TV shows like Rap of China, FOURTRY, and Street Dance of China, Chinese growth in streetwear spending was nearly four times higher than for non-streetwear apparel from 2015 to 2020, according to a study by Nielsen and Chinese e-commerce platform OFashion. Riding on this hype, a growing number of young Chinese stars have launched their own labels, Including Jackson Wang (Team Wang) William Chan (CANOTWAIT_) and Lu Han (UGC) providing opportunities for collaboration with global names.

    Team Wang recently dropped a collaboration with Palm Angels founder Francesco Ragazzi that coincided with Team Wang’s first anniversary, and the label previously launched an “IPO” (initial product offering) on global sneakerhead platform StockX.

    Meanwhile, traditional luxury names have also joined forces with Chinese streetwear brands such as the collaboration between French brand Longchamp and Edison Chen and Kybum Lee‘s Emotionally Unavailable label on a boxing-themed collection, and Maserati’s partnership with CANOTWAIT_ on the extremely limited-edition Ghibli Hybrid Love Audacious.

    While streetwear labels launched by Chinese idols are gaining ground in their home market, global demand is likely to depend on their ability to find the right collaboration partners that will give them a broader reach. Li Ning’s recent collab with Erik Ellington is definitely a step in the right direction, and very well could set a blueprint for other, smaller Chinese brands to tap international talent with significant street cred and amplify their global prospects in the process.

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