‘He-vage’ and ‘babygirl men’: Is China updating menswear’s identity?

    With ‘babygirl’ men cracking the pop culture zeitgeist and the FW24 season ripping up the masculinity rulebook, menswear is tapping into its feminine side once again in the West. Is the same happening in China?
    Stray Kids' Felix earned the title of 'babygirl' with his androgynous looks. Photo: Louis Vuitton

    Menswear has been toying with the idea of fluidity for decades, but the revival of terms like ‘metrosexual’ and a boom in ‘babygirl men’ is spawning a new era of gender-liberated dressing.

    “There’s nothing more obviously gendered than clothes,” trend analyst and Internet culture writer Manèle El Zoghlami tells Jing Daily. “We’re seeing the ripple effect of those discussions we’ve been having for years around masculinity, what it means, and how to redefine it.”

    The West’s infatuation with K-pop’s leading men is a sign of the times, says Andrew Lam, founder of London-based creative agency TouchLDN. China’s version – colloquially dubbed ‘little fresh meat’ – a cohort of young, effeminate male popstars and actors that took over the celebrity scene several years ago, is also an indicator of how the seeds of this trend have pan-Asian origins.

    This season’s fashion month was a constant push and pull between both ends of the menswear spectrum. Dunhill and YSL’s suits harkened back to the bygone times of 1980s Wall Street and 1920s dandyism. Meanwhile, Luar, Sabato De Sarno’s Gucci, and Pitti Uomo’s guest designer Luca Magliano celebrated the more sexually-free male, unyoked from stereotypes.

    From tights and low-slung sequin tanks to skirts and ballet flats, brands ripped up the rulebook for FW24.

    Luar's FW24 collection revived the era of the 'metrosexual'. Photo: Luar/Instagram
    Luar's FW24 collection revived the era of the 'metrosexual'. Photo: Luar/Instagram

    A (babygirl) man’s world#

    Off the runway, Gen Z terms like ‘babygirl men’ are also driving menswear’s identity overhaul.

    The phrase, which delineates a new wave of famous men (including Nicholas Galitzine, Paul Mescal, Jacob Elordi) embracing a softer, more feminine aesthetic, saw a spike in popularity in February on Google Trends.

    Timothée Chalamet, for example, has earned the moniker for his epicene style – for his Wonka Paris premiere last December, the actor wore a top version of a sheer dress taken from Tom Ford’s SS24 womenswear collection.

    “I think that playing with gendered clothes is not something new for a-listers and runway shows,” El Zoghlami says. “These actors have been defying perceptions of masculinity on screen, so it makes sense that this image would translate to their everyday style. But I think that doing so is specific to men like them who are conventionally attractive and already have an established female fan base; it’s actually part of their charm.”

    On the streets, male consumers are buying into female-centric accessories as an entry point into effeminate dressing. Searches for men’s handbags have increased 7 percent year on year according to consumer behavior advisor Circana, after styles including Bottega Veneta’s Andiamo bag and Chanel’s mini messenger bag were spotted slung over the shoulders of Euphoria star Jacob Elordi.

    Buzzwords like ‘metrosexual’ (used to describe males who live in urban areas and enjoy shopping, fashion, and similar interests traditionally associated with women or gay men) and ‘he-vage’ are also experiencing a revival, with New York-based label Luar dedicating its FW24 collection to the ‘metro man.’

    “Metrosexuals walked so that babygirl men could run, basically,” says El Zoghlami.

    Searches for ‘he-vage’ – the male version of the cleavage – spiked 86 percent over the past two years according to Google Trends, in line with the new wave of trendsetters such as Barry Keoghan and Paul Mescal baring their chests on the red carpet.

    View post on Instagram

    K-pop and pan-Asian origins#

    Men bending fashion rules and K-pop go hand in hand, says Jessy Zhang at Daxue Consulting. “Male K-pop idols are both a catalyst of the effeminate and gender fluid trend, but also possibly the result of it, as K-pop is a market that responds to consumer demand,” she says.

    The global meteoric rise of K-pop idols, such as BTS’ Jimin and Stray Kids’ Felix and Hyunjin, has also had a major influence on notions of male beauty across the West.

    Hallyu, or ‘Korean wave’ stars often center their aesthetic around ‘soft masculinity,’ defying the country’s hegemonic ideals of gender. Their doe eyes, delicate features, liberal use of makeup, and androgynous dressing have been positively received in the Western fashion scene.

    “The fashion choices of K-pop men have gained unprecedented importance,” TouchLDN’s Lam says, pointing to the rapid ascent of luxury overlords forming alliances with the country’s idols, such as E'Dawn at Valentino's Black Tie AW23 show, and Jimin of BTS at Dior Homme FW23.

    Likewise, Thai stars are also following in the footsteps of K-pop heartthrobs, including Nattawin “Apo” Wattanagitiphat’s appointment as ambassador at Dior, and Bright Vachirawit’s tie-up with Burberry.

    “These collaborations not only signify the brands' alignment with the latest fashion trends, but also highlight K-pop icons as industry representatives,” he adds.

    BTS' Jimin at Dior Homme FW24. Photo: Dior
    BTS' Jimin at Dior Homme FW24. Photo: Dior

    Cultural nuances#

    Gender-bending menswear isn’t as radical as it once was in the West, but China still has a long way to go.

    Lam believes that a government pushback and pressure to conform to more ‘manly’ expectations are stunting widespread adoption. As a result, the more palatable option of gender neutral dressing has made inroads. Unisex staple store Bosie has experienced huge success across the mainland with its inclusive designs. Today, it operates 26 brick-and-mortar locations across China.

    Mentions of genderless fashion on Xiaohongshu steadily rose on average by 16 percent each month between April and September last year, according to Walk The Chat, while Gen Z’s online shopping for unisex apparel has increased by 4.3 percent YoY, reports Daxue Consulting.

    Mentions of genderless fashion on Xiaohongshu steadily rose on average by 16 percent each month between April and September last year. Photo: Daxue Consulting
    Mentions of genderless fashion on Xiaohongshu steadily rose on average by 16 percent each month between April and September last year. Photo: Daxue Consulting

    That’s not to say the appetite for more effeminate styles isn’t there. Zhang explains that higher-tier cities in China, where residents are more politically liberal and financially affluent, have a higher acceptance of feminine-adjacent dressing. Zhang notes that pink pieces and floral patterns are currently key trends in the male gender fluid aesthetic.

    Lam also believes that the increasing accessibility of Western social media and travel opportunities in China are creating a more open-minded younger population.

    “The younger generation in China is displaying greater openness to Western fashion trends, including gender fluid styles,” Lam says.

    Like ‘babygirl men,’ the mainland’s love affair with ‘little fresh meat’ – a term relating to young, handsome celebrities boasting delicate features and sporting makeup that gained popularity in 2014 – has evolved into a marketing vehicle.

    “[Little fresh meat] is a title people [marketers, media, brands] know will attract fans and consumers. So it gets used on a wide range of male idols who are young and good-looking,” said Yishu Wang, a director at the marketing agency Half a World, told Jing Daily.

    Leading the vanguard#

    The ‘little fresh meat’ wave may have been met with contempt from the government, but the country’s next gen fashion talents haven't given up on leading the vanguard. Milan and Shanghai-based Pronounce and Hong-Kong’s Demo, which describes its signature as “soft masculinity,” to name a few, are leading China’s effeminate menswear evolution.

    Central Saint Martins graduate Sifan Chen’s brand Chén Sī Fān, is also gaining local recognition with its focus on ‘fragile’ male characters. TouchLDN’s Lim also spotlights Sansf as a brand that’s championing gender fluid models in its photo campaigns and contributing to the mainland’s growing acceptance of non-traditional aesthetics.

    View post on Instagram

    This menswear trend may be developing at different paces in China and the West, but its appearance in both prompts the same question: does it have staying power?

    While Lam believes buzzwords like ‘babygirl men’ eventually fizzle out, men transcending fashion boundaries and taking an interest in womenswear is here to stay.

    Likewise, El Zoghlami believes that Internet buzzwords and trend-cycles like ‘babygirl men’ can make movements like fluid menswear seem more widespread than reality. “I don’t think that menswear is as diverse as we would like it to be, yet,” she adds.

    • Terms like 'metrosexual' and the rise of 'babygirl men' signal a shift in menswear towards gender fluidity and softer aesthetics.
    • The global popularity of male K-pop stars like BTS influences changing notions of male beauty, embracing soft masculinity and defying traditional gender norms.
    • Fashion shows during this season's fashion month showcased a push and pull between traditional menswear and more sexually-free, gender-fluid designs, featuring everything from suits to skirts and ballet flats.
    • When marketing in China, brans should recognize the trend of male consumers embracing feminine-centric accessories and styles, leveraging celebrity endorsement to capitalize on the rising popularity of men's handbags.
    • Despite government pushback and societal pressure in China regarding gendered expectations, brands can learn from emerging designers who are pioneering effeminate menswear, facilitating a shift towards more inclusive and diverse fashion aesthetics.
    Discover more
    Daily BriefAnalysis, news, and insights delivered to your inbox.