Spirit Boy is the next highlight in Jing Daily’s new series, Gen-Z Watch, which reports on the booming Gen-Z luxury market in China. The series analyzes microtrends and styles that are contributing to the empowerment of young Chinese fashion communities.
In the West, someone “spirited” is considered to be full of energy, enthusiasm, and determination. But in Chinese, the word has a more complicated meaning, and according to China’s Gen Zers, the term Spirit Boy now refers to an over-enthusiastic party-goer that has a tasteless and outdated fashion sense (including tattoos, corny catchphrases, and cringe-worthy dance moves).
But, although this internet buzzword has a negative connotation, youngsters have been imitating Spirit Boy behavior ironically. On the short video platform Douyin, the hashtag #spiritboy now has over 11 billion views, and, as a result of the trend’s popularity, the phrase has also inspired the sale of related clothing items on e-commerce sites like Taobao. Because of this, many are saying the fad blurs the line between lowbrow and high-end styles.
The original Spirit Boy aesthetic gained popularity during the early aughts, but the style’s mainstream influence gradually died down. Yet, the trend held on in rural areas of Northeast China where 22-year-old college student Xu Han grew up. “As Kuaishou [a short video app targeting second and third-tier city users] took off and popularized this aesthetic in recent years, people in other cities saw it and decided to mock it because it’s different and seemingly tasteless,” said Xu.
Just like generations before them, Gen Z has its own unique approach to fashion and luxury (millennials also invented peculiar trends on their way to becoming one of luxury’s fastest-growing consumer groups.) According to Layla Lee, associate account director at the luxury digital agency DLG, being born in a digital age with “access to all sorts of information” has led Generation Z to value “originality and independence.”
“These young consumers seek to combine the different styles and cultures they have been exposed to,” she added, “without necessarily being influenced by media and major fashion houses.”
While this trend might be popular in the social media realm, it does not necessarily translate into real life. Douyin enthusiast Junzhou Wu from, who comes from Xi’an, told Jing Daily that he often comes across the Spirit Boy hashtag on the app but would never incorporate it into his daily attire. “Many people associate this look [slip-on shoes, tight trousers, etc.] with being uneducated,” Wu said. When asked about the reasoning behind this current fad, he said that “a lot of people find it funny, and when one hashtag goes viral on Douyin, everyone wants to take a shot at it.”
As Jing Daily previously reported, Chinese Gen Zers’ ironic imitations of trends like Tea Art and Too Cool are meant to circumvent the negative connotations behind these phrases. The Spirit Boy fad is similarly influencing fashion and adding spark to the young generation's diverse style. Therefore, brands wanting to cater to the demands of the world's largest luxury market should not ignore the potential of this micro-phenomena, and they should market themselves accordingly.
However, when confronting a generation of socially aware individuals, the biggest challenge for a brand is how to walk the fine line between "playful sarcasm" and "tastelessness." The most recent Louis Vuitton menswear show in Shanghai and Balenciaga’s Y2K-style Chinese Valentine's Day campaign both received heavy criticism from netizens. Many claimed they were “too tasteless,” but others defended them, saying they were fun.
Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether a brand is being tasteless as part of a marketing strategy or if it’s due to a disconnect between the brand and its local marketing team. As “Campaigns intended to be ironic can easily be misconstrued as disrespectful if not properly executed and communicated,” Lee noted, “especially given the rising patriotism among young Chinese consumers.”
In a globalized economy, fashion groups must often go through a trial-and-error period when working with cultural representations. But China’s digital sphere, with its rapidly-changing Gen-Z trends, is the perfect testing ground. However, before overseas fashion labels even start to think about potential cultural missteps, they should evaluate whether adopting a niche trend would come at the expense of dominant consumer archetypes – particularly those of their long-time fans. As such, these marketing initiatives must be executed with a cautious and holistic approach because appealing to one niche demographic while overlooking the larger core audience could be a recipe for disaster.