From National Pride to Nostalgia: What Makes Chinese Fashion “Chinese”?
Since 2019, the fashion market in China has been the biggest and fastest-growing in the world.1 Whereas foreign brands dominated the luxury sector for decades, recent years have seen the emergence of a new wave of Chinese designers.
However, what makes fashion design “intrinsically Chinese” remains an open question. Should they mark their work as distinctively Chinese or give free rein to their creativity without taking their nationality into consideration?
Post-reforms era: the birth of the Chinese fashion market
In the 1980s, in stark contrast with the uniformity of clothing during the communist years (1949-78), increased economic prosperity and seeping foreign cultural influences led to a shift in mentality: individualism and self-expression were on the rise and were reflected in fashion and clothing.
In the first decades of the market economy (1980-2000), most Chinese designers would receive their education abroad, as the first international fashion institute in the country was only founded in Shanghai in 1994 within Donghua University.
It is this group of young talents, together with Chinese-American designers such as Anna Sui and Vera Wang, who pioneered Chinese identity in the Western-dominated field of fashion. However, traditional Chinese elements are scarcely seen in their designs, a reflection of the Western-centric education they received.
The Rise of Chinese Designers: the 国朝Guochao craze
In the past ten years or so a new phenomenon emerged in Chinese fashion: 国朝 guochao. Literally meaning “National Tide”, guochao refers to the preference of younger Chinese generations for domestic fashion brands showcasing elements of Chinese aesthetics. This phenomenon emerges from a rising middle class who is increasingly aware of the importance of their national identity (often referred to as 文化自信wenhua zixin or “cultural confidence”). They seek to express it through clothing choices that are not only mirroring Western taste but can, in fact, be truly Chinese.
Guochao is also a response to many failures of Western luxury to appeal to Chinese consumers by referencing Chinese culture in an inappropriate way. The advertisement campaigns by Italian luxury brand Dolce&Gabbana in 2018 where a Chinese model eats Italian food using chopsticks is one of the many examples.2
It is in this cultural context that Chinese sportswear brand Lining 李宁 rose to international fame, with its debut at New York fashion week in 2018. The collection proudly showcases Chinese elements: bright red and the characters 中国 Zhongguo “China” are everywhere to be seen on the garments. The difference from Galliano’s approach is striking: Chinese fashion is not exotic and romanticized by the Western gaze anymore, but instead deconstructed and incorporated in the global trend of streetwear and athleisure by Chinese designers themselves.
Provided by VOGUE Runway. 02/01/22
Nostalgia in the work of Contemporary Fashion Designers and Photographers
Recently, a new trend seems to be taking hold in the Chinese fashion industry: that of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a recurrent theme in many prominent young Chinese designers such as Beijing-based label MARRKNULL which incorporates fabric and objects of 80’s China into their creations, paying tribute to China’s manufacturing history3.
Such nostalgic feeling is expressed in their campaign as well as in the clothes they design. For instance, these shots from the 2019 spring-summer campaign, feature middle-aged women dancing in Tiananmen Square and a young couple getting their wedding shoot done. We can see Chinese elements incorporated in the pictures when it comes to structuring, patterns, color, and even setting. However, these elements don’t belong to a pre-modern past, but instead, refer to the modern China of the 1980s.
Another example of nostalgia can be found in the recent collaboration between Shanghai-based designer Yiran Tian and internationally-acclaimed fashion photographer Leslie Zhang. Leslie Zhang, also based in Shanghai, has quickly become the go-to photographer for international luxury brands that are interested in the Chinese market, due to its tasteful incorporation of Chinese aesthetics into fashion campaigns. However, his last project shows, once again, that the way to appeal to young Chinese is perhaps through the communication of a more familiar and relatable past, instead of endlessly referencing aesthetics typical of imperial China.
Released in 2021 on the occasion of 七夕 qixi, Chinese Valentine’s Day, the collaboration was named “Romantic China” (浪漫中国 Langman Zhongguo) and consisted of a series of images and a pop-up event in the Shanghainese retail space Labelhood. In the heart of Shanghai’s former French concession, Yiran Tian’s new collection was showcased in a setting almost identical to a typical apartment of the 80s: the clothes were displayed alongside objects such as cups, suitcases, and even the furniture was faithfully recreating a nostalgic feeling of lane-houses in the 70s and 80s.
In these nostalgia-ridden fashion collections and photographs, modern Chinese history and identity are seen by young Chinese designers as a source of inspiration. Such identity is incorporated into fashion and photography, by referencing not only traditional clothing and patterns but also popular garments and objects brought by the era of mass consumption. Such artistic creations show how the fashion industry is becoming more and more aware of its cultural origins, and it reflects on Chinese identity not only from a Western exoticizing perspective but also from the standpoint of Chinese people who have experienced first-hand the rapid changes in Chinese society.
References / To go further
“Fashion Industry in China: Analysis of the World’s Largest Fashion market,” Daxue Consulting, March 1, 2021, https://daxueconsulting.com/fashion-industry-in-china/.
Pan, Yiling, “Is It Racist?: Dolce & Gabbana’s New Ad Campaign Sparks Uproar in China,” Jing Daily, November 19, 2018, https://jingdaily.com/dolce-gabbana-racism/.
Yi Jing, “China Designers: How This Label Channels Big Chinese Auntie Energy,” RADII, August 4, 2020, https://radiichina.com/china-designers-marrknull/.