As a newcomer to Shanghai, it would be rather easy to dismiss the Chinese fashion community into those who shove their Louis Vuitton bags (fake or real) in your face and those who proudly wear tees with Chinglish slogans. If you take a closer look, though, you may be surprised to find out that there’s actually a thriving community of fashion-conscious millennials who are more interested in quality and style rather than being walking advertisements for Western luxury brands.
You may easily spot them in Xintiandi or at IAPM, where photographers for p1.com, a leading streetwear blog, wait for them to come shop or have a drink. They may be browsing Han Lu Lu’s newest collection or just walking around in head-to-toe Staff only, which, according to photographer 牛奶 (Milk), has been trending among Chinese fashion bloggers for its cutting-edge ads and quality materials.
Local fashion enthusiasts have definitely had a huge impact on influencing the development of a new style in China, a process that has been going on for over a decade, with designers like Uma Wang being internationally acclaimed since 2009. As rising and independent designers have started showing off self-made pieces both on the streets and weibo, they’ve kept themselves relatively under the radar from foreigners while garnering an increasingly strong following among locals.
Aside from malls, they love to shop in obscure boutiques hidden behind the main shopping streets – many in the French Connection – that offer a wide selection of up-and-coming brands as well as stylists who will help them find the perfect outfit. You’d never find them if you didn’t know where to look; that’s why they rely on loyal customers, who may not be too many, but always come back with their closest friends.
Uniqueness is the watchword. While China’s had a rich history of conformity, younger generations are mixing accessories from European luxury with (non-overpriced) local designs. The result is a new kind of aesthetic with longer, more relaxed fits that may appear modern-androgynous by Western standards, but that can actually be traced back to traditional Chinese robes, as fashion expert Timothy Parent explains.
Working in the industry, Tim has quickly become one of the most prominent faces of Chinese fashion. A prolific writer, he has set up China Fashion Bloggers, an aggregator for bloggers in China that is a definite must-read for anyone interested in the topic. We caught up with him to get an insight into this rising phenomenon and his newest project:
You have just launched a Designer Directory on your CFB Media website and official WeChat Account. Could you tell us a bit more about it?
I’ve been meeting new designers since I first came to Shanghai in 2009 when I was the retail director of Bund18, which has given me the opportunity to meet many talented and creative designers. Unfortunately, I noticed that they were underexposed, so I wanted to give them a better medium to reach a larger audience: to have a more global reach that would truly showcase their talents.
How do you choose the designers to promote?
We currently have 18 designers from Shanghai, as here’s where we’re based as well, but more will be added in the future. It is definitely a curated approach, as I choose them personally, and there are two main requirements that I look for: first of all, they need to be creative and to have their own original style, and second, the materials need to be of high quality.
It is important to offer the consumer hand-made, quality products that are not cheap like the ones that you can find on Taobao. Cheap products equal non-sustainable products, which you will soon throw away, and it’s bad for the environment. That would actually be another requirement!
What is it about Chinese fashion that piqued your interest in the first place?
It is a new industry that is extremely dynamic and I think that it offers a lot of possibilities. I thought that I could help make it better. The US fashion industry has grown quiet and is full of big, old corporations, which don’t really exist here in China.
How would you consider the Chinese style to differ from the more established Western and Japanese styles?
Generally speaking, I consider the Japanese style to be avant-garde – it’s extreme – so it’s hard to wear on the streets, while Western brands make very commercial things: it’s basic. China, on the other hand, is experimental, but it still has a conservative edge to it. The Chinese like to try new things, but the conservative factor comes in since being accepted by society is still very important to them: they want to be liked.
You also mention silhouettes that trace back to traditional robes on your blog. How much of an influence does the past play in Chinese fashion today?
There’s a term that best describes this: connective consciousness, which is basically the shared attitudes and beliefs that work as a unifying force within a community. In this sense, the past influences the future, but I don’t think most people would be aware of its impact on them.
Is it a phenomenon that is developing only among people involved in fashion? How do people behave differently in the West compared to China?
I honestly don’t think it’s just people involved in fashion, but everyday people who come to the boutiques and are open to advise on what to wear and are genuinely looking for expertise, whereas usually customers in the West come to the shops already knowing what they want.
What kind of development have you noticed since its beginning?
When I first arrived in Shanghai there were only about 2 or 3 stores, but now there are more than a dozen! There are a lot more designers now, and our platform was designed to help people find unique, niche brands that offer quality. We want to help them find their own style!
Can you make any predictions as to where it is headed?
I think it will become very diverse. There will be many more designers, which in turn will offer a greater range of choices, while the customer will become more demanding and individualistic. I still can’t tell whether the designer will push the consumer or vice-versa, but it will definitely develop in a different manner than in the West.
It’ll be mass-market VS niche!
As diversity and genderless fashion have started taking over the industry and Chinese designers are getting more international press, you may want to take a stroll around Julu Road and enter that dark alley in search of something original instead of trying to bargain good quality at a fake market. You too may want to start developing your own style in Shanghai. After all, if the current Western idea of a fashion statement is Vetements’ DHL tee maybe it could use a fresher perspective!
by Francesco Chiang