As a foreigner, a debut stroll around any city in China results in overwhelming sensory mayhem. The sounds, the smells, and most importantly, the sights are completely removed from normalcy as seen elsewhere. Sheer scale alone is a difficult factor to comprehend. While cities of a million people are labeled the grand, urban centers of western civilizations, there are something like 15 to 20 cities in China with a population greater than 10 million and the scale continues to tip in urbanity’s favor as agrarian populations relocate. Modern mega-tall towers jut relentlessly skyward and seemingly multiply every day, advanced transportation systems migrate the masses quickly and cheaply from one end of a city to another, and a startling juxtaposition between the traditional, poorer pockets of Chinese cities and the futuristic, wealthy neighborhoods is unsettling and problematic. Though in the nation’s recent history, an affinity for western culture has had an aggressive effect, China’s continued economic growth, furthered openness, and design oriented traditions and virtues have resulted in something else to see: a budding influence on the world’s continuously growing and blending mainstream cultural spectrum.
The appearance of wealth and status is of cultural importance worldwide, and in China where appearance is especially valuable, personal style reigns supreme as a popular way to prove face. The younger Chinese generations in particular place heavy importance on their fashion choices. Clean-cut, eastern-derived styles that are really only seen in the People’s Republic itself – shouldered skirts, padded slacks, and conservative cleavage-masking shirts – combine with trends and staples from western cultures – ironic overalls, round-frame glasses, motorcycle jeans, and ballcaps seem to be the most popular – to culminate in a very unique, well-rounded, and varied selection of fashion. Quite possibly, the young generations in China’s wealthy cities might be the trendiest people on the planet, picking up on and experimenting with any new style they can get their hands on. Part of the reason is the culture’s openness and fondness for extravagance and flamboyance. While many people around the world would shy away from the absurdity of some of high fashion’s creative output, young Chinese people seem to see no risk in it. Instead, they see a unique, discussion-worthy piece of clothing and buy it in hopes of seeming fashionable and well off. Though a more uniquely Chinese approach to style and high fashion specifically is settling, obsession with western branding is more prevalent in China than in any other culture due to the status significance that western labels carry.
And out of this obsession for high fashion labels was born the world’s largest market for counterfeit goods, rightfully earning China a reputation as a producer of fakes but unfairly writing China off as the fashion capital that it truly is. It’s important to remember that China so recently opened itself up economically and culturally to the rest of the world. When China instituted its open door economic policy in 1978, allowing large-scale foreign businesses to set up, and for local businesses to practice elsewhere, a sea of worldwide culture flooded into the nation along with the beginnings of the grand economic transformation of modern day China. With it, the Chinese people became more economically capable and Chinese culture became influenced by global mainstreams – predominantly fashion. As China quickly became the world’s largest producer of goods and the world’s largest exporter, textile factories in particular gave China a close association with fashion and style. So as the modern demand grew for high fashion labels in a country defined by its manufacturing prowess and a society known for personal economic frugality, a cheap counterfeit market was simply the logical next step for China to take. Today, a walk down any Chinese market is littered with small boutiques selling counterfeit high fashion pieces from the obvious Gucci to more niche and cult like John Varvatos.
And now, it’s not just high fashion. As hip-hop’s influence on modern style has caused a dramatic shift towards athletic brands and the rise of the recent street fashion movement, China has been quick to follow suit. Brands like Nike and Adidas, authentic and counterfeit, are everywhere in China, and smaller scale reformed athletic brands turned street fashion designers like Champion, Kappa, Fila, Asics, and New Balance in many ways owe their survival and recent success to eastern countries – China in particular. Brands like Off-White, Stussy, and most notoriously, Supreme are counterfeited by the millions and there seems to be no shame in it. In fact, in some sense, the mass-replication of brands that specialize in the art of the limited release is a point of pride amongst young, Chinese consumers. A market that was once driven to counterfeit production as a way to display affluence and western ideals is now embracing the very falsity of their style and wearing pieces ironically as a source of cultural pride and individual expression – merging these elements with traditional Chinese style, high fashion design, and more streetwear pieces. It can be seen everywhere in China. From children, to university students, to burgeoning rap crew, The Higher Brothers, China has become a haven for taking creative risks fashionably.
As a growing population of young people becomes more interested in fashion, local design houses have organically sprung up around China – mainly in massive metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen. Drawing inspiration and following the blueprint of Japanese brands like INTL Collective and A Bathing Ape, many Chinese brands are now earning international recognition. In Shenzhen, WESTLINK, which started out as a footwear designer and manufacturer in 2002, has pivoted in recent years to accompany for a wider line of clothing releases for men and women with top-notch street fashion design. In doing so, they have expanded their market not just around China, but around the globe. ROARINGWILD, also taking advantage of the excellent design scene in Shenzhen, has exploded as a leader in the street fashion movement, receiving notoriety from their feature in HYPEBEAST and recently opening their flagship store. In Hong Kong, brands like Clot and I.T. are veterans on the streetwear scene, The ROOTS boutique in Beijing is one of the most absurdist displays of Supreme obsession in the world, and Shanghai is an internationally acclaimed hub of fashion both high and street where the Victoria’s Secret fashion show was held in November. Success in Chinese fashion can be seen everywhere.
With a fashion scene as varied in its influences and rich in its resources as China, and with a population in search of individuality and personal expression, the creative, risk-welcoming Chinese youth have turned their nation into a paradise for those willing to blend traditional styles, high fashion, and streetwear. Nothing is off limits. Nothing is out of bounds. Fashion in China is so open minded and wide-spread that those who would be mocked for their choices, timid in their desire to take chances, or labeled brand-whoring followers elsewhere, are instead celebrated by their peers. If nothing else, the environment allows for confidence and creativity of the younger generations, even if it does result in a lot of questionable outfit choices and a high population of trend-obsessive fuccbois.