Mostly known for its longtime fondness for highly recognizable products from global Western mega brands, and the strength of its grey market, China recently entered a new maturation phase in which niche and streetwear brands are increasingly attracting cult followings.
Due to notable luxury brand collabs and the huge success of reality TV shows, streetwear brands are hitting both high streets and Weibo feeds.
Mimicking their KOL (Key Opinion Leader) icons, who dare laid-back outfits from lesser known brands in their everyday lives, Chinese people have found in anti-establishment streetwear an unprecedented form of expression.
Set to overtake the US as the world’s largest fashion market, China is becoming the envy of more and more Western brands, impressed by its fashion industry statistics, like its $33 Billion sportswear market.
Mindful of the soft power of its homegrown fashion scene, China is now encouraging its domestic consumption while pouring its energy into conquering the world with brands like Li-ning or CLOT.
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Hype in China: Streetwear brands in the spotlight in a conservative country
As Edison Chen, cofounder of streetwear label, CLOT, and street culture retail institution, Juice, stated, “I think streetwear is the next big thing in China right now.”
Due to relatively fewer gender-oriented “fashion codes” in the Chinese market, the silhouette shift towards streetwear brands has been faster than in the West. Lane Crawford’s senior buyer, Jillian Xin, noticed “Streetwear in China used to be largely limited to sportswear, but I think there’s been a lot more experimentation and blurring of boundaries recently, mixing high/low, old/new, girl/boy.”
China’s largest marketplace, Taobao, noticed that female clients are more enticed by neutral, masculine fashion pieces whereas male clients are increasingly moving towards genderfluid items.
According to a study carried out by Nielsen and Chinese fashion shopping platform, OFashion, growth in streetwear brand spending was nearly four times higher than on non-streetwear apparel from 2015 to 2020.
Off-White and Supreme highly benefited from this trend, experiencing the fastest growth and reaching 62 percent in 2017 compared with 2016.
For Tmall, China’s largest B2C e-commerce platform, streetwear growth was 60 percent higher than the average growth for other clothing categories. The Chinese e-tailer found that sneakers and hoodies were the most sought-after streetwear items.
Chinese rap has long been an underground musical genre, defying authority and censorship. In 2010, skateboard-led streetwear brands developed a powerful influence on social media.
Loads of live-streamed hip-hop talent shows took China by storm. The Rap Of China (中国有嘻哈/中国新说唱) was arguably China’s streetwear breakthrough in 2017.
The first season generated 3 billion views according to the iQiyi streaming platform, which produces the show. This widely popular phenomenon, which originally aired during a massive crackdown on freedom of speech in the arts, is gearing up for a third season, scouting in LA for the first time to broaden its audience to a global stage.
The streetwear brand frenzy in China is almost symptomatic of the major influence of Korean pop (K-pop) in the region, a blockbuster genre fusing pop, R&B and hip-hop.
Adapted from a similar Korean show, “Show Me The Money”, the talent show crowned young rap sensations, especially female singers VAVA and Lexie Liu.
Through the contestant’s outfit choices, the show also highlighted low-key Western streetwear brands like Virgil Abloh’s Off-white, but also Stüssy and Japanese wunderkind A Bathing Ape (BAPE).
Similarly, and despite the “superme” misspelling, the show helped cement the notoriety of “NYC cult skater brand”, Supreme, thanks to the “Kris Wu effect”. Chinese superstar and jury member, Kris Wu, was particularly acclaimed for his style.
VAVA became one of the biggest female rappers in China and gained fame internationally with her Sichuanese rap: her song, My New Swag (我的新衣), which mixes traditional instruments with modern sounds, like the Korean Gukak genre, was featured in the Hollywood blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, and made her the new face of sportswear brand, Kappa.
Streetwear brands: China’s KOLS hot topic to engage millennials through social media
Even more so than in the US, social media is king in China and the Chinese are celebrity-obsessed, admiring Chinese as well as Korean and American stars.
Consulting firm AT Kearney noticed that receptiveness to brand recommendations by celebrities (78%) and influencers (63%) among social media users in China ranked higher than any country surveyed.
According to a recent study by Goldman Sachs, digitally savvy, open-minded millennials make up 31 per cent of China’s total population, nearly 415 million people.
Accustomed to traveling abroad and wearing western brands, they also tend to be keen on genderfluid looks.
Wechat and Weibo are the most popular channels to receive the latest fashion trends and styling tips.
Wechat remains China’s most used mobile app with a penetration rate of 83 per cent among all smartphone users: it has 92 million daily users, who watch it more than 10 times a day and about 38 billion messages are sent every day.
In this conservative, brand-driven market, it is all about the latest trend discovered on Weibo, a micro-blogging platform specialised in entertainment, and which celebrity has worn it.
Millennials are likely to adopt a given style just to feel a sense of belonging to their community.
In China, influential celebrities, like Angel Chen or Wenjun Lau, are called KOLS (Key Opinion Leaders), a category that includes artists, bloggers, vloggers and other live streamers who have developed an expertise on a topic and succeeded in creating long term relationships with their audience.
A small number of them fuel streetwear brand mania in China by wearing distinctive, lesser-known clothing labels and promoting foreign brands among their community.
The trend, primarily driven by men, has also found streetwear authorities in women such as actress Yang Mi or hip hop talent show former contestants like VAVA or Lexie Liu.
Brands looking to cash in on the street culture trend choose their local brand ambassador among KOLS. VAVA is now the face of Kappa, while Lexie Liu has worked with Puma and Levi’s.
These individuals invite their audience to break the rules and fully embrace the streetwear trend.
Last year, the Off-White denim gown worn at the Met Gala by Victoria’s Secret model, Liu Wen, increased the visibility of the brand on social media.
A pride reborn: redefining “made in China” streetwear
While China’s interest in street culture can be traced back to 2010, before booming in 2017, the re-discovery of its traditions and values arose prior in the early ‘90s due to “The Four Old Things” period (“破四旧”), an attempt by Communists to make a clean cultural break from the past (before 1949).
Now, the Chinese population, in line with the thriving Chinese economy, is regaining its self-confidence. As a consequence, homegrown streetwear sales are once again flourishing.
Chinese streetwear brands like Li-ning are talented at forging a strong authentic identity, selling a “spirit”(精神 jingshen). It has given rise to new brands fusing contemporary youth culture and ancient Chinese elements. Local designers regularly draw inspiration from Imperial China’s aesthetics or Taoism for their collections.
Chinese sportswear pioneer Li-Ning reinvented himself at New York Fashion Week through a futuristic FW18 collection reworking Wu Dao principles of Taoism. The brand INXX, “rooted in Chinese heritage and grown in American streets”, mixed grungy graphics with Buddhist Paramita for its latest collection and teamed up with calligraphy master, Kyongi.
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Thanks to recent fashion weeks, “Made in China” is experiencing a perception change both at home and abroad. Even if Chinese streetwear brands convey values contrary to those of the Communist Party, the government supports their expansion, capitalizing on the Big Four Fashion Weeks and local international trade shows.
New York Fashion Week has become an exceptional launchpad for Chinese brands to showcase their street culture interpretation, thanks to the Tmall China Day. The event helped Chinese brands like sportswear leader, Li’ning, to gain worldwide notoriety..
Edison Chen, the founder of streetwear authority, CLOT, created the Innersect trade show, a two-day celebration around streetwear and urban fashion.
Viewed as the birthplace of youth culture in China, former pioneer in Western streetwear import and high-profile digital magazine, Yoho!, recently introduced YO’HOOD, China’s foremost streetwear trade show based in Shanghai.
With its artificial intelligence solution, Heuritech enables brands to thrive in a highly competitive environment such as China and avoid stereotypical product propositions by understanding what Chinese consumers value and how they shop.