Ms Min

The brave new world of China’s Gen Z fashionistas

Chinese fashion’s quest for a bold, fresh sense of national identity is creating stunning, cross-cultural results. Bel Jacobs talks to some of the key players.

During Staffonly’s Shanghai Fashion Week show in April, models stared at their smart phones as they meandered across the catwalk at the Tube Showroom. Clad in puffer jackets, stitched to resemble inflatable package filler, with takeaway-bag-handle detail, the collection was inspired by online deliveries. In China, the world’s biggest e-commerce market, where Alibaba is now the world’s second-most valuable company of its kind after Amazon, the show offered both critique and homage.

“Celebrity culture, hyper-consumption on [e-commerce platform] Taobao, image consumption, online in-temporality, the new relation to objects and materiality, dissemination of culture and surveillance capitalism… ” These are the themes galvanising today’s young Chinese designers, according to Marie Genevieve Cyr of Parsons School of Design, speaking to Business of Fashion (BoF). And if such cultural commentary seems unusual from China, that’s because it is. Welcome to a brave new world.

More like this:

-        The 1990s trends that keep coming back

-        Fashion 20 years from now

-        Who decides what is cool

China’s status as a manufacturing force is a given; China produces nearly a quarter of global manufacturing output by value, says The Economist. Its purchasing power is equally formidable: China is on course to overtake the US as the world’s largest consumer of fashion. But, until now, its creative potential has been sidelined, lost to a reputation as eager maker of things to other people’s specifications. But, as Shanghai Fashion Week drew to a close, it’s clear that Chinese fashion is about to undergo a seismic identity shift.

Leading the charge are China’s brilliant emerging designers, who stole the show across Shanghai’s glittering venues. They include Fengyi Tan, Angel Chen, Shushu/Tong, Xu Zhi, Ms Min, Ximon Lee and Huishan Zhang. There’s more: Pronounce, Staffonly, PH5 and Shuting Qiu were all finalists for the inaugural Business of Fashion China Prize, eventually won by Caroline Hu. Both Xu Zhi and Ms Min were shortlisted for the prestigious LVMH Prize; Xu Zhi was also finalist for the International Woolmark Prize, as was Angel Chen.

There is a desire to change perceptions about the term ‘Made in China’ – Jillian Xin  

Why now? “The post-80s generation in China had opportunities to pursue studies and careers in art and design, which were not as readily available to their parents,” says Jillian Xin of Xin Projects. “They’re talented, resourceful – and they’re ambitious. Many start their own label within two years of graduating, emboldened by a growing domestic market and proximity to manufacturers. Many bring their learning back. There is a desire to change perceptions about the term ‘Made in China’.”

Economic circumstances have been fortuitous. “From 2014, the Chinese domestic market started to experience a so-called ‘consumer upgrade’ which [encouraged] more consumers – especially younger ones – to look at unique fashion products, besides fast fashion and luxury,” says Xiaolei Lv of the Shanghai Fashion Week Organisation. Young Chinese designers have answered this call and, at the same time, provided stimulating alternatives for overseas markets.

Shanghai is proving a hub. During Fashion Week, the Mode Shanghai Fashion Tradeshow hosted 1,100 international brands. Representatives from luxury retailers Selfridges, Browns, Harvey Nichols and LNCC attended, as well as the British Fashion Council. “Some of the best Chinese designers are based here, including Uma Wang, and emerging designers Shushu/Tong and Angel Chen. Shanghai gathers creative talent and has great impact on both Chinese consumers and designers.”

At the heart of the work is a search for a new Chinese identity

Education is a key to this narrative; many young Chinese designers have honed their skills in the corridors of Central St Martins, London College of Fashion, the Royal Academy, Parsons and beyond. And, at the heart of the work is a search for a new Chinese identity that encompasses all influences including their country’s rich history. The success of the country’s rapid economic development has made Gen Z proud of being Chinese – and that mix of pride and cultural experimentation is proving fertile creative soil.

Fresh and fierce

Often, young designers run global trends such as streetwear silhouettes, textural juxtapositions and quirky prints through a filter of Chinese-ness. “Chinese designers incorporate their heritage in innovative but understated ways,” agrees Xin. “They may design a trench coat but produce it in canton silk – or employ the pankou, the traditional Chinese knot button, on a puffer jacket. Pronounce, for example, has completely updated the Mao suit as an integral part of their collections.

“Other designers take inspiration from China’s current social and cultural context, which may easily go unnoticed by casual observers,” she continues. Hence, Staffonly’s take on the influence of China’s monolithic e-commerce industry. Shenzhen-born Chen, who made the Forbes China 30 under 30 shortlist in 2016, cuts over-sized streetwear silhouettes from clashing colours and prints. “I translate stories and interesting elements from Chinese culture, such as legendary characters, into graphics, embroidery or prints.

Culture is about feeling and detail – like the carambola tree in my grandmother’s backyard in Shenzhen – Caroline Hu

“Myself and my team will then [discuss] how it will translate into a contemporary silhouette and modern shapes so that everyone can understand the design,” she says. “It’s important that everyone can catch that Chinese ‘spice’ while feeling comfortable wearing the pieces. It’s about delivering the traditional Chinese message in a contemporary way. This is something that we always did, from the very beginning in 2014 until today. And it’s now almost a signature of our own brand.”

“I don’t deliberately emphasise any Chinese elements because the culture is in my blood,” adds BoF China Prize winner Caroline Hu. “When I look at things, the vision itself already has a cultural perspective. Culture is about feeling and detail – like the carambola tree in my grandmother’s backyard in Shenzhen, and her yellow woven sweater. Culture is in my essence and in my blood.”

“Since [young Chinese designers have often had] a global education or working experience, their collections are more international, blending home-grown talent and heritage with what they have learnt in the West,” agrees Xiaolei Lv. “You won’t see a big Chinese flower or the Great Wall on a model’s hat. Designers tend to use subtle ways to express their heritage.”

The results, pretty much across the board, are fresh and fierce. Ximon Lee’s star has been on the rise since 2015, when Kanye West told him he was “killing it, bro” with his slick, avant-garde tailoring. The opulent classicism of Ms Min’s designs come embellished with Chinese characters and giant ruffles. Central Saint Martins graduate Xu Zhi worked in the ateliers of JW Anderson and Craig Green before launching a label whose simple silhouettes belie their textural complexity.

The clothes speak directly to the designers’ peers, the diverse but powerful phalanx of Chinese millennials: born far enough away from the Cultural Revolution to know the new world; familiar with Western luxury fashion, but eager for something uniquely their own, and ready to realise their full financial power. Shushu/Tong, for example, juxtaposes unashamedly pretty clothes with quasi-fetishistic detail to create a wardrobe for China’s emerging feminist movement. “People are starting to think about what fashion means to them and to use it as a way to express themselves,” says London-based Zhang.

“[This consumer] is more sophisticated, no longer blindly following Western trends,” says Xin. “There’s a return to confidence in local design and craftsmanship and a recognition that, for hundreds of years, China was a leading influence in global fashion and design, so why can’t that be the case once more? Chinese consumers want to support local talent and they want to connect with their heritage and identity through their purchasing choices.” What they don’t want is more of the same.

This became clear to Susan Fang, when she showed at Labelhood, one of Shanghai Fashion Week’s leading platforms for emerging design. “My work is conceptual; it’s about design innovation and sustainability,” says Fang, who was born in China, graduated from Central Saint Martins and was nominated for the 2019 LVMH Prize. “And I discovered that the Chinese consumer loves niche design and creativity. It was our bolder designs and our showpieces that tended to be selected by stores.”

As young Chinese consumers continue to carve their way in the world, at least they’ll have the wardrobe – provided by their peers and compatriots – to do so.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.