Shanghai street style is exploding – from Wang Lili to Timothy Parent, meet the people who are shaping the scene
People in China are growing bolder and more experimental with what they wear, providing ample fodder for bloggers and scenesters who busily snap the evolving, and sometimes quite shocking, street styles
Dozens of photographers wielding telephoto lenses snapped away outside the tents of Shanghai Fashion Week last month, but their subjects were not pop princesses or movie stars – they were fashion students and eccentrically dressed Chinese industry insiders making their way into one of the event’s 85 scheduled shows and presentations.
Wang Lili is a familiar face at Shanghai Fashion Week, held in the luxury shopping and entertainment hub of Xintiandi district. She is both a “street style” photographer and much photographed local icon who started her working life on a factory assembly line. She then became a novelist before reinventing herself as a street-style photographer five years ago, after attending her first show at Shanghai Fashion Week.
“I live around here, and five years ago my friend had two tickets to one of the shows, so I went and it started my interest in street style,” Wang says.
Another street-style fixture is Roy Zhang, Shanghai’s answer to The Sartorialist with his street-style blog The Shanghai Express. When Zhang, an engineering graduate, launched his website in 2012, it was intended as a platform to show the cool side of Shanghai and has since burgeoned as the city’s style scene has evolved.
“[The street-style trend] is happening organically as people are exposed to more global information,” says Zhang, a born and bred Shanghai boy. “People are forming their own personal style and there are many bold attempts at street style. There are a lot of fresh, fun things – and a lot of grandstanding.”
Over the years, Shanghai’s street-style scene has rapidly evolved, from wild experimentation to a more mature level of style. A witness to the change is Timothy Parent, an American who has been living in Shanghai, and blogging about fashion for seven years. His site China Fashion Bloggers is an aggregator that brings together the best of China’s English-language fashion content (including Zhang’s blog) for a domestic and international audience.
“In the beginning, it was very conservative, but people were open to new things and that led to some exhibitionism and it got really crazy for a while. People would wear whatever had shock value,” Parent says, relaying an anecdote about seeing a young man wearing a piece of lettuce on a hook as an earring as an example of Shanghai’s style open-mindedness.
“It’s become more refined as people are more exposed to designers, street style, creative editorials – wherever people find their inspiration,” he adds.
The competition to be photographed is tough and street-style photographers in China, just like in the West, have their favourites – who can in turn be catapulted into Chinese social media stardom.
One of the brightest shining stars of China’s street-style scene is Chengdu-born, Beijing-based Fil Xiaobai, who started posting her own street-style snaps on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo in 2009.
Over the years Fil’s style, wildly coloured hair and tattoos have won her an army of fans – more than one million Weibo followers – as well as brand partnerships with big luxury players such as Burberry and Chanel.
According to Fil, authenticity is the key to attracting loyal fans, but it’s also a key element missing from China’s street-style today. In a country with hundreds of thousands of fashion bloggers and “key opinion leaders”, or KOLs, who are paid to wear particular brands, there’s a lack of what Fil describes as a “point of view” in personal style.
“Well-known street-style stars in China just dress in a total look for brands that pay them,” she says. “It’s not interesting, no mix and match, no styling – just pretty girls.”
However, there is a huge disparity between the street-style figures and KOLs who are locally influential, and the Chinese street-style stars favoured by Western media – such as Hongkonger Tina Leung and Shanghai-based Leaf Greener, who are regulars on the international circuit, but not as visible in Greater China.
Zhang believes that Shanghai street style, while still in the early stages of its evolution, will eventually lead the way for China as a whole.
“Out of every city in China, Shanghai is the place where foreign culture is adopted fastest and the people here form their own understanding,” he says. “Also, Shanghai is really inclusive – no one worries too much about different personalities [and] they are accepting of different things.”
Parent predicts that Shanghai’s future street style will have its own signature look that is globally recognisable – just as Tokyo style and Parisian style is today.
“China will become more extreme. People will become more and more confident with what they do,” Parent says. “They can be confident but continue to be extremely experimental. That’s what I would like to see for China.”