China’s fashion nationalism: from Li-Ning’s red-yellow sportswear to displays of Chinese characters, nation wears pride on its sleeves
Established brands and emerging designers are playing to the national pride of Chinese youth by emblazoning Chinese characters on their fashions and using the colours of the national flag
It’s hard to escape the resurgent nationalism emanating from China in 2018. A president consolidating power, an economic resurgence and a central place on the geopolitical stage are all reasons for Chinese people to take pride in their country. This renewed sentiment of national pride crosses over into many different arenas, including fashion.
At the highest-profile Chinese fashion event of 2018 thus far, the Tmall-sponsored “China Day” shows of the most recent edition of New York Fashion Week, held in conjunction with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, this message was unmistakable.
It was emblazoned all over the collection of athletic wear brand Li-Ning, founded in Beijing in 1989 by the Chinese Olympic gymnast of the same name. Models marched down the catwalk in China’s national colours of red and yellow, with simplified characters reading “Li Ning” and “China” across the front of T-shirts and sweatshirts and the back of jackets.
After years in the wilderness, losing ground to international sportswear brands such as Nike and Adidas, it seems Li-Ning has decided to fight the battle for the hearts and yuan of Chinese fashion consumers by tapping into an overtly home-grown, nationalistic message.
“I think the basic reason is because the economic situation has grown really fast, it makes people more confident in China, not just the economy, but also the political situation in the world,” explains Angel Chen, a young designer who has been making waves with her eponymous brand, with shows in Milan and an increasing list of stockists in China and abroad.
“In Chinese, we call this wen hua ren tong g an. It’s hard to translate but it means like, a shared cultural identity. This is being strengthened because of the economic and political situation,” she says.
Chen’s trademark pieces are trans-seasonal, unisex windbreakers both short and long, often embroidered with designs pulled from traditional Chinese stories, or giant Chinese characters spelling out slogans such as “On top of the universe”. These often sell out.
Another sell-out recent collection aiming to redefine and reclaim the idea of what it is to be “Made in China” was Beijing-born menswear designer Feng Chen Wang’s spring/summer 2018 range, which was unapologetic in splashing “Made in China” in red and white block letters on T-shirts and sweatshirts.
“Our sales grew a lot for this season, we had the ‘Made in China’ sweater and ‘Made in China’ T-shirt, once they arrived in stores, one or two weeks later, they were sold out,” Wang says.
“It’s time to tell people, this is the new China, it’s not what you think it is.”
Part of the issue is a desire from younger people to push back at the dominant narrative about China common to those outside the country: that of a polluted monolith or the factory of the world. According to Wang, these perceptions of China are outdated.
“A lot of people my age, even younger, their experience of China is different to what we normally hear in the media. Maybe in the press they talk about the pollution and things like that, but that is not [entirely] what China is about,” she says.
Today, T-shirts with English or Chinglish slogans are being replaced on the fashion-forward streets of Shanghai with shirts, sweats and jackets sporting words and slogans in Chinese characters.
According to Chen, this is a localised interpretation of the worldwide, street-style-driven trend for minimalist pieces emblazoned with social media-friendly words and pithy slogans. But also, it’s an entry into Chinese designers exploring other elements of Chinese history, culture and tradition.
“Fashion in the future will be more diverse. You won’t just see the Chinese or English slogans on the T-shirt; there will be a lot more Chinese digging into Chinese culture and finding lots of beautiful elements from Chinese culture, not only Chinese characters. I think using Chinese characters to represent China is the easiest way, but China has a lot more culture that we are able to absorb and dig into,” she says.
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Another Chinese designer who is finding success by incorporating more Chinese elements is Ji Cheng, who has long been known for her use of traditional cheongsam silhouettes and silk and has recently appealed to a younger audience with a line of knitwear that looks international in cut, but is adorned with elements from traditional Chinese stories.
“Designers these days are using a lot of elements from the past, and our collection called Shadow of the Crane has been so popular with young people. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think young people would like this,” Ji says.
“Young people don’t want to be the same, they want to be different. They don’t care about what people think of them, they just want to be themselves. When I was young, I cared about what people thought about me, but these days it has changed.”
An advantage for home-grown Chinese designers in tapping into these increasingly accepted Chinese elements is, of course, the fact that they themselves are a product of the country, culture and history they are referencing.
While international brands walk a tightrope in trying to appeal to Chinese consumers with visual cues – the 2016 backlash against Victoria’s Secret slapping dragons on lingerie and sending it down the runway still echoes loudly in the cultural appropriation conversation – Chinese elements are more easily accepted from Chinese brands and designers.
“As a Chinese, when we are using Chinese cultural elements, it’s very important to know the background. It’s the same for Victoria’s Secret or any other foreign brand using Chinese culture. They need to full feel respect for the culture and they need to use it properly,” Chen says.
“When you are not able to tell the history behind it, when you don’t have the reference or that knowledge to back up the cultural element, the idea is very weak; it’s just like a collage, you cut and then you paste.”