Millennials push Chinese streetwear to new heights as they seek ways to express themselves
With money to spend and a willingness to take more risks than their global counterparts, China’s post-’80s generation is blurring fashion’s boundaries, some taking their cues from supermodels such as Ju Xiaowen and Liu Wen
On the streets of Shanghai, it is increasingly common to see teenagers and twenty-somethings sporting white T-shirts emblazoned with “Supreme” logos, hoodies with exaggerated lengths made popular by Vetements, and the restrained, monochromatic urban aesthetic of brands such as Off White.
The merging of designer fashion and streetwear is a worldwide phenomenon, but in China the lines between high fashion, fast fashion, niche brands and youth culture are blurring at breakneck speed.
According to Lane Crawford buyer Jillian Xin, this is happening so quickly because China has fewer established “fashion codes” to break down, as it is a relatively new fashion market.
“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,” Xin says.
She says it is easier for Chinese luxury consumers to become streetwear consumers because of their relative youth. “In many ways, I think streetwear has always influenced high fashion in China, because luxury consumers here are younger, digitally savvy and more open-minded [than in the West]. Their reference points have been street fashion and pop culture from the very beginning.”
According to a recent study by Goldman Sachs, China’s millennial generation – known locally as post-’80s and post-’90s – comprises around 415 million people, or 31 per cent of China’s total population. This generation also has a disproportionately large influence on Chinese fashion because they are the biggest consumers – according to the Boston Consulting Group, consumption by under-35s in China accounts for 65 per cent of total consumer growth. In addition, consumption by millennials is expected to grow at an annual rate of 11 per cent from 2016 to 2021 – double that of consumers older than 35.
Kevin Poon is the co-founder of Hong Kong-based streetwear brand Clot and multibrand streetwear store Juice, which has outlets across China including in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Changsha. He says that when he started out in 2003, with Hong Kong actor and musician Edison Chen, there wasn’t much of a streetwear “scene” in China.
“Fast-forward to 2017 and I think the market has become more mature and more receptive to streetwear and now when we go to China, or even Hong Kong, it’s cool to see people creating and expressing themselves in this format,” he says. “Most of the people who come into the store are very interested and curious to know the newest, coolest stuff so I think that’s the profile – people who have a keen interest and want to express themselves in an alternative space.”
The development of the streetwear scene, which involves a more casual way of dressing and the acceptance of more niche casual brands, is particularly appealing for international brands trying to enter the market and might previously not have found much of an audience in China.
Canadian accessories brand Herschel Supply, which makes bags with a retro, hipster look and has just opened a permanent office in Shanghai, is one such company. Co-founder Lyndon Cormack says that after successfully dipping a toe into the market via third-party retail and a Tmall store, they decided the time was right for the company to expand more aggressively in China.
“I would say that globally our consumers are men and women aged 16 to 28, who are passionate about trends, streetwear culture and fashion in general. I don’t think the Chinese consumer demographic will differ that much,” Cormack says.
“China is a really interesting place for fashion. You see people who are willing to take risks and are blending a lot of different styles in ways that other countries aren’t doing.”
Herschel is among several foreign brands – including Nike, Hood By Air, Converse, adidas and Stussy – that have attended Shanghai’s premier streetwear trade show, Yo’Hood. Organised by Yoho, a Chinese media, fashion and e-commerce service, the event is another indication of the potential for streetwear in China, and attendance is becoming a must for brands looking to crack China. The fifth edition of Yo’Hood will be held in September.
The growing numbers of local street- and casualwear brands are also benefiting from the rise of streetwear culture. Shanghai-based brand Babyghost, run by Joshua Hupper and Qiaoran Huang – American and Chinese respectively – is known for its loyal following among a niche demographic of young, urban Chinese girls, and supermodel fans such as Ju Xiaowen and Liu Wen.
Hupper and Huang point to Chinese celebrities as the biggest influence on their customers and say the rise in streetwear has coincided with a change in the relationship young fans have with their idols. Social media, an explosion of reality television programming and a new (for China) culture of paparazzi mean celebrities are more often seen in their “off-duty” outfits, rather than in their red carpet best.
“We have celebrity customers who buy [Babyghost],” Hupper says. “Some of my favourite press [photos of Babyghost clothes] over the past few months have been on celebrities at the airport.”
Huang adds that the trend of snapping celebrities at airports benefits brands like Babyghost because before, stars would only be snapped on the red carpet wearing dresses – which Babyghost doesn’t sell.
“Right now, our garments are being worn so much by celebrities and photographed so much,” Huang says. “It’s really meaningful for young people to see that, because they believe it’s what celebrities wear in real life, in their daily life.”
Shanghai street style is exploding – from Wang Lili to Timothy Parent, meet the people who are shaping the scene
Chinese streetwear culture will continue to evolve, though the direction of that change is still up for debate.
“What is streetwear versus high fashion? Is that a thing any more?” Poon asks. “It’s hard to say, but what I do know is that in this age of hyperconsumption and people being super aware, we see the brands that do well [are not] just being put in a box, but rather developing a lifestyle. That never dies.”