Until March of 2022, Shanghai had spent much of ‘The Covid Years’ largely lockdown-free. 2020’s international outbreaks had prompted a mass return to the Motherland. Chinese models and photographers flocked back to China’s fashion and financial hub—never busier—while New York, London, Paris, and Milan ground to a halt. Upcoming Chinese designers moved their businesses back home, closely followed by a wave of fashion graduates from the likes of Parsons and Central Saint Martins, who would otherwise have stayed overseas to intern with international houses. Shanghai’s fashion scene had never felt more alive.
“Shanghai, from a creative and design standpoint, was booming. There were so many new brands popping up. Established Chinese designers were evolving and entering a new chapter. The city was really becoming this unique cultural hub on a global stage,” says designer Ming Ma from his Shanghai apartment, where he had been locked down. Last week, he stepped out of his apartment compound for the first time in 60 days. The first thing he did was cycle around the city for hours.
Indeed, as lockdowns swept Shanghai after Chinese New Year, Lü Xiaolei (Deputy Secretary-General of the Shanghai Fashion Week Organizing Committee and affectionately known by local fashion circles as Madame Lü) and what should have been a packed show schedule of Chinese designers, found themselves at an impasse.
Construction was halted on Shanghai Fashion Week’s usual Xintiandi show pavilion. Designers with studios abroad or makers in other cities jettisoned their work-in-progress show pieces back out to Beijing or Guangzhou or London or New York. Those who’d returned to the city from their holiday breaks to shoot lookbooks and design sets ahead of their shows, either made hasty exits or bunkered down with their unfinished collections at home.
“Shanghai Fashion Week should have kicked off on March 25 this season, but Shanghai’s Covid surge tipped us back into unprecedented times,” says Madame Lü. After delaying launch by a week, then two weeks, then a month, it became clear that the offline celebration of Shanghai Fashion Week’s 20th year was not going to materialize any time soon. The call was made to pivot to a digital Fashion Week format—now slated for mid-June to give Madame Lü and her team sufficient time “to help set the designers up for success with sell-through and marketing plans”; to give designers a beat to orchestrate remote sample production, fittings, and shoots. Now the verdict is in. Faced with the most uncertainty the local industry has witnessed in years, China’s independent designers have delivered Shanghai’s strongest season of fashion to date.
A fierce optimism runs through the collections, not least in a continuation of global fall shows’ electric hues. Ming Ma’s interpretation of “hot fuchsia” (the shade of the season) and his famous “Ming Ma yellow” takes a high-voltage brush to Gilded Age silhouettes and oil painting references. “My work has always been built around color and texture… balancing glamour and utility… but for this season, I just wanted to work with shades and materials that really made me smile.” Meanwhile, Samuel Gui Yang was after a more introspective and nostalgic joy—contrasting familiar comforts like traditional Chinese shirting or jewel-toned greens and reds, with boiler suits and boiled wool. Speaking to Vogue from his Airbnb and unexpected lockdown location (the designer is usually based in London), Yang cites a quote from American speculative fiction writer, Ursula K. Le Guin, about ‘looking down’ on life, as the trigger for his examination of vulnerability through the decades. “But not a negative connotation ‘looking down’,” he is quick to add. “It’s more about assessing where you’re standing as a kind of posture. A gesture in the face of uncertainty.”
This contextualization of the present relative to the past, and China relative to the world (what Yang references as “bridging eras and cultures”) is the theme of the season. In an ecosystem that often rewards more-is-more, the level of self-scrutiny and ruthless editing prompted by this most recent lockdown is not something the Chinese fashion industry has witnessed before.
Louis Shengtao Chen took the opportunity to revisit a self-reflection exercise from his studies at Central Saint Martins. “I had a professor who would have me do a weekly report on what I’d observed, what I’d learned, what culture influences I’d absorbed… I feel like during this period, I’ve finally had the time to look inward.” In the same vein, design duo Double Fable studied the women in their own family photo albums and the ’80s leather jackets gathering dust in the back of their parents’ wardrobes. Shu Shu Tong analyzed the yoke of taboo and conservatism in traditional dress. C.T. Liu of C+Plus Series had a sudden moment of clarity on how much creative collision took place on his block in pre-lockdown Shanghai: the range of graphic design spanning the ’70s to the ’90s, the diverse architecture, the collision of people from all backgrounds. “This really is the brand’s stomping ground,” he says. “It’s been a very emotional experience.”
And what comes of this heightened focus? Louis Shengtao Chen becomes more animated on our Zoom. “She’s escaped!” he exclaims. “She’s a warrior! She’s a princess! She’s Real and Rock-and-Roll with capital R’s! She’s a Louise Bourgeois spider! She’s Carrie Bradshaw running across the bridge in the Vivienne Westwood Dress!” His finale look is an irreverent ballerina that he describes as sprinting away from a nightmare. Shuting Qiu’s woman stands proud and layered in her clashing prints and textures, “holding her own bouquet in the air,” challenging preconceived notions of “what is considered ugly.” Ting Gong reframes the modern Chinese woman and challenges whether we even need to focus on the gendered framework of a woman—deconstructing restrictive waists, exposing the stitches of patriarchy on warped tailoring. Susan Fang’s metamorphosis is more direct, her collection grew from a dream that she was a butterfly in flight for the first time. Victor Wang wields his background in pure mathematics to shatter his past collections’ restrictions, taking silhouettes to extreme ends of his “brainwave spectrum” with sky-high platforms and dramatic hats. Windowsen’s collection progresses from straitjackets to ’90s wrestling garb. Jacques Wei points to Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine Serizy in Belle De Jour (1967), cracking out of her framework in pursuit of self-actualization. Wei relishes in the irony of this “wild child” or “Grand Flame” chapter being born of confinement. “It’s funny isn’t it,” he ponders. “This moment forced us to really strip it all back so much, that we actually ended up being more aligned with our values and principles than we were before.”
The most hopeful sentiment to come out of this Shanghai Fashion Week season lies in designers’ inherent commitment to practice sustainability as an unquestionable norm. This generation of independent Chinese designers see their relative “youth” as an advantage, particularly when it comes to internalizing sustainable practices. Shanghai’s street-couture darling, Sensen Li of Windowsen fame, repurposed acoustic pyramid foam from a recording studio into Bowser-type cropped bombers—a “Frankenstein-sculpture approach” to the retro-futurist android character driving his collection narrative. Ming Ma fashioned jacquard upholstery from furniture markets into corsets. Shuting Qiu leveraged recycled materials from past seasons for more than 60% of her collection, while continuing a longstanding collaboration with a women’s craftsmanship collective from Hangzhou. Ting Gong constructed entire looks out of hundreds of leather scraps that she’s collected over several years, integrated with hand-knotted nets created with local women of a Guangxi fishing village. More than 50% of C+Plus Series’ collection was made from upcycled or deadstock materials.
Not one designer raised their practices as an achievement worthy of green kudos. When pressed, each shrugged and cited their contribution as core pillars of their creative decision-making frameworks. “[Sustainability] guides our choices of fabric manufacturers and garment factories, not the other way around,” says Yang of the relationships he has built with suppliers ranging from traditional Harris Tweed artisans in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, through to technological pioneers like Recyctex, a Chinese company dedicated to turning plastic bottles, discarded clothing, and textile waste into new fabrics.
Danqi Chen of Donsee10 draws an unexpected parallel between different cultural approaches to sustainability in fashion with those of Western Medicine and Chinese Medicine. “In Western fashion industries, sustainability is understood to be about methodology, technology, supply chain,” Chen observes. “But, In China, it’s more about… wrapping those best practices up in something beautiful as a means of education and encouraging change in consumer behavior.” So, while Chen continues to 3D print her footwear and all of her garments’ swing-tags can be planted to grow trees, being back in China during the pandemic has somewhat pivoted her attention from “fixating on corn-based materials or continuous patterns to avoid waste,” to seeking opportunities for emotional connection with her customers—actively avoiding fear mongering or lecturing in favor of storytelling to better influence consumption habits.
This collective conviction does not surprise Madame Lü of the Shanghai Fashion Week Organizing Committee in the least. Over her 20 years as a mentor to some of the local industry’s greatest success stories, she has seen wave after wave of designers consistently challenge themselves, each other, and the system. “Shanghai has always been such a rich cultural hub for fashion and modern thinking,” she declares. “The Chinese designers never fail to impress me. So, I’ve continued to raise my expectations of them season after season
Some still plan to hold scaled-down versions of their in-person show plans as a kind of closure (and content capture). Others, like Fashion Week first-timer Ting Gong, are already raring to go for the October shows. “Let’s not call this one my ‘first collection,’” she says of her would-be debut. “This is just ‘Collection Zero’—like a preface, pointing in the ideological direction of the real first collection.”
So, as Shanghai residents spill back into the streets; as Madame Lü and her team prepare for a three-day livestreamed digital fashion week bonanza; as our Chinese designers rush back to their studios to revive tired pot plants and triage production decisions after a long hibernation; China’s fashion industry breathes a sigh of relief. The kids are going to be alright.