China Chic: Distilling Contemporary Chinese Identity for Global Brands

8 min read.

Dior’s classy take on China Chic for its Spring Festival 2021 collection has earned fans’ approval.
Credit: Jing Daily

Whenever the annual Spring Festival rolls around, Chinese social media are flooded with brands and their interpretations of celebratory Chinese aesthetics. For years, marketers for global brands have been trying to nail the Chinese X-factor that appeals to this ancient civilization that is rapidly modernizing with increasingly sophisticated but highly eclectic tastes, as Chinese consumers explore and experiment to establish their unique identity in a globalized society. 

The result is ‘China Chic’ (国潮 guó cháo), which essentially describes the trend of China-centric design but has evolved to reflect the Chinese people’s profound pride in their national identity, spanning various categories beyond fashion and design to include retail, technology, and more.

China’s growing global clout has fanned national pride among consumers. In technology alone, China has come a long way since its murky days of ‘shanzhai’ (山寨 shān zhài) products, or counterfeit electronics, to become a world leader in advanced fields, such as artificial intelligence (AI). A Forbes analysis calls China “the first global superpower for Artificial Intelligence” that American and European governments must reckon with. Chinese technology companies, such as Baidu, are rivalling their western counterparts in the development of machine learning and self-driving cars. Chinese factories are going from producing cheap goods to harvesting big data for precision manufacturing, such as the one pioneered by Alibaba’s Rhino Smart Manufacturing, revolutionizing factories to enable mass customization and small orders.

These developments have boosted Chinese consumers’ confidence in homegrown brands. Nationalist sentiments have also grown as tensions flare between the United States and China in the on-going trade war. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these nationalist feelings when consumers are homebound and choose to support Chinese businesses to survive these tough times. A recent poll of 5,000 consumers in 15 Chinese cities by the China Market Research Group and Fidelity International shows that 85 percent of respondents would buy a local brand over a foreign brand. This is a remarkable increase from 60 percent in 2016 and 15 percent in 2011. 

A separate survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) reveals that Chinese nationals are the most optimistic consumer group among all respondents, with 77 percent believing in rapid social recovery after the crisis compared to the 43 percent global average. With Chinese consumers’ unwavering confidence in their country’s economic progress and cultural influence both domestically and globally, the contemporary Chinese identity and ‘China Chic’ will continue to be a popular theme to explore for brands in a post-COVID world. 

86insider offers a few observations on how brands could approach ‘China Chic’ in ways that speak to contemporary Chinese minds and hearts.

Hyperlocalizing Chinese aesthetics

Harper’s Bazaar China believes in breaking down the big notion of China into specific themes that resonate with people.
Credit: Bazaar China

Few brands have been successful in grasping the essence of the Chinese culture that would resonate with Chinese consumers. Brands have attempted to translate their superficial knowledge of China, relying on kitschy aesthetics that adorn Chinatowns in western cities, into themes that they hope would strike a chord with consumers. Although these are valid cultural motifs, as are dragons, mahjong and the color red, they hardly represent the cultural and geographical diversity of China and the Chinese people today. 

The founder of a UK-based biannual publication on Asian women’s fashion called The WOW Magazine, Wei Liu, has called for this approach to end. 

She said, “They tend to go for familiar and easily identifiable elements like chopsticks and lanterns to represent the culture. That is why a lot of those images appear outdated to young people in China, while some are saying such an outdated vision of their country is offensive.” 

Incorporating unique native cultural elements into the latest trends really does not mean simplifying a culture as rich as China’s into cliché concepts. In an interview with Jing Daily, Gugu Wang, the deputy style director of Harper’s Bazaar China, suggests that breaking down a big idea into specific themes is crucial. Bazaar China’s take on Chinese Aesthetic has created some stunning representations of China with regional culture and geographical backdrops as themes.

“Last year, we made the September issue about the nation’s rivers, lakes, and seas (江河湖海 jiāng hé hú hǎi). This year in the October issue, we turned to cotton, China grass, silk, and cashmere (棉麻丝绒 mián má sī róng). Using concrete forms and finding regional themes has always been our premise.”

The ‘river snail noodles’ (螺蛳粉 luó sī fěn) offered by KFC.
Credit: CGTN

Rather than imbuing a grand idea of China, brands are better off thinking small, hyperlocal, and even personal. KFC has been a more successful mass market brand due to its ability to adapt its menu and experience for local taste. The fast food chain recently introduced ‘Kai Feng Cai’, a play on its name to represent a new menu that consisted of the popular ‘river snail noodles’ (螺蛳粉 luó sī fěn) among other pre-packaged, fast-cooking Chinese chicken dishes. This came after KFC put local street food like smelly tofu and skewered meat on its menu. Beyond localized menus, KFC has been known for hyperlocalizing outlets to reflect the history of its location, including a themed restaurant in Chengdu based on the celebrated poet Du Fu who used to live in the city.

Nike x Jason Deng: SB Dunk Low “Street Hawker” sneaker series inspired by regional cuisines
Credit: High Snobiety

China’s diverse regional palettes and flavors offer much food for creativity beyond the literal menu. Nike collaborates with Guangzhou-based artist Jason Deng to incorporate the food concept on sneakers, paying tribute to Chinese street food vendors with six dishes from different cities gracing the SB Dunk Low “Street Hawker” series. Meitu BeautyCam’s China Chic food-inspired filter lets users “wear” their favorite food on their faces, if one fancies a red-hot numbing Sichuan hotpot lip color or milk tea complexion. For brands that care to deep dive into China’s cultural intricacies, the sky’s the limit for creative exploration of uniquely Chinese styles that resonate with consumers. 

Heritage and cultural revival

Airbnb’s “Lost & Found” campaign is a journey through China’s rich cultural heritage and history.
Credit: The Drum

As China Chic develops, it increasingly manifests the people’s ambition of reviving traditional heritage, with a whiff of nostalgia, a large dose of pride and a tinge of regret at how much rapid societal changes are bulldozing the formations of their national identity, which the young Generation Z (Gen Z) is grappling to understand and appreciate.  

Thus, this gave rise to the emergence of a subculture called ‘gu feng’ (古风 gǔ fēng), which celebrates classical Chinese aesthetics and cultural expressions, including fashion, music, and literature. The  popularity of costume dramas has escalated this subculture into the mainstream, where hanfu (汉服 hàn fú), the traditional clothing style of the Han Chinese, is currently enjoying a resurgence in fashion circles. Take a stroll in the hipster hangout around Lama Temple in the capital, one will find tucked away in the ancient alleyways, small boutiques that specialize in modern updates of hanfu that consumers can make their daily casual wear. In fact, the recent Beijing Fashion Week opened with haute couture hanfu from Chinese brand Xiannixiaozhu (衔泥小筑 xián ní xiǎo zhú).

Hanfu represents China’s ‘cultural confidence’, allowing more Chinese to learn about their own style.
Credit: Meitu

Huang Chunyan, the spokesperson for Xiannixiaozhu, told The Global Times, “The hanfu display (at the fashion week) represents China’s ‘cultural confidence’, as these glorious dresses will allow more Chinese to learn about our own style.”

This confidence has spawned an emerging fashion style called ‘Tu Cool’ (土酷 tǔ kù) where ‘Tu’ literally translates to soil, which connotes rural, corny or outdated in Chinese culture. Pairing ‘Tu’ and ‘Cool’ is almost a rebellion against the understated and minimalist design philosophies that prevail in the current western-dominated fashion world. 

Campaign Asia calls Tu Cool China’s “cultural renaissance as an aesthetic innovation”. According to the marketing media, Tu Cool creates a strong voice for the youth to celebrate national pride without the baggage of blending into the mainstream or tradition, by disrupting top-down authority in fashion, celebrating nostalgia and rural aesthetics that define grassroots culture. 

The aesthetic of Tu Cool is more than a celebration of traditional values. It embodies a profound purpose of challenging stereotypes, and creating a style that allows people to confidently express an emerging identity while establishing a fresh take on contemporary fashion that is inclusive, defined as “a celebration of the old and new, at once nostalgic, quirky, and bewildering”. 

Balenciaga’s reference to the Tu Cool trend was snubbed for being tacky and offensive.
Credit: Jing Daily

The very philosophy behind Tu Cool requires a high level of empathy and sensitivity to Chinese grassroots culture, leaving global brands out in the cold. Balenciaga found out the hard way when its Qixi Festival campaign, which attempted to reference Tu Cool, was snubbed for being tacky and offensive, in a clear reminder that the access to a culture is not as simple as imitating it. The global luxury powerhouse has not earned its place to adopt the self-deprecating aesthetic that characterizes Tu Cool.

In contrast, Airbnb takes a journey down the heritage trail with consumers. Its “Lost & Found” campaign features intimate stories shared by more than 40 artisans from various cities and regions, in a documentary that explores the human side behind handicrafts and the importance of intangible cultural heritage. In this process, the brand becomes the driving force in the preservation and celebration of Chinese heritage, rather than simply leaving its mark by superfluous association.

China Chic in the digital age

Coca Cola created the ‘Care’ font for the Chinese market, an initiative meant to convey the important values in the Chinese culture.
Credit: Foundertype

China Chic is on the threshold of transformation. The members of Gen Z, who are more interested in the present and future of China’s growth and global influence, are expressing their cultural identity differently, leaning toward values that reflect the experiences of their own generation. 

Here is a generation who have grown up in an era of constant change, innovation and progress; and these youths are negotiating an authentic Chinese identity that distinguishes them from the western influences that they have had throughout their lives. They seek original and nuanced expressions that are not based solely on their cultural heritage, but  also reflect individual experiences, as Chinese Gen Z become more vocal in contemporary issues like sustainability, equality, or social change. 

Brands like Coca Cola discovered alternative ways to culturally connect with their young audience through their newfound values. In celebration of Coca-Cola’s return to the Chinese market 40 years ago, the beverage giant created the ‘Care’ font, whose brushstrokes symbolize important elements in Chinese culture, including harmony, strength, responsibility, ease and progress, indicating Coca-Cola’s solidarity and integration into Chinese society as a global company.

Dior’s retro-futuristic pop-up concept in Chengdu.
Credit: Jing Daily

An emerging aesthetic that reflects Gen Z’s progressive values is the “Digitized China Chic (数字中国风 shùzì zhōngguó fēng)”, a term coined by netizens to describe a style that fuses technology, futurist fashions and traditional Chinese patterns. The wildly eclectic mix cyberpunk look and traditional Chinese architecture that has been trending on social media is nothing short of stunning. The same can be said of a similar retro-futurism that permeates Dior’s pop-up concept in Chengdu, where a giant robot rises against a backdrop of sleek skyscrapers and ancient temples.

The digitally savvy Gen Z also take pride in the ‘Cultural Export’ (文化输出 wénhuà shūchū) of China Chic, resulting in a wave of ‘China Chic Going Overseas’ (国潮出海 guó cháo chūhǎi), a new evolved confidence that has produced a nuanced version of chic to show off to the world. Social media TikTok has put classic Mandarin song Yijianmei at the top of Spotify’s charts, spawning memes and viral entertainment among western audiences. Chinese street fashion like the label Sankuanz—the authentic flavor of China’s underground and the cool kids that populate it—is coveted by western celebrities, such as Bella Hadid and Billie Ellis.  

China Chic will continue to evolve with different generations of consumers, which will likely become more fragmented, diverse and demanding, as the country grows in economic might and cultural influence. A simplistic cultural narrative can no longer work for brands looking for inroads into this massive market, and the time to infiltrate the cultural psyche of her consumers is now.