Chinese Elements in Fashion: A treasure or a trap?

The growth of the Chinese luxury market  

In the intricate global fashion landscape, China’s vibrant threads have emerged as both a dominant market force and a rich source of cultural inspiration. As one of the largest markets in the fashion sector, the influence of Chinese consumers represents an epochal change that should not be underestimated. International brands, attentive to the characteristics of this growing demographic, are increasingly intertwining Chinese elements into their collections, creating cultural homages and new marketing strategies.

The Chinese luxury market has become a cornerstone of the fashion industry economy. Fueled by China’s rapid economic growth and the resulting affluence of its middle class, the appetite for luxury goods has increased dramatically. The numbers speak for themselves: Bain & Company reports indicate that in 2021 China will be poised to represent almost half of the global luxury market by 2025.

The demographic group driving this change is notably young and demanding. Their preferences have forced luxury brands to establish a strong presence on platforms like WeChat and Tmall, blending the lines between e-commerce and high-end retail. Furthermore, these consumers seek not only the prestige of foreign labels but also a story behind each item they purchase; a history and a culture that must often be appropriated to overcome ancient prejudices.

Emerging Collections with Chinese Culture/Elements

In recent years the world of fashion has seen a profusion of collections that pay homage to Chinese culture. The motifs are many, from the imperial elegance of the dragon embroidery to the grace of the ink prints. Designers look back to centuries of Chinese sartorial tradition, reinventing traditional dresses like “qipaos” and “hanfus” for the modern catwalk. For example, in the Giorgio Armani Fall/Winter 2020-2021 runway show, twelve Chinese models wore “Chinese-style” qipao dresses, collectively interpreting the theme of “Qipao all’Armani”. The brands have also created Christmas capsule collections tailored for Chinese consumers, in line with the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival, decked out with zodiac symbols and auspicious colors. These collections are often greeted with enthusiasm, signaling a successful realization of a cultural mix and contemporary style. During last year’s Year of the Rabbit New Year period, over 30 luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Gucci launched zodiac-themed items, including high-end clothing, fashion accessories, toys, and more, presenting a fresh cartoon rabbit image, bringing unique and playful vibes to the Lunar New Year of the Rabbit.

Incorporating Chinese culture into fashion seems like a good strategy: it bridges the gap between luxury brands and Chinese consumers by showcasing Chinese elements, potentially enhancing brand awareness among Chinese consumers and increasing sales in China. However, all of this is predicated on the correct and appropriate integration of Chinese culture. Different brands, due to their unique brand identities, may vary in how they showcase Chinese culture. Despite many excellent examples of integrating Chinese culture into designs, the fashion industry has witnessed numerous controversies where attempts to engage with Chinese motifs have failed.

Good Examples of Chinese Elements in Fashion

Loewe with Chinese Ancient Heritage

In the LOEWE 2023 pre-spring collection, Jonathan Anderson invited nationally recognized inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, Deng Xiping, and Wang Guangyao, a researcher at the Palace Museum in Beijing, as well as British contemporary ceramic artist Natasha Daintry, to collaborate on creating exquisitely crafted monochrome glaze series handbags. Designer Jonathan Anderson selected traditional Chinese colors including light cyan, white, and rouge from the elegant glazes, incorporating them into the designs of the brand’s clothing and iconic bags such as Puzzle, Hammock, and Flamenco. The refreshing and elegant colors carry discernible Chinese elements. “China’s monochrome glazes have had a profound impact on ceramic art around the world from ancient times to the present, laying a solid foundation for color for many ceramic artists today,” said Jonathan Anderson. LOEWE’s move aims to pay tribute to the minimalist ceramic aesthetics of the Ming and Qing dynasties. This collection has received high praise in China, with consumers lauding it as “an outstanding design that stands out in the myriad of intricate Chinese-style fashion, showcasing the elegant and restrained Oriental charm.”

Dior with Chinese Traditional Craftsmanship

At the Dior Men’s Pre-Fall 2021 fashion show, Kim Jones continued to innovate in craftsmanship while retaining the Dior DNA. This time, he cleverly incorporated Chinese seed embroidery to showcase Kenny Scharf’s graffiti cartoons, alongside other Chinese elements such as folding fans and tassels. Kenny Scharf also designed characters inspired by Chinese mythology, such as goats and tigers. Additionally, at the Dior Men’s Spring 2024 show, traditional Chinese intangible cultural heritage craft “velvet flowers” were integrated into the design of this collection, showcasing the harmonious coexistence of fashion and traditional art to the world. Stephen Jones reinterpreted the New Wave style beret as a free-edge beret, using delicate velvet flowers produced in China since the Tang Dynasty to replace the original hat badges. 

Bad Examples of Chinese Elements in Fashion

Dolce & Gabbana: Humor may lead to anger

The case of Dolce & Gabbana’s ill-fated advertising campaign serves as a powerful reminder of how cultural insensitivity can tarnish a brand’s reputation overnight. 

In November 2018, Dolce & Gabbana posted three short videos titled “Using Chopsticks to Eat” on its official Weibo account to promote the upcoming fashion show in Shanghai. In the videos, a woman with a Chinese appearance sits in a restaurant and uses chopsticks to eat Italian pizza, fried sweet rolls, and tomato sauce spaghetti. The voiceover in the video uses strange words to describe Chinese dining habits, such as using “pliers” to refer to chopsticks. After the series of videos was released online, it sparked criticism from some netizens. Some netizens said that the model’s way of using chopsticks was strange and seemed to degrade Chinese culture. Another netizen pointed out that at the beginning of the video, the voiceover pronounced the brand name “Dolce & Gabbana” in slightly awkward English, which seemed to mock the pronunciation of Chinese people. Dolce & Gabbana seemed to try to make Chinese consumers laugh through humor, but it completely backfired: the video caused a huge uproar on the Chinese internet, with people generally feeling uncomfortable with the advertisement and suspecting it of discriminating against Chinese culture. More than ten celebrities and brand ambassadors terminated their contracts with Dolce & Gabbana, and The Great Show, which was scheduled to be held in Shanghai, was forced to cancel. Although more than five years have passed, you still cannot find any Dolce & Gabbana products on China’s largest online shopping website, Taobao.

Balenciaga: Ambiguousness is dangerous

Apart from Dolce & Gabbana, Balenciaga has faced backlash for misappropriating China’s internet subculture, highlighting the risks of cultural misinterpretation.

For the upcoming Qixi Festival (The Chinese Valentine’s Day), specially launched the “Hourglass Qixi Special Collection” in mainland China, featuring handbags adorned with hand-painted simplified Chinese characters such as “I love you” and “He loves me.” However, after Balenciaga released promotional ads, they sparked criticism from netizens, with some even questioning them as “insulting China.” These promotional photos uniformly adopt outdated Chinese rural studio photography styles and the Internet sub-culture in the last decade, with flowers and hearts as backgrounds, accompanied by “tacky love phrases” such as “Falling in love with me, let my crimson sincerity surround you” and “I’m willing, the following days will satisfy you.”

Some netizens not only mocked the design of this series as “extremely tacky,” but also harshly criticized the brand for its lack of understanding and insincerity towards Chinese culture, believing that it had lost the high fashion of a luxury brand. Furthermore, there’s an opinion that the brand’s promotional approach reflects stereotypical views of China as Balenciaga seems to subtly mock Chinese aesthetics.

Incorporating Chinese elements into fashion is a delicate art, requiring a balance between creative expression and cultural respect. To navigate this landscape, brands must partner with cultural consultants, invest in understanding the historical and social significance of these elements, and approach design with a mix of respect and innovation. Here are some takeaways we can gain from these good and bad examples.

Respect and avoid being too humorous

The case of Dolce & Gabbana teaches us that to win over consumers, the foremost priority is to respect their culture and consumption habits. In China, being a country rich in cultural pride and national identity, Chinese consumers do not appreciate brands making fun of Chinese culture. They hope to see brands give their culture and traditions the proper attention and respect they deserve, rather than treating them as subjects for ridicule or exploitation. Brands should delve deeply into the values, aesthetics, and consumption behaviors of Chinese consumers to ensure that their products and marketing activities align with Chinese culture.

Draw inspiration from Chinese heritage and craftsmanship:

China boasts over three thousand intangible cultural heritage items, making it an endless source of inspiration for the design industry. Chinese consumers hope to see the revival of heritage and craftsmanship and are willing to purchase and use fashion items inspired by cultural heritage. However, brands may find it challenging to incorporate these inspirations. Yet, Kim Jones offers us a great approach: “We collaborate with many different Chinese craftsmen. There’s also my friend Victoria Tang. I wanted to find someone who knows experts in various fields, to bring some things from that world (China) into fashion design.”

Chinese culture has inspired generations of fashion designers, and we have witnessed many brilliant Chinese fashion collections. Chinese culture is undoubtedly a treasure, not only in terms of design significance but also in business. However, all of this is based on the premise of correct and appropriate use of Chinese culture. Based on understanding and respect, collaborating with Chinese cultural experts to comprehensively showcase Chinese cultural elements is the best way to integrate Chinese culture into fashion.


By Shouyu Wu and Lorenzo Muzi

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