Rain pours down outside a nondescript shopping mall in Shanghai. Passersby clutch umbrellas or hail cabs to escape the downpour. A roll call of Chinese fashion brands on LED billboards signal that this is one of the official locations for Shanghai Fashion Week, but there are no photographers, hangers-on or event staff crowded outside, just a couple of guys in BAPE hoodies staring into their smartphones as they shelter from the rain. A Gucci billboard the size of a football pitch looms over them.

Elsewhere in the city, the scene is much the same. There are enormous screens celebrating the city’s fashion week, but it doesn’t seem like anyone’s actually there to see it. There’s none of the buzz, crowds or mad rushes of photographers that you see on the streets of London, New York, Paris or Milan. That doesn’t mean the city is without its ambitions: Vivienne Westwood opened Shanghai’s SS12 season, and the week’s organizers are hoping the city will overtake Tokyo and Seoul as Asia’s fashion capital.

It’s a strange paradox China finds itself in at the minute. Nearly half of all the world’s luxury goods — 46 percent to be precise — are bought by Chinese shoppers. Luxury stores across the world employ Chinese-speaking staff to cater for the countless retail tourists walking through their doors. Every high-ticket shop on the planet relies on China’s globetrotting nouveau riche to pay their bills, and luxury brands have invested so heavily in the country that the thought of another economic slowdown there makes executives shudder. When Chinese shoppers reined in their spending back in 2015, Burberry CEO and Creative Director Christopher Bailey had to take a 75 percent pay cut to offset the brand’s plummeting sales. 

It’s not just buying power that makes China the mightiest fashion consumer on the planet. It’s the workshop of the world, the country that makes the phone in your pocket and the clothes on your back. President Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ shtick promised to take back many of the countless jobs that have been outsourced to China in recent years. That won’t change the fact that pretty much every manufacturer on the planet has China incorporated into its supply chain in some way or another—and fashion brands are no exception.

China’s manufacturing might have created a stupendous amount of wealth in the country, and like emerging middle classes all over the developing world, being seen spending your money is a vital sign of success—hence all the luxury shopping. The world’s most populous nation is now flexing its muscles abroad—China is investing in vast infrastructure projects in over 60 countries, from a nuclear power plant in the UK to Africa’s first transnational electric railway. Oh, and its navy is currently building islands in the middle of the South China Sea to claim ownership of the seaways that carry a third of the world’s shipping.

If China consumes, produces and exports such a vast amount of clothing, why are we still wearing clothes designed in America, Europe and Japan? Why aren’t we seeing Chinese fashion brands in shops all over the world?

In the concrete bowels of a former abattoir, Sun Yun looks on at the ordered chaos before him. Clothes hang on rails, aides chatter into phones, and models loiter around killing time before the lights go down. Sun Yun—or “Mr. Sun” as he’s known here—is a softly-spoken man of indeterminate age, with a fine, wispy goatee, and long black hair tied back behind his ears. He and his team are dressed in the high fashion uniform that’s standard-issue in this part of the world: lots of drape, lots of layers, and no color whatsoever. A white facemask is the only thing Mr. Sun wears that isn’t black.

Mr. Sun made his name as an architect. He’s designed the corporate headquarters for Yahoo’s Chinese arm, and gargantuan e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba. His firm, IAD, is ranked in the top 100 in the world by Architectural Digest. Today, he’s a different kind of designer; he’s showing the debut collection for Cornerstone by Sun Yun, his new foray into fashion.

Chinese designers aren’t short on talent or skill—many of them have trained at the world’s most prestigious design schools—but the biggest problem they face is that, broadly speaking, China isn’t interested in its own brands. The government and state-controlled media would have you believe that the country is destined to one day usurp the West, but culturally speaking, the general public fawns over imports from Europe and America. Trap is all the rage, Swiss watches are an essential status symbol, and the country’s elite has developed a taste for high-end French wines. That makes things tough for emerging Chinese designers, who face an uphill struggle trying to make themselves relevant in the country. If Chinese designers can’t build a business in their own country, how are they supposed to make it abroad?

It’s also a problem that Chinese designers are, to date, short on a compelling vision. Japanese labels have been enormously successful by reworking blueprints set by the West to create something new and exciting. More recently, Gosha Rubchinskiy has done the same with his quintessentially Russian take on streetwear, again to huge success. The Chinese designers you see showing in Paris, New York and London are certainly not bad, but they’ve not managed to really wow the world with an authentic story.

Mr. Sun wants to change all that.

Cornerstone’s FW17 collection takes traditional Chinese influences, and reworks them for the modern wardrobe. The silhouette is big, strong and masculine, and it draws heavily from military and workwear influences. A lot of the techniques reference Chinese tradition, like a mink coat that’s been crafted with centuries-old patchwork techniques, but then cut like a massive hoodie. Hand-printing methods that go back thousands of years have been used on technical polyester instead of silk.

There’s a big market for Cornerstone’s luxe robes and fine coats in Asia already, but there’s enough contemporary street references—the army jackets, the pops of hi-vis color—to make a dent in the West. It certainly won’t hurt that Cornerstone’s aesthetic has faint hints of Kanye West’s YEEZY line to it, what with the dystopian vibes, massive silhouettes and overt military influence.

It’s a powerful statement, and Mr. Sun is certainly confident in his new baby: He’s opening four flagships in China to debut the collection.

Given that Shanghai Fashion Week is far off from breaking into the “big four”—London, Milan, Paris, New York—and that the country is yet to fully develop a taste for its own talent, it’s only natural that many Chinese designers have taken to showing in the West instead.

Feng Chen Wang used her SS18 show to satirize the popular stigma that’s attached to Chinese goods. Wang plastered “Made in China” across her collection, which was unveiled during New York Fashion Week: Men’s. China is home to some of the most advanced textile factories in the world, and has a long legacy of artisanal craftsmanship, but the “Made in China” tag has wrongly been associated with cheap, disposable novelties. That’s a hangover from the Cold War, when the U.S. media propagated the belief that Chinese manufacturing was inferior, in order to support American producers. Wang also unveiled a Jordan collab on the runway—not bad for a designer who’s only on her second solo show

Sankuanz, founded by Shanguan Zhe in 2008, shows its hyperactive, schizophrenic luxe-street creations on the Paris schedule. For FW17, Zhe was on a B-movie vibe, mixing weirdo sci-fi elements with wacky fabrics and ghoulish lettering that looked like it was lifted from The Cramps.

“Kids born in the ’90s are more influenced by the internet than the government,” says Zhe backstage after the Sankuanz fashion show. “They have more information, they can choose more than the style that’s in the country, and they have access to information from international brands.”

“China has become more closely integrated into the global community over the past decades, which means that there is now a more enabling environment than ever for the fashion scene.”

Xander Zhou

Zhe reported that 30-40 percent of Sankuanz’s sales are in the Chinese market, with Japan, America and Italy making up the bulk of the rest.

“I believe fashion is a universal language,” Xander Zhou explains via email. “China has become more closely integrated into the global community over the past decades, which means that there is now a more enabling environment than ever for the fashion scene.” On the London Fashion Week Men’s schedule, Xander Zhou shows eclectic collections that have, in recent seasons, veered from Bowie-esque glitz and glam to rugged, army-inspired mega-grunge.

For his SS18 show in the British capital, Zhou created a fake office—cubicles and all—in which to show his faux-corporate Matrix-wear. Given that A$AP Rocky wore one of Zhou’s jackets in a recent Mercedes ad, it’s safe to say that the Beijing-based designer—who was educated in China and then the Netherlands—is making headway in Western circles.

“Do you know that story about the world’s biggest beer brand? No one outside of China has ever heard of Snow beer.” Zhou elaborates. “Which just goes to show that there is much room for a brand to grow and become famous within China before breaking through internationally. Whether it be beer or fashion brands, I believe that the world will see more famous brands emerging from China in the next decade than in the past century.”

Ng Chun Bon Julio trained at London College of Fashion, and works as a design consultant for Cornerstone. Dressed head-to-toe in Haider Ackermann, he’s energetic and engaging, and speaks English with the ease and competence you’d expect from someone who learned their craft in London.

“Lots of designers here have graduated from European countries, so they have huge influence from Europe, but they need time to grow,” he says. “Consumers here are still finding their own way of buying. Most of the time they look to the outside world to see what’s on trend, instead of looking around them. That’s what’s driven China’s fashion industry.”

If China’s domestic market hasn’t come around to homegrown brands yet, then it’s no surprise that they’re yet to find their feet abroad. Julio admits that it’s a process, and the market can’t expect consumers’ taste levels to come around in one day. But eventually, he’s confident it will get there. Chinese society is rapidly changing, and while the mainstream may be slowly growing out of the usual luxury labels, there’s a new generation of younger consumers hungry for brands that older shoppers have never heard of.

When President Xi Jinpeng came to power back in 2012, he promised a wide-reaching crackdown on corruption among China’s politicians and civil servants. More than 100,000 people have since been indicted on corruption charges, and that’s had a big effect on the country’s buying habits. Government officials can no longer be seen visibly splashing their cash, so they’re moving away from the usual flashy designer labels. That means younger, wealthier Chinese shoppers—many of them the sons and daughters of government bureaucrats—have taken to buying comparatively low-key pieces from niche designers like Rick Owens and Paul Harnden. Thanks to Weibo, China’s all-encompassing social media platform, many of these kids have now become influencers in the country, and their tastes have caught on with the rest of the market.

Kayuet “Nicky” Chau, co-founder of niche Beijing retailer Anchoret, asserts that Chinese tastes are getting more sophisticated, and more informed by Western trends and K-pop.

“Many Chinese luxury fashion customers stopped buying big names, because they prefer to be seen as more unique and fashion forward” she says. “For them, consuming only big names is old fashioned.”

That would explain why Anchoret’s curation—which includes Vetements, Yohji Yamamoto and Alyx Studios—is becoming increasingly popular among savvy Chinese shoppers.

“We get more and more young, working professionals who are highly educated and worked abroad with multilingual and cultural backgrounds” explains Han Lee, the co-founder of SANLIPOP, a Beijing retailer that specializes in Japanese-Americana labels like nanamica, Needles and Engineered Garments. “They often share their concern with us, which is: I don’t want to look like I just walked out from a luxury boutique or a department store, looking like an advert.”

Lee believes that these new habits are a result of China’s fast-changing social climate.

“They often share their concern with us, which is: I don’t want to look like I just walked out from a luxury boutique or a department store, looking like an advert.”

Han Lee

“We do not think it’s caused by a sudden change in people’s tastes, but rather a result of the growth of middle and upper classes in China,” he says.

Distribution in mainland China for cult brands is tight, and the country slaps hefty import taxes on luxury goods, meaning domestic prices are way higher than those in the West. As of the latter half of 2016, luxury watches, for example, were subject to a 60 percent import tariff, 17 percent VAT, and in most cases an additional 20 percent consumption tax. That means high-end watches in China are 97 percent more expensive than those in Western markets.

As a result, many shoppers have to rely on daigou—Chinese resellers—to hook them up. Based overseas, daigou will purchase luxury goods on the behalf of friends, family and clients on the mainland, allowing them to take advantage of favorable exchange rates and lower luxury tariffs. Daigou are often spotted strolling around luxury boutiques, snapping pictures of pieces for their clients or posting them up on their own Weibo profiles. If anything takes their clients’ fancy, the daigou will buy it on their behalf and ship it back to the mainland—plus commission, of course. The Chinese government has recently tried to crack down on daigou activity, but that doesn’t seem to have curbed it. Successful daigou are social media-savvy, and that’s meant many resellers have since become influencers in China.

“Most of them try very hard to be an opinion leader due to the big business opportunity,” explains Pita Cheng, from Hong Kong retailer INK, which sells brands like Rick Owens, Boris Bidjan Saberi and Acronym. Cheng reports that around 70 percent of the shop’s customers come from the Chinese mainland—hardly surprising given that Hong Kong is a tax-free shopping destination, which makes it a haven for resellers.

“A cool photo could sell hundreds of products and bunch of photos mean lots of cash,” Cheng explains. “This has driven more and more people to become a fashion tastemaker.”

Talk fashion with anyone in this part of the world though, and there’s an elephant in the room. Intellectual property rights are lazily enforced in China, and when you combine that with the country’s production prowess and consumers’ desire for the latest must-have piece to emerge from the West, you get a thriving market for counterfeit clothing. Yeezys, Supreme, Gucci and Off-White are some of the most common knockoffs these days, and it’s an inevitable side-effect of the streetwear scene’s obsession with exclusivity. The industry will have you believe that limited-edition products are the only ones that matter these days, so of course people are going to rip them off. That, combined with the prohibitively high tariffs, is one of the reasons the Chinese love shopping abroad so much—it’s safer, because there’s no risk of fakes.

Seoul Fashion Week ran a week before Shanghai, and the level of counterfeiting on the streets of the Korean capital is stunning. People seemingly don’t know—or simply don’t care—if they’re wearing counterfeits, so long as what they’re wearing is on-trend. In Seoul, there are some shockingly realistic knockoffs being sold in malls right across the road from the official fashion week show space. The only difference is in the details: lousy fabrics, misshapen cuffs and crap drawstrings. Nobody’s going to notice those on Instagram anyway.

“Now I see more people wearing something that represents their identity instead of just following the trends. There will be designers that design with a similar aesthetic to main trends, but direct copies? It’s getting less and less.”

Ng Chun Bon Julio

“It was really bad in China a couple of years ago,” Julio says of the region’s counterfeit culture. “Now I see more people wearing something that represents their identity instead of just following the trends. There will be designers that design with a similar aesthetic to main trends, but direct copies? It’s getting less and less. People understand it’s a copy, and they have the spending power to buy the real thing anyway.”

Even then, it took all of five minutes to find a store in Shanghai selling knockoff Yeezys, Vetements, Marcelo Burlon and Acne Studios. Social media and the Internet have turned the world upside down, but the clash of old and new is especially pronounced in China. On the one hand, you have an ancient culture with centuries of history and traditions behind it, and on the other, you have a rapidly changing society with an enormous economy and a young generation that’s hungry to express itself in new ways.

Many designers, like those in emerging markets all over the globe, are tempted to think short-term and play off Western trends and aesthetics, but that’s not the way to build a legacy in fashion. China is a mysterious, exotic place, one with a deeply complex history and culture. It’s got the talent, the ambitions, and the infrastructure to create some truly global brands, but in order to really make it, the country needs to tell a story—and it can only do that by looking in, not out.

This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15, which is available now from our online store, as well as at fine retailers worldwide.

Words by Alec Leach
Digital Fashion Editor

Alec Leach grew up in Brighton, England, but now lives in Berlin, where he leads Highsnobiety's digital fashion content.

What To Read Next