Confidence in Chinese-themed designs has made tremendous strides, particularly within the fashion industry. Both Chinese and foreign companies are taking footnotes. Within the past few years, migrant labor – whose omnipresence has been fueling China’s economic growth, has become a popular fashion muse for designers. Increasingly picked up by pop artists and designers as a popular symbol for another kind of ‘Made in China’ expression their images now plaster the surfaces of stylishly made sneakers and t-shirts, embraced by many foreign enthusiasts as well as the new Chinese post-80s and post-90s consumers.
Default imagery of Chinese migrant workers evokes someone who leaves their hometown for China’s prosperous coastal cities in search of better paid jobs. But they no longer want to play the heroes or heroines in foreign journalists’ photos while they toil away at factory assembly lines. “Speaking of China’s rapid development; people are working hard, education levels are rising, people are traveling more and enjoying more leisure time. Why shouldn’t China’s development story be the foundation of a fashion brand?” poses an entrepreneurial-minded New Jersey businessman, Ben Walters. Ospop (“One Small Point of Pride”), his brainchild, is a shoe brand created on the premise of re-engineering the Chinese migrant worker image. With a large slogan emblazed across the front page of its website saying ‘Proudly Made in China’, the message is direct and clear.
Paying homage to the faceless masses that have worked so hard is momentous decision as China must deal with their own pivotal work force changes. With recently reported ‘labor shortages’ across factories located in traditional export manufacturing hubs in Southern China, the era of once heavily exploited “cheap labor” may have reached a surprising end. This is also reflected by the dramatic demographic change in China’s new labor supplies. As economic development in China’s inland provinces accelerates, younger migrant workers – typically those born after 80s and 90s -are reluctant to travel to distant regions for monthly salaries that are only slightly better than what they can make near their homes. Various domestic media reportedly put the labor supply gap at around a million people in Guangzhou and neighboring cities such as Dongguan, legendary centers of China’s export boom in the past three decades. Numerous assembly lines and construction sites are sitting idle while anxious employers have raised salaries by more than 30% but still cannot attract enough applicants.
The phrase “made in China” does not generally evoke positive reactions abroad, so it has been essential for shoe companies to prove the phrase means something different for them. A prime example is the French-owned Shanghai-original Feiyue (or, “flying forward”) which has offered a classic Chinese sneaker some hip, updated renovations. Soaring popularity of the brand’s re-launch are evident in the high prices for a pair in Europe (multiple times that of their current Chinese cost), and in the “necessity” for Chinese and foreign hipsters in China’s first tier cities of owning at least one pair. And in the US Chinese Martial Arts community these shoes have been a must for years.
Other China design trends are following in Feiyue’s footsteps. Thanks to sponsorship contracts with iconic athletes like Shaquille O’Neal, brands like Li Ning have gained international credentials, even producing English language commercials for their expansion in the US. Also notable, shanzhai (imitation and pirated products and brands) have made their way into NBA courtside advertisements.
Couple this with the mounting pressure and attention focused upon the 80s/90s generation, which has been chided as useless and spoiled, but also declared to be the future of the nation. Brands like Li Ning have crafted a “Make the Change” campaign that sensitively caters to the post-90s generation. Vancl, a brand which had been struggling to create a unique identity (there were originally mostly a copy of Vans), has spearheaded the message of “I am who I am.”
As single children raised in an environment with two working parents, members of this generation are largely independent, interested in technology and the latest trends. This is often interpreted as ennui fueled by angst about not living up to the high expectations put on them.
Taking a different approach, Converse’s presence in China has been geared more towards subculture activities (releasing a Chinese road trip skateboard tour movie). They have adapted their own variation on the independent theme with the more street-wise sounding slogan of “Change the Game”.
As China’s GDP grows, is global influence will become progressively more noticeable. Meanwhile, we will see a gradual acceptance as foreign nations recognize this global shift. Domestically, the post-90s generation will rise to their feet clad in re-vamped brands firmly mounted in a nationalist resurgence and coyly marketed as “vintage China”. They won’t know it; but unconsciously opting for Vancl over Vans is for their own collective benefit. The rapid pace with which China is changing will reinforce this wide-spread behavioral change based on a shifted attitude towards national identity.
Now, when will “Made in China” become a label with positive connotations? When will it become cool? Can Chinese themes even connect broadly outside of East Asia? Will “Made in China” follow a similar route as the once stigmatized “Made in Germany”, and become perceived as a signifier of great quality?”
It will be interesting to see how China steps up to their new role as influencer rather than as a cheap producer. Thoreau said, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away”. As the quality of goods improves, Chinese design trends will justifiably make their mark if they continue relying upon their own distinct, esoteric origin; it will proudly charm Chinese, and provide something completely novel abroad.