Prove your humanity

In the past five years, fashion has billowed across China’s first-tier cities; it has become the face of a complex(ion) makeover. The Curious Cathy within wonders… What’s trending in the nation’s lower-tier “towns”?


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Diana Vreeland said it before, and we’ll say it again, “One can see everything through fashion; the coming of a war, the rise or downfall of an economy, the day-to-day life.” E-ve-ry-thing.

With the accessibility and convenience of mobile and social commerce, fashion has become pervasive across China’s urban landscape. We spy with the Temper eye a trending revision of style as dictated by the traditional print layout because today, clothes can be seen, shared, and shopped across social media. The question brews…

As we can see e-ve-ry-thing, what does China’s lower-tier style tell us, from trendy to socio-politico penchants?


On An Unsolicited Educational Note
The city-tier system is a simple way for foreign investors to gain a bird’s eye view of the myriad of markets that make up China. It can be used by investors to inform their market entry decision or to guide their expansion plans.

According to the 2019 South China Morning Post (SCMP) exclusive on city-tiers, most factors used to define city-tiers fall within three macroeconomic categories: GDP, population, and politics. The cities are then allocated a tier – based on the average of these three factors.

The SCMP criteria resulted in: five Tier 1 cities, 30 Tier 2 cities, 138 Tier 3 cities, and 480 Tier 4 cities. China’s first-tier cities are in a league of their own: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, and Shenzhen. Traditionally, first-tier cities are the largest and wealthiest — the megapolises of China.

As the tiers progress, the cities decrease in size, and affluence, and move further away from prime locations. However, the growing regional disparity in China has created a greater need for city-by-city distinction, leading to the emergence of “lower-tier” categories.

Temper tries to sketch the new, lower skyline. "Tries," mind you. Image via Inside Fashion Live

Temper tries to sketch the lower skyline. “Tries,” mind you. Image: Inside Fashion Live

In the Trenches

Looking back on the history of fashion development, we can find that fashion has long been inseparable from politics, economy, culture, and public life. The design of fashion comes from life, culture, and even war, and changes with political history. A classic example would be that of Burberry’s iconic trench coat, which originated from the WWI trenches to keep at bay wind and rain.

According to a 2004 survey released by Taubman Center, a large U.S. retail group, 63 percent of Americans then believed skirts with the hemline raised above the knee should be topping the popularity charts of the day, a sign that the economic situation in the U.S. was on the up (if only they knew); 30 percent of Americans were cautiously optimistic about the U.S. economy of the day, and figured the in-crowd skirt length should fall right below the knee.

Only seven percent of the Johns and Janes Doe back then thought long skirts dropping down to the ankles would be crowned that year’s It girl.

There are many theories and examples about the interaction between economy and fashion. For China, now is the time for the 21st Century-born middle-class to expand its girth through the rise of individualism. The nation’s youth culture, too, has developed the taste buds for exploring the more (capricious) creative side of the palate. Both segments combined make for the perfect reflection of China’s consumer compass across the urban landscape, first- to lower-tier.

Temper tries to sketch the lower skyline. The operative word being “tries.”


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Give ‘Em What They Never Knew They Wanted

Under the impact of China’s current information flow and traffic, the speed and content gap between first- and lower-tier cities to obtain fashion information is getting smaller and smaller. Millennials and Gen Zs are all still “young,” but have different professional identities. They are at different stages of life and therefore have naturally different fashion orientations.

One senior strategist from a Shanghai-based marketing agency tells Temper, “Millennial and early Gen Z fashion consumers have already entered the workplace, so they generally prefer a more sophisticated fashion dress and focus on skincare.” This collective proved the forerunners of the China Fashion scene and first experienced fashion when minimalism was at its height of popularity, one decade ago. That explains.


China’s Gen Z consumer switches on a new, domestically-focused, sense of style. Image: Inside Fashion Live

Fashion consumers of Gen Z stem from a generation of social media and selfie idolatry, the one vice we vain ones have all succumbed to, generally preferring street fashion and the accompanying limited-edition cross-body bag slash superfluities. “Their sense of fashion is influenced by what they experience via music, videos, and content across social media channels and from influencers or peers that they identify with,” the expert at hand chimes in.

With the diversification of social platforms, the differences between user groups attracted by different platforms are more and more distinct. “The social media that post-80s and -90s mainly focus on are still WeChat [one of the country’s most popular super-apps], Weibo [China’s Twitter], and QQ. The post-95s, however, prefer more diversified social platforms, such as livestreaming and short video platforms–think Douyin [China’s TikTok] and BiliBili,” they go on to say.

These guys have upped the information acquisition game and accelerated their capability to develop more access channels and my in-depth information. “In sum,” she concludes the wicked wisdom, “they collect suggestions and evaluation information from influencer recommendations and brand content on social media to find trustworthy products.”


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Trending in Tier Town

We can feel the burning questions breathing down our swan-like necks. What lower-tier cities are we talking about? Is there any brand awareness? Self-awareness? A sixth sense, i.e., style? As we, yep Temper too, are rather clueless on these matters, we ordered a pitcher of savviness: Lisa Pak of outlet shopping megadome Florentia Village.

Pak gives it to us straight, “The list of these [lower-tier] cities is changing continuously [the 2019 SCMP report is still accurate as of May 2022] through economic and subsequent urban development, and the fashion scenery there, too, sways along. The new first-tier [referring to cities rapidly rising through the ranks] modish momentum is an extraordinarily complex topic that includes commercial charm, economic value and the residents’ lifestyle gusto.”


Chengdu style. Image: China Street Snap

From the perspective of market and investment, the development potential of these new first-tier cities cannot and must not be underrated. We’re talking, so start Googling, Chongqing(重庆), Wuhan (武汉) –no Google needed for that one, we assume– and Chengdu (成都). From the perspective of panache and pizzazz, each of these fast-growing new first-tier cities possesses its own culture.

Pak chimes in, “Fashion is a type of self-care, which everyone sees and interprets differently. Regardless of tier, everyone and anyone can have a heart for beauty. Even though the information obtained today is more and more synchronized, each city still has its own characteristics, styles, and hypes. Fashion is a business combining culture and resources.”

On Another Unsolicited Educational Note
Due to strong consumption demand, Wuhan is still one of the top retail markets in Central China. Recently local and international retailers, including Wuhan Plaza, Zhongbai, Capitaland and Wanda, have been expanding their presence by opening more department stores and shopping malls.

The rising purchasing power and a shift to more western-style consumer behaviors provide ample opportunities for fast fashion (such as H&M, Zara, Uniqlo) and luxury fashion (such as Burberry, Gucci, Louis Vuitton).

Wuhan houses one of the largest garment production and distribution centers in Central China, owing to its well-established garment sales network and unique geographical location. The city is home to 14 universities and colleges offering fashion specialties. Among them are the Wuhan Textile University, one of the top 10 fashion design universities in China) and the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts.

Additionally, the textile hub is home to several large textile enterprises. The upstream industrial chain guarantees the quality and sufficient raw material supply for garment production in Wuhan.

They Adore Artifice. They Always Have.

On the hand, while there are brands that choose not to open stores, let alone flagship mainstays, in lower-tier cities due to their lower economic levels of income and consumption in comparison to those of the first-tier metropolises, outlet malls are a hit in the emerging hubs. Outlets attract a wider consumer base due to their incredibly attractive price tags. In many cases, the customers purchasing label-wear during their day out at the outlet are having their first experiences buying (luxury and designer) brands. This has been traditionally the case for the outlet industry across the more developed markets such as those of the U.S. and Europe. #TemperTeachings

Recognizable luxury legends such as Gucci, Prada and which have a long history in fashion, are still extremely popular with the new first-tier clientele and usually perform very well across Chinese outlets. However, with the Gen Z customer storming in, brands that combine comfort, function, and style are soaring in popularity. And sneakers reign Supreme.

On Yet Another Unsolicited Educational Note
For the U.S., one might argue that sneaker culture is derived from the streets and hip hop culture. For China, the main chauffeur would be social media.

The sneaker in China Fashion has attained a cross-gender and -genre status, mostly appealing to Gen Z.

Decorating designer shop windows and the feet of young fashionistas in any shape or form, the sneaker in China travels from athleisure to rap culture, to the sartorial.

“Aside from the new first-tier locations, we are also willing to bring our fashion and brand outlet resources into more inner-Chinese cities,” Pak concludes, “We look at those where we can spot the growth potential, and the likelihood to drive regional economic development through the retail and fashion industries.”


Chengdu style. Image: China Street Snap

Just Getting the Party Started?

As of now, it remains somewhat trying to pinpoint the presence of a “general” or “specific” urban-tier culture. With their own specific styles or hypes now sprouting and slowly unfolding, Temper, therefore, zooms in on the question it deems most relevant in this context…

What is the next superhot, hip, and happening lower-tier Chinese city in the bigger China Fashion scene — soon to be joining the ranks of Shanghai and Beijing?

Easy: Chengdu–the capital of China’s southwestern Sichuan Province and a Tier 2 city that is also referred to as a new first-tier one. #FYI

Chengdu Street Snap (a street photography project of staged snapshots scorching hot across Chinese social media platforms) is one example of a continually active and obvious expression of “self-fashion.” The suave city’s fashion foundations are some of the highest quality in the west of China. Due to its gigantic market and solid sales track record, Chengdu has currently become the first choice for foreign brands to enter the western Chinese market — after Shanghai and Beijing, as you do.


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“Chengdu has been in the spotlight for many brands and retailers,” Pak elaborates, “Chengdu Creative Design Week, for example, gave us a glimpse of the allure and temper of this city. In addition to the booming fashion brands and overall industry, the city also has the vision of evolving into an international consumption center, covering culture, innovation, inclusiveness, and attraction.”

The Chinese government loudly and proudly supports the business of fashion in Chengdu, and for that sole reason, many a brand regards the city as a humming hub for commercial investment. Interesting. Temper, too, failed to recognize the focus on fashion from the brothers higher up. Speaking of Higher Brothers…

Chengdu is probably best known in the West for giving birth to China’s ever-burgeoning hip-hop ethos, merging music, sneakers, ghetto gold, and generally too cool for school levels. And fashion. The latter label has long been etched in the context of Chengdu’s urban (r)evolution. The city’s Gen Z, especially, worships overall gorgeousness, and is more than willing to spend the big buckaroos on style, all accoutrements included. All in all, these guys boast some serious spending power, all the while gearing up to enter first-tier territory.


One can indeed Xi everything through fashion.













Elsbeth van Paridon
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