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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 tiers?

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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. Everything.”

With the accessibility and convenience of mobile and social commerce, fashion has become pervasive across Chinese cities. 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 everything, what does China’s lower tier style scene tell us, from trendy to socio-politico tranches?

 

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, affluence, and move further away from prime locations. However, 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 via 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, even war, and changes with political history. 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, aka forecasters of The Big Short, thought long skirts dropping down all the way 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 of the 21st century born middle-class expanding its girth through the rise of individualism. The nation’s youth culture, too, has developed the tastebuds for exploring the more (capricious) creative side of the palate. Both segments combined in fact 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. “Tries,” mind you.

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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 cities to obtain fashion information is getting smaller and smaller. The post-80s, post-90s, and Gen Zs (those born between 1995 and 2012) are all still “young,” but have different professional identities. They are at different stages of life and therefore have naturally different fashion orientations.

Senior strategist Dragon Zhang of Shanghai-based TOMORROW creative agency adds, “Fashion consumers among the post-80s and -90s have already entered the workplace, so they generally prefer a more sophisticated fashion dress and focus on skin care.” 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 via Inside Fashion Live

China’s Gen Z consumer switches on a new, domestically-focused, sense of style. Image via 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 of 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, Weibo and QQ. The post-95s, however, prefer more diversified social platforms, such as livestreaming and video platforms,” Zhang goes on to say.

These guys have upped the information acquisition game and accelerated their capability to develop more access channels and mine in-depth information. “In sum,” she concludes the wicked wisdom, “they collect suggestions and evaluation information from KOLs’ recommendations and testing 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? Is there any self-awareness? Is there a sixth sense, i.e. style? As we, yep Temper too, are rather clueless on these matters, we ordered a pitcher of savviness aka Lisa Pak of outlet shopping megadome Florentia Village — expected to open its seventh location in Chongqing come early 2021. FYI.

Pak gives it to us straight, “Given the pace of China’s growth, lower tier cities do not exist anymore. [Replace “lower tier” with “poor people” – “extremely poor people,” silly us — and you will spy with your eye another 2020 trending Party line.] Instead, we like to talk about ‘first tier’ and ‘new first’ tier instead. The list of these cities is changing year on year through economic and subsequent urban development, and the fashion scenery there, too, sways along. The new first tier modish momentum is an extraordinarily complex topic that includes commercial charm, economic value and the residents’ lifestyle gusto.”

我来自成都啊。Image: CLOSE-SHOOT

“我来自成都啊。” Image: CLOSE-SHOOT

From the perspective of market and investment, the development potential of these “new first tier” – we’ll just roll with this for now — cities cannot and must not be underrated. We’re talking, so start Googling, Chongqing (重庆), Foshan (佛山), Wuhan (武汉)– no Google needed for the latter, 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 if it is in the first tier or the new first 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, provides 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 a number of 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 — yep, switching it up — 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 in fact 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 that 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 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 obviously look at those where we can spot the potential for growth, and the likelihood to drive regional economic development through the retail and fashion industries.”

Copyright: CLOSE-SHOOT

“我来自成都啊。” Image: CLOSE-SHOOT

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 Chinese city to enter the bigger China Fashion scene — joining the ranks of Shanghai and Beijing?

Easy: Chengdu.

Chengdu Street Snap (a street photography project of staged snap shots scorching Chinese social media) 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.”

Authority-endorsed lingo aside, Chengdu is probs best known across the West for giving birth to China’s ever-burgeoning hip-hop ethos, merging music, sneakers, ghetto gold, and general 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 kids boast some serious spending power.

Admittedly, the Chinese government does loudly and strongly support 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. Perhaps this could also explain a few “cotton pickings” in the far west of the Middle Kingdom – get your Google on. Who would’ve guessed…

All of it just for the love of the Party hemlines.

 

One can indeed Xi everything through fashion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Elsbeth van Paridon
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