Sci-fi inspired looks, + prints, bright dyed hair and eyebrows, oversized utility infused with space age metallics: futuristic and retro-futuristic style is a growing obsession amongst China’s young fashion set. This synergy of designer creations and a powerful street style movement are expressions of the future-looking, digitally dominated worlds of urban millennials today in China.
Peter Xu (centre) with friends.
“Chinese youth are very connected to technology, and the future itself is already pervasive throughout contemporary Chinese culture,” says Timothy Parent, founder of chinafashionbloggers.com, who has been watching China’s fashion scene for almost a decade. “I think this futurism is simply a way to express their willingness to engage with, build, and literally be the future.”
With the rapid speed of socio-economic and cultural change over the past 10 years, the often futuristic/retro-futuristic designs of Angel Chen, Masha Ma, Percy Lau, and Xander Zhou from China are reflections of the times. For many, coming of age in a post-Communist 80s or 90s era of development means their environments are more defined by tall, gleaming skyscrapers, social media, screens, and neon lights than anything else.
“It’s all about expressing yourself,” says Masha Ma, one of China’s most influential designers. Her SS18 Paris Fashion Week show at the Palais de Tokyo is telling: the all-Asian cast of models paraded in contemporary, punkish, pinstripe tailoring, waterproof outdoor jackets in bold colours, electric print dresses, mesh tops, and thigh-high vinyl lace up boots.
Inspired by Wong Kar-wai’s retro-futuristic film “2046,” Ma taps the spirit of something between past and future, and explores a dialogue between them: “China is now kind of trapped between nostalgia and future thought,” she says. “I wanted to outline the possibilities of what China can be in the future. The speed, the technology, the new possibilities to be who you want to be.”
“As I see it,” says Peter Xu, a prolific social media influencer, fashion consultant, and producer, “the most popular futuristic or retro-futuristic elements for young Chinese would be geometric shapes (often in saturated colours), PVCs, printed computer type fonts, and slightly off robotic touches in oversized coats and uniforms.”
Angel Chen, backstage during the SS18 show in Shanghai.
The look can appear cold, even anti-social, with echoes of cyberpunk, but can serve to relieve what Xu calls “the unnerving ‘human side’ of everyday life” for a digitally reliant generation.
Parent, who has been covering Shanghai Fashion Week for 17 consecutive seasons, has seen more experimentation with futurism lately, but says that “this is not a new trend per se, but how it’s materialized has definitely changed. The degree of conviction with which Chinese fashion consumers dress has changed.”
Some of the Japanese and Korean styles might even give Chinese futurism a run for their money – but this is a fashion trend that skews toward Asia. Xu argues that Chinese millennials are definitely the most open-minded and quick to react to technological changes – “now a major power behind social development.”
Science and nature have always been inspirations, says Chinese eyewear designer Percy Lau at Shanghai Fashion Week. Her latest campaign has a definite space age androgyny, whereas her “philosophy of design aims to make audiences ‘see’ the future in my glasses.” Lau’s eponymous brand can take inspiration from an antique monocle, but will render in a hyper tech way, or recall aesthetics from films like Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner or The Fifth Element. The angular coloured lenses from her collaboration with menswear designer Xander Zhou were initially inspired by their long talks about The Matrix: “we loved the vibe of the future and Chinese elements.”
There’s a similar creative streak in Kenax Leung’s SS18 collection. The Hong Kong designer infused a little cyperpunk with 1982 Blade Runner influences: his vision of space-tech dystopia had pale models with smudged dark eyeliner strutting in oversized denims, and androgynous shiny, vinyl jackets.
Whilst Asia’s particularly futuristic looking skylines (see Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Bangkok) inspire Chinese style and designers, there’s deeper cultural undertones as to why this trend has taken hold so much with China’s young fashionistas.
“People who dress like this are saying ‘don't talk to me’ or ‘I don't know how to socialize,’ which is often true because the younger generation grew up surrounded by computers and machines,” argues Xu. For many Chinese millennials and younger, their online social lives are often more expressive, liberating, and active than IRL (in real life). As depressing as this might sound to the rest of us, for a generation that grew up very digitally savvy, the future is “not frightening but quite friendly,” adds Xu.
Crowds at Shanghai Fashion Week.
“This is not only because they are young, but because they are Chinese,” says Parent. “Japan used to be the future; but now, with purchasing power and an explosion of creativity in Mainland China, the international community is looking here for future growth in world markets.”
China’s speedy rise has meant that society is often focused more on the future than the past. There’s fresh optimism amongst the youth about a new freedom of individual expression compared to social norms of Communism in generations before. Fashion here is still experimental, and the younger Chinese are enjoying playing with identity through fashion. Perhaps the obsession with futurism and retro-futurism doesn’t seem like such a surprise after all.
“In China,” says Parent, “the young are actively manifesting what they believe is going to be the next trend.”