Can Fashion in China Get Woke?

Discussion in 'Fashion... In Depth' started by Benn98, Jun 19, 2020.

  1. Benn98

    Benn98 Well-Known Member

    Aug 6, 2014
    Likes Received:
    Can Fashion in China Get Woke?

    Protests against social injustices have galvanized millions of people around the world, and this cultural pressure is helping to build a new standard for how brands approach social issues. Over the past few weeks, major luxury and fashion brands have collectively pledged to make their notoriously insular industry more diverse and more “woke,” a phrase used to refer to heightened awareness around social issues. However, while many brands are launching playbooks to support #BlackLivesMatter or are hiring diversity councils, corporate activism usually remains on the sidelines when it comes to companies in China, the world’s biggest luxury market.

    China’s increasingly sophisticated internet censorship and surveillance are perhaps the most obvious reasons for its industry-wide silence. There’s also a misconception regarding China’s “apolitical, purely pragmatic” consumers. The deep-seated idea that “Chinese shoppers don’t care about social issues,” which is mostly due to a lack of serious fashion reporting on China, simply isn’t true. In fact, clothes are one of the only legitimate ways Chinese youths can express their identities in a society that is only becoming more restricted.

    Brands must start researching and investing in the “woke” activities that drive today’s youth fashion scene in China. By addressing current issues, brands can resonate so strongly with young Chinese consumers that they’ll create long-term attachments. And despite the country’s political limits, some issues are relatively safe to address. They include sustainability, women’s bodies, and inclusivity.

    Sustainability Matters

    “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have seen an acceleration in consumer interest for sustainable brands,” said Chloe Reuter, founder of the luxury intelligence agency Reuter Communication. “This trend of conscious consumerism is here to stay. Brands that can showcase provenance, transparency, and a commitment to a social cause will resonate with an increasingly self-aware audience.”

    In the wake of 2020’s disastrous events, voices championing environmental causes have multiplied in both China’s government campaigns and within the fashion media. The Shenzhen-based cult brand RoaringWild even used Rachel Lopez’s “The Silent Spring (1962)” — the book that ignited the modern Environmental Movement — as the central theme of its Spring/Summer 2020 collection. Through photo imagery and a dedicated music video, the brand has made exhaustive inquiries into the fragile relationship between humans and nature.

    In Pre-COVID-19 China, such expressions of ecological awareness were relatively rare, and once made public, would often face skepticism. But as issues like climate change have proven to be undeniable facts, even the harshest skeptics have come to acknowledge the worsening environment as a real problem.

    Women’s Bodies Matter

    A reckoning on women’s roles and bodies has also dominated Chinese social media spheres lately. During China’s COVID-19 peak in February, several scandals exposing the unfair treatment of female medical workers set the millennial Internet on fire. A chain of high-profile sexual assault cases soon followed, further revealing a national system that protects powerful men from being held accountable. In late May, the drafting of China’s first-ever Civil Code fueled outrage from the younger generations’ about the state’s oppression of women. Containing over 1000 articles, the Civil Code essentially suggests that Chinese women should divorce less and birth more often.

    Ironically, China’s heightened conservative policies have come at a time when more and more young women are opening feminist social-media accounts. On the Twitter-like platform Weibo, hashtags advocating the normalizing of women’s bodies, such as #SayNoToPeriodShame# and #Don’t HideThePeriod#, have gained a lot of momentum. When political policy increasingly equates women’s bodies with reproductive tools, a growing number of women will refuse to identify with this goal.

    In May, the feminine care brand Libresse aired China’s first ad showing period blood in red instead of blue. The ad video reached over 200 million views on Weibo in less than a week. Earlier, in March, the Chinese DTC brand Neiwai launched one of the nation’s first body-positivity campaigns. Its campaign with the “No Body is Nobody” slogan, which shows women with flat-chests, stretch marks, belly fat, and scars, was a provocation against the picture-perfect beauty standards that prevail in Chinese media.

    In a Western context, discussions surrounding body positivity might already seem banal and could even be accused of “woke-washing.” But in China, where the female body is still primarily seen as a reproductive device needing aesthetic improvements, women need representations that normalize their female conditions.

    Inclusivity Matters

    Under mounting pressure from the younger generations, the Chinese state has slightly relaxed its stance on matters like the LGBTQ+ community.

    Censorship of open celebrations of different sexuality has significantly reduced during June (Pride Month). Recently, the Italian brand Diesel partnered with ShanghaiPRIDE on a rainbow-themed collection that aims to normalize the LGBTQ community, and ENG Concept Store, a Shanghai-based buyer shop, has been trending on Weibo because of its openly PRIDE-themed décor and events. In an environment where anything other than a traditional family model can draw public ire, these small steps shouldn’t be taken for granted.

    Despite a rising level of “woke” discourse, brands can’t equate Western-style woke consumerism with China’s current situation. “There is a range of social issues in China’s public consciousness such as income inequality, gender equity, and pollution,” said Michael Norris, a China consumer insight researcher. “But the range is perhaps narrower than what you’d expect to see in overseas markets. Still, they tie in closely with China’s current development stage.”

    Unlike their Western counterparts, most Chinese youths don’t think that luxury and fashion brands becoming “woke” is an imminent moral imperative. They believe it’s a worthy issue for brands to take an instrumental role in shaping public discourse, but it doesn’t need to be their priority.

    This attitude doesn’t mean that the industry will necessarily stick to an old model of selling without provoking. After all, consumers of every background, even the wealthy, live in dynamic times. As an industry that occupies such a unique place in the zeitgeist, luxury and fashion should and can make meaningful strides. Brands have responded to the #BLM movement with a strong commitment, but they should do the same with issues that matter to a Chinese audience as well.

    Jing Daily
    #1 Benn98, Jun 19, 2020
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2020
  2. Benn98

    Benn98 Well-Known Member

    Aug 6, 2014
    Likes Received:

    The Taboo Topics Brands Need to Avoid in China
    Fashion in China, much like everything else, is closely tied to politics. And as China gradually enters a version of post-virus normalcy, the government is tightening its grip on the citizenry through internet censorship and ideological control to keep the peace. This increasingly sophisticated censorship, paired with a rising tide of nationalism, should result in higher stakes for foreign brands that try to operate in the country.

    Winning or losing this consumer battle will primarily determine any luxury brand’s path to recovery over the rest of 2020. According to the consultancy firm Bain & Company, China has become more of a luxury stronghold thanks to the pandemic. Chinese shoppers will represent 50 percent of the total market by the end of the next five years, up from 35 percent in 2019.

    Meanwhile, online censorship and digital nationalism are only deepening after China’s speedy retail recovery. As a Q1 report from the research firm Kantar points out, Chinese consumers’ national identity and cultural confidence were greatly enhanced during the pandemic.

    This surge of patriotic identity has led to a growing level of sensitivity, which has been perceived as a threat to foreign business. Across the Chinese internet, discussions related to “insulting China (辱华)” — a term often attached to boycotts of international brands after they commit PR blunders — reached new heights this year. On the Baidu Index, a social listening tool similar to Google Trend, the average search volume of “insulting China” was around 150 over the past ten years. In 2020, that number more than doubled, rising to 339. During this moment of extreme stress and change, the way a brand is perceived in China will be crucial to its relevance and survival there.

    Now, in China’s post-virus world, more topics need to be added to that list. Although there aren’t official rules about what shouldn’t be said, these issues seem to be the most nerve-racking for China’s consumers:

    Innuendos about COVID-19’s “Chinese Origin”

    In April, Lululemon found itself in a PR crisis because of a “Bat Fried Rice” T-shirt posted on a former employee’s social media page. The post stirred up a lot of anger in Lululemon’s Chinese fans because the joke further cemented the Western stereotype that Chinese people’s eating habits were “disgusting” while also blaming the virus outbreak on China.

    A similar incident occurred last month with Italian designer Elisabetta Franchi and her eponymous brand. After the founder made a post criticizing China’s treatment of dogs — while claiming that 15 percent of China’s population eats dogs — hundreds of Chinese netizens rushed to her feed to leave negative comments that were later deleted by the brand. Screenshots of the brand’s initial posts and deleted comments were soon translated and circulated on Weibo. Now, there have already been thousands of boycott posts under the #ElisabettaFranchi# hashtag.

    These two PR blunders are the same product of different narratives about the COVID-19 virus inside and outside of China. Inside China’s internet firewall, most view China as a responsible global power in a pandemic, emphasizing that “Wuhan is where the outbreak started, but not where the virus is from.” In the international press, however, stories linking the virus back to Chinese eating habits are abundant.

    This discrepancy explains why Chinese netizens take virus-related criticisms very personally. To them, any critical comment that refers to China as the origin of the virus stems from racial presumptions born out of how the West sees the East. In their minds, these gaffes expose what Western brands really think of them.

    “Tainted” stars

    In China, “tainted stars (劣迹艺人),” or celebrities with a record of being morally questionable, will get brand partners in trouble. Once a star has been declared “tainted,” all forms of campaigns and media appearances will be censored, causing both financial and reputational damage to brands. And over the past two years, the definition of “tainted” has grown stricter and broader.

    The concept of “tainted stars” was born in 2014, when China’s National Radio and Television Administration issued a ban on celebrities who set bad examples (taking drugs, prostitution, etc.) for young people. In 2018, the ban extended to include stars who represent hip-hop, subcultures, and a “decadent, do-nothing culture (颓文化).”

    Today, celebrity scrutiny has become even more severe. In a May transmission of a David Beckham travel show on CCTV, Beckham’s upper body and arms were intentionally blurred to hide his tattoos. In April, actress Li Xiaolu faced a strong wave of online criticism after she appeared in a livestreaming session because she had allegedly cheated on her ex-husband with a rapper.

    In China’s media landscape, a qualified celebrity should be patriotic, diligent, family-oriented, and morally upright. Public figures who stray from these ideals risk facing different degrees of backlash that could morph into brand boycotts.

    A Beijing-based marketing executive who asked to remain anonymous for this article said that anti-patriotic celebrity behavior causes the most damage. “There’s an unspoken order [for bad behavior] in the PR world,” she said. “[It goes] pro-Taiwan, pro-Hong Kong > drug problems > prostitution > extramarital affairs. These are the rules we play with now.” As a contemporary Chinese saying goes, “there is no idol at the face of our homeland (国家面前无偶像).”

    Allusions to China’s inglorious past (intentional or not)

    At a time when the world’s anti-China sentiment is meeting China’s rising nationalism head-on, content making even the slightest reference to China’s inglorious past will turn off netizens.

    In April, a BBC documentary on the Tang-dynasty poet Du Fu stirred up controversy. To many, the fact that the BBC chose to commemorate a poet known for his social critiques during a pandemic felt like an allusion to possible civil discontent in China today. Days later, the Japanese manga series Detective Conan was accused of “insulting China” after netizens discovered that the author once used the name of a World War II criminal as his gaming ID, causing netizens to see him as a supporter of Japan’s invasion of China.

    But there are contextual reasons behind this hypersensitivity. Today’s millennials and Gen Zers have grown up in a world where the default thinking is that “China endured a century of humiliation against the West.” Any discussion of the nation’s decline, even in its distant past, makes them feel ridiculed and defensive. On Weibo, a community called #China Anti-defamation Stop (祖国反黑站), which has a 471k following and over 5.39 billion views, has been continuously monitoring brand statements or campaigns deemed insulting to China’s reputation.

    At this complicated time, brands must be hyperconscious about how to navigate China’s carefully-constructed political and cultural worlds — all while staying on-brand. It’s not easy to pull off. The lingering effects of Dolce & Gabbana‘s PR disaster are still being felt a year-and-a-half after the incident. But with nearly half of the luxury industry’s future sales tied to China, winning its market and people over might be a brand’s only chance for survival. This requires empathy, bridge building, and lots of cultural auditing.

    A good place to start is by asking empathic questions. Yingying Li, a cross-cultural communications coach, says brands should ask questions like, Do I know this country well? How big is China? Under what cultural or social changes did my customers grow up? Do I know the historical contexts before commenting on China’s policies or cultural norms? “China is a huge book,” Yingying explained, “and it’s dangerous to judge before reading more about it and understand its different regions.”

    Ray Ju, the associate director of Labbrand New York, said empathy should always lead a brand’s content creation. “Right now is the time for brands to be compassionate, not provocative and serious or caring in tone, not overly humorous,” Ju said. “Be straightforward and avoid motifs or symbols that may feel creative but can be unintentionally misinterpreted in a different context.”

    The next step should be to find common ground and build bridges. “Brands, particularly Western brands, shouldn’t impose their values on Chinese consumers and expect them to accept those values,” said Li. “There’s a convergence point where a Chinese audience will like what a brand wants to express.”

    “It’s also important to think about things we can all agree upon,” said Ju. “[Things like] gratitude for our frontline and essential workers, love for our family and friends, and mourning for our losses.”

    Lastly, but most importantly, brands should undergo constant cultural auditing. Paul Wong, the director of the branding agency Kollektiv, stressed that cultural auditing is a key business aspect. It means being aware of what’s happening in a country’s culture, news, and viral hashtags on a daily or weekly basis. “Anything a brand releases needs to go through stages of local auditing and essentially a cultural proofing process,” Wong noted. “Many brands have been guilty of putting out content that makes consumers ask, ‘don’t they have a Chinese person in the company?’”

    In an era of increasing complexity, brands would be naïve to assume that a concept will mean the same thing in different parts of the world. Even a few simple questions could go a long way in safeguarding a brand’s reputation in China.

    China’s Territorial Borders

    In Chinese airports, flights to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau depart not from the domestic terminal, but the “International, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau” terminal. Special permits are required for Chinese tourists to visit them, but the People’s Republic is adamant that they are the territory of the People’s Republic of China. In January this year, luxury hotel chain Marriott had its China website taken down after listing the destinations as “countries” in a dropdown menu. Even maps of China that do not include Taiwan can cause real problems.

    Tibet and the Dalai Lama

    The Tibetan independent movement and its leader, the Dalai Lama, are another no-go zone for China. German luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz was the latest brand to fall foul of this unofficial rule, posting a Dalai Lama quote on Instagram. Comments criticising the post were followed by an editorial criticizing the brand in the People’s Daily. Mercedes-Benz issued an apology on Chinese social media site Weibo.


    China’s most northwestern province is home to much of China’s Uighur ethnic minority. Some exciting brands looking to celebrate Uighur culture, such as traditional textiles and garments, and materials such as silk and cotton from the region, do so in an environment of increasingly draconian security measures and efforts to assimilate Uighurs into Chinese culture.

    Tiananmen Square

    Known as the June Fourth Incident in China, the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1989 remains an unmentionable topic in China. In April last year, Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana shot campaign images of models posing in front of Tiananmen Square, located in the center of Beijing. The campaign was completely banned in China.

    Unflattering Depictions of Xi Jinping

    Though Chinese media are free to talk about the fashion tastes of Peng Liyuan, the wife of President Xi Jinping, Xi is not amused by even light-hearted analysis of how he presents himself. A meme comparing President Xi to Winnie the Pooh became the most censored image on the Internet after it went viral in 2015.

    Human Rights

    Thought it is not strictly forbidden, the Chinese government is conservative when it comes to civil rights, including women’s rights and LBGT issues. While older and rural Chinese tend to share this conservatism, the younger generation is much more supportive of LGBT culture, as evidenced by the rise of gender-blurring figures such as Chris Lee, the brand ambassador of Gucci, and Leah Dou, SK-II’s brand ambassador. The gay yuan is an increasingly lucrative consumer segment in China.

    Environmental degradation

    China knows it needs to improve its environment, including air, water, and arable farmland, but often responds negatively to overt criticism. After allowing hundreds of millions of people to view Chai Jing’s environmentalist documentary Under the Dome before suddenly banning it.

    Nevertheless, brands can make contributions in this area, an urgent, compelling concern for Chinese consumers. Digital payments app Alipay has released a game called Ant Forrest that allows users to “plant” trees to limit erosion in deserts in Alxa League. By paying with Alipay a certain number of times per day, users will receive fertilizer to plant virtual trees on the app. Once the virtual trees are grown, Alipay plants real ones in the desert.


    A favorite subject of state-sanctioned cinema, China’s resistance to Japan during the Second World War remains a central part of the government’s identity. That has caused trouble for many Japanese brands, especially automakers.

    On the other hand, contemporary Japanese pop culture such as anime, cosplay and otaku has had a huge impact on the younger generation in China, becoming useful tools to reach for brands to reach this generation. Now, the popularity of anime has caused the government to remove it from streaming video sites.


    The conflict between South Korea and China over the THAAD missile program led to a ban on Chinese travel to Korea, and Korean pop culture, which has become increasingly influential in China, across product categories, since the 2000s. Nonetheless, the K-pop influence can be sensed strongly in many Chinese cities, especially those among the third and fourth-tier. Tapping into China’s love of Korean celebrities can still be an effective strategy, despite the risk.

    “Vulgar” Western culture

    Some Western culture is perceived as dangerous, contrary to the socialist values of the Chinese government. The latest target of this anxiety is hip-hop culture. Hip-hop and street culture exploded in China following the popularity of reality show Rap of China last year. International brands including Estée Lauder collaborated with the top performers on the show before the government questioned the influence it was having on young Chinese people. When performer PG One was caught in an extramarital affair with another celebrity in January, the government banned not only hip-hop but also tattoos.

    Jing Daily
    Phuel and Royal-Galliano like this.
  3. Phuel

    Phuel Well-Known Member

    Feb 18, 2010
    Likes Received:
    Thanks for the posts, Benn.

    Having known how devastatingly evil the Communist regime of the Chinese Government was and remains firsthand, I’m at a lost when idealist, extremely impressionable and straightup dumb people are when they support communism. Communism has never worked— and if you’re criticizing China’s government, then you really should think again (or just think) when you support communism as a government. It’s a myth: Communism has never worked.

    And this anti-China/Chinese bashing that some are so gleefully open about really shows how selectively racist people still remain while faux-raging about inequality: Would the same people that mock with their “Bat Fried Rice” tees be equally mocking with something like “Monkey Meat Barbecue” when it was Africa’s ebola outbreak??? I’ll always maintain that people are so selectively empathetic and that “equality" is a total myth. Just like communism working being a total myth.
    YohjiAddict and lauralynn025 like this.

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