Couture's Chinese Culture Shock

We’re witnessing a remarkable shift in China’s relationship to global fashion: once “the world’s factory,” in Asian American fashion scholar Thuy Linh N. Tu’s words, China is now poised to be the world’s mall. While China remains a poor country with an average annual per capita consumption of $2,500 (in contrast, the U.S. per capita average is $30,000), China’s rising number of millionaires and the Internet-enabled diffusion of Western fashion consumer culture are quickly transforming the communist nation into what The New York Times has called “The Shoppers’ Republic of China.” Today, young Chinese—like Lu Jing, a 22-year-old Beijing resident who told the China Daily that she earns $943 a month and saved up for a $3,200 Louis Vuitton handbag by surviving on instant noodles and taking public transportation—make up an new consumer class. Fashionistas between 20 and 30 years old are buying luxury fashion and micro-blogging about it on Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) where fashion tips are one of the most popular trending topics.

China may be saving the Western fashion industry but not everyone is especially gracious. Unfavorable portrayals of the Chinese luxury consumer as having more money than taste are increasingly commonplace in fashion media. In a Style Council discussion in the December issue of Bon Magazine, fashion consultant and stylist Valentine Fillol-Cordier is especially prickly about Chinese luxury consumers: “you can’t pretend to have lots of taste if you’re simply buying all that shit and spending tons of money.”  A fashion journalist from the Forbes website is just as critical. “Conspicuous consumption [is] left to the cash-rich Chinese and their penchant for Chanel.” Robert Bergman, president of Bergman Associates luxury branding and advertising company adds, “it’s no longer fashionable to make sure everyone knows what brand you carry or wear from meters away.”  Chinese consumers’ reason for shopping, according to recent studies, is an all-American one—retail therapy. So why are Chinese luxury consumers being singled out in the fashion media—a backlash that’s especially odd in light of the significance of China’s new role in the global fashion economy?

Fear of China’s growing influence in the world financial system explains at least part of the criticism. China is the new Asian economic threat to the West, with Ernst & Young reporting that China was the world’s biggest IPO market. This was due in large part to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which raised more than $50 billion in 2010. Compare that to the far weaker U.S. and U.K. IPO markets at $40 billion and $12 billion respectively. It’s no wonder, then, that luxury fashion companies Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Jimmy Choo, and Coach have all opted to launch their IPOs in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, or that a broad range of companies across the fashion spectrum from Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Hermes, and Hugo Boss to the Gap and Levi’s have been opening hundreds of stores across China since 2009. The Gap’s plan to close over 150 stores in the U.S. by 2013 while tripling the number of their stores in China is a telling account of these times.  And, if we needed any more evidence of the significance of the Chinese fashion consumer, consider that some European and American brands have begun creating exclusive lines “infused,” as the Los Angeles Times recently put it, “with Asian sensibilities in look, feel, and size.”  For Prada’s first-ever runway show in China, for example, Muccia Prada recreated her cotton dresses with radzmire silk and a liberal amount of sequins—WWD describes them as being “coated” in sequins.  Further strengthening China’s position in the luxury market is the steady, albeit slow, expansion of e-commerce, which is expected to exceed $3.1 billion over the next two years. 

The association of Chinese with fakeness is not new in fashion. Images of Chinese manufacturers and street merchants selling fake merchandise are well established in the fashion psyche despite the fact that American manufacturers like ABS Allen Schwartz and Faviana (the company promises to dress its customers “like a star”) and UK retailers like ASOS (an acronym for “As Seen On Screen”) are some of the biggest purveyors of designer copies. That fakeness is linked to Chinese retailers, manufacturers, and consumers (even those buying actual luxury goods!) and not their American and British counterparts suggests that “fake” attacks are not only tinged with classism but also racism. Painting Chinese consumers as unsophisticated gives a pass to designers, allowing retailers to continue featuring predominantly white women as the ideal customer all the while cashing in on the new Chinese market. The fashion media is thus able to maintain fashion’s traditional racial order even as the global economic foundations for the industry shift.

Conspicuous consumption criticisms serve as a socially acceptable way to describe the anxieties over China’s growing economic power. African-Americans, Latinos, and now Asians with bling underscore the racial dimensions of taste judgments. In the fashion world, especially, criticizing taste serves as a surrogate for definitions of race and class. The tacky Chinese luxury consumer stereotype is a form of coded racial discourse that links fakeness to race. At the same time, this stereotype reaffirms the whiteness of the ideal fashion subject. Robert Bergman, president of a luxury fashion design studio, defined that ideal in his prediction for next year’s trends, “In 2012, luxury will no longer be defined by excess and conspicuous consumption. The face of luxury is […] much more subtle, understated and less ostentatious.”

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