On Wukang Lu, on the western edges of Shanghai’s leafy French Concession, it’s hard to avoid the Saturday morning fashion shoots. Just outside Ferguson Lane, an Art Deco-themed enclave of upscale florists, cafes and gallery spaces, a girl wearing a pork pie hat, platform Adidas trainers and a vintage baseball jacket stares impassively down the lens for a beanie-hatted photographer. Further down the street, three or four kids, each with a bob cut and ironic T-shirt, are engaged in a similar ritual, as an icily cool girl walks past in black shorts, a red cap and a Supreme jacket, accessorised with a Back to the Future-style skateboard.
This is what the new Shanghai style looks like – bold, confident, eclectic – and it’s a long way from what I remember when I lived here between 2007 and 2011. Back then, the city’s sartorial makeup was one of extremes: Louis Vuitton bags at one end of the spectrum and wife-beater vests at the other. Foreign luxury brands were king and Made in China meant largely copying designs from elsewhere. Now, the ever-growing number of airy coffee shops, vinyl stores and vintage boutiques in Shanghai’s old French Concession is filled with Instagram-ready locals, who look as cool as anyone you’ll find in Harajuku, Kreuzberg or Greenpoint.
Style here no longer seems to be about marking status but about expressing individuality and creativity. So what happened? “Shanghai has always been the most outward-looking city in China,” says Timothy Parent, an American who founded the China Fashion Bloggers website in 2009 to showcase China’s best online fashion content. “But, as they get more sophisticated in their tastes, young people are also taking more and more pride in their Chinese identity. In terms of style, that means a real mix of mismatched references: old and new, Chinese and foreign. The big idea that they’re taking from the West is that it’s OK to stand out from the crowd.”
This eclectic style has been helped by a boom in homegrown design talent. “Increasingly, you’ve got the children of factory owners who want to design and create for themselves,” says Parent. “There are all these young designers who have studied fashion in Paris, London or Milan, and are coming back to create something new.”
Back in 2009, when he started his blog, Parent estimates that there were fewer than 10 Shanghai fashion labels, including breakout star Uma Wang, who founded her label in the same year and has since taken her whimsically chic womenswear to the catwalks in London, Paris and Milan. But now, he says, there are more than a hundred. One example is Shushu/Tong, whose co-founders Liushu Lei and Yutong Jiang met at school in Shanghai, studied at the London College of Fashion, then returned home to launch their business, taking influences from Japanese anime and 80s black comedy Heathers. Their show at Shanghai Fashion Week last autumn was inspired by an early-80s French-Japanese art house movie, took place on a set evocative of a Chinese Art Deco living room and dealt with themes of female emancipation.
Over the same time period, Shanghai Fashion Week has grown from a one-tent affair to a massive production involving more than a hundred shows. “It’s become by far the biggest fashion week in China and is rivalling anything else in Asia,” says Parent. “It really is a fashion capital now.”
Sonja Long Xiao agrees. This one-time cabin crew turned fashion maven runs the Alter concept store in the Xintiandi Style mall, the bellwether for Shanghai trends. With its stacked wooden cube displays, Alter stocks modish designers from around the world – think JW Anderson and Simone Rocha – to increasingly clued-in locals, as well as its own in-house label, called Rolling Acid – a self-styled “celebration of freedom and contradiction”, which mines subcultures from the 60s and 70s.
“The kids born after 1990, who are increasingly our market, are very different,” says Long Xiao. “It’s less about luxury for them, and more about character, personality, individuality. They’re not afraid to be bold and take risks, so you get this crazy fashion on the street.”
Long Xiao worked at Prada and Versace before going alone, launching Alter to bridge “the gap between high street and high end”. While Alter takes brands from anywhere – “good design is good design to me, wherever it’s from” – she says that Alter is increasingly stocking Shanghainese labels, like Jinnnn, a punkishly cool house started by local designer Jin Chong Yu in 2015, with the motto “Be bad. Be Jinnnn”.
Some of this new attitude, says Long Xiao, is bound up with a broader confidence in China, which is morphing from a place that manufactures the world’s products to somewhere that increasingly designs them. Tech success stories like the social app WeChat and the retail site Alibaba have surpassed their Western equivalents, while smartphone brands such as Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo have destroyed the old Samsung/Apple duopoly. In fashion, China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan only wears clothes designed in China, which has helped spur a wider re-evaluation of Chinese design.
“We’re realising that it’s not just a level playing field, but that we can lead the world,” says Long Xiao. “People, especially the younger generation, increasingly want to buy and wear Chinese products.”
At the same time, a quieter revolution is taking place, as China rediscovers and re-imagines its proud national heritage. At the Xintiandi branch of Shang Xia, in what looks like a sort of white minimalist cave, you can buy cashmere Mao suits, angular dresses inspired by the Han dynasty or Ming dynasty chairs reproduced in carbon fibre. If the inspirations mine the past and are 100 per cent Chinese, the vibe is wholly contemporary.
Shang Xia was launched in 2010 by Jiang Qiong’er, a Shanghai-born designer and entrepreneur, and its name means “up and down”, which could also be read as “old and new”. The brand is owned by French luxury giant Hermès, but the ethos is all about reviving traditional Chinese craftsmanship, from pottery to fashion and furniture-making, giving it all a 21st-century function. “We wanted to take these beautiful objects out of museums, and let people wear them or use them,” Jiang tells me.
But, while Jiang’s personal style is very elegant, and her brand unapologetically upscale, she says it fits with the same current trend for individuality and freedom that can be witnessed on the streets of Wukang Lu every day. “In the last five years, we’ve seen this real revival of our culture,” she says. “For a long time, people looked at China and thought: counterfeit products, no heritage, no creativity. That’s changed so fast. Especially younger people, they’re looking more and more at our past, and seeing a cultural identity there. They’re also more creative, free and ready to combine elements: they’ll drink tea and coffee, and pair a fine Shang Xia scarf with grandma’s old T-shirt.”