Published on: February 3, 2023
There have never been more eyes on China’s fashion market than there are right now.
In the early 1990s, global luxury brands were inaccessible to a large portion of the Chinese population, while today, Chinese consumers can be thanked for nearly half of all luxury retail sales globally. China is also currently the second largest apparel market in the world, valued at more than US$177 billion in annual sales.
While a sizable portion of these purchases of luxury goods happen by affluent consumers, more and more younger and middle-class Chinese consumers are also putting their higher disposable income towards luxury fashion, accessories, and beauty products. What’s more, China’s dynamic social platforms like Douyin and Xiaohongshu have become incubators for the development of digital fashion in the country, indicating that this growth is not expected to slow down any time soon.
With so many changes happening all around the world in fashion, technology, and culture, Chinese consumers have become some of the most influential for fashion and apparel brands, and are very quickly becoming the target market for brands, which have historically taken their cues from New York, London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, and Tokyo.
So, what can Western fashion and apparel brands do to appeal to this crucial market in China? Let’s look at the top fashion trends in China for 2023.
“Gorpcore” is a catch-all term for an aesthetic that has been around for a while – it is a style focused around wearing utilitarian, functional, outdoors-inspired gear. But while outdoor staples – think Salomon hiking shoes and everything made with Gore-Tex fabric – only belonged to hiking trails before, they can now be seen in both street fashion and on runways.
The aesthetic went mainstream thanks to a series of high-profile brand collaborations, including between VF Corps’ The North Face and iconic skate brand Supreme. Furthermore, the trend has also intersected with the luxury fashion world. According to the Lyst Index, the Dior Birkenstock clogs (released June 2022) have become one of the hottest products that quarter.
While gorpcore’s active functionality is largely performative to those in the West buying into the aesthetics, outdoor pursuits are also a major driver for Chinese consumers.
After being trapped in cities over the past year due to COVID restrictions that have since ended, Chinese consumers are itching for outdoorsy trips to cure stress and cabin fever. As a result, Gorpcore’s popularity has reached an all-time high in China in 2022. This momentum is going to continue, as more Chinese youth hit the road – both in and out of the country – after the government lifted its pandemic prevention measures to kick off 2023.
For global performance brands that originated in gorpcore, this recent trend is an opportunity to expand their clientele and stay relevant.
With the stressors of the last few years, Chinese women are embracing the effortless fashion trend.
A new expression is in vogue among Chinese women on social media: “laid-back” or songchi gan in Chinese. The Chinese hashtag has accumulated more than 35 million views on Xiaohongshu with young women sharing their laid-back outfit of the day, dominated by low-saturated monochromes, neutrals, and loose fits. Other popular trends such as “French chic”, “old money”, or even aspects of athleisure are often associated with this term.
Unlike other Chinese buzzwords like “lying flat” which has sprung up over the past year in response to the gruelling work culture, “laid-back” has been around for years in China. The term is used to describe a relaxed state of mind – accepting everything as it happens, both the good and the bad.
The concept has struck a chord with China’s younger generations. Given the many stressors of day-to-day life, the laid-back vibe has become an ideal life attitude, giving rise to the fashion trend.
To a certain extent, this can also be translated to the quiet consumption of discrete premium and luxury goods. There now seems to be collective fatigue from seeing the all-over Gucci and Fendi monograms emblazoned across any and all visible material.
Luxury brands like Brunello Cucinelli and Ralph Lauren are the best examples of this effortless aesthetic. The style whispers, rather than shouts. To capitalize on this development, for example, Chinese womenswear brand Lily recently released a campaign that highlighted laid-back, effortless office fashion. International fashion brands whose aesthetic seems to be more “subtle” can also expect to see strong results in the market this year.
Once a way of living, the term is now also associated with social hierarchy. As many Chinese youth online point out, it’s hard to have this sense of ease if living conditions aren’t ideal. For China’s younger generations, the laid-back” style has become a new way of signaling status.
Leg warmers, sheer tights, wrap tops, and tulle skirts have seen a resurgence amongst China’s fashionistas in recent months. Inspired by ballerinas’ backstage outfits, the balletcore aesthetic is a global social media phenomenon championed by influencers across all social platforms.
Despite the global influence of the aesthetic, there are nuances between how Chinese fashionistas have adopted the trend versus their Western counterparts. In China, balletcore outfits are inspired by K-pop stars’ looks and workout influencers.
Besides K-pop idols’ major influences on Chinese consumers, ballet-inspired fitness classes are also on the rise. Full-body workouts that incorporate movements derived from ballet, such as barre, have attracted growing practitioners in China. In addition to developing the lean muscle tone of a ballerina, good-looking activewear is a major factor in appealing to Chinese women.
While ballet is often associated with idealized body shapes, brands that are targeting this fashion trend in China are smartly grasping the nuances and advocating a more inclusive image instead of reinforcing unhealthy aesthetics.
In modern China, many women believe that to be beautiful is to be thin. A 2019 IPSOS survey on global beauty standards found that out of 27 countries, China came out on top in believing that body weight and shape are the most important attributes in making a woman beautiful.
The rise of social media and the omnipresence of photo-editing tools on apps has further polarized the desire to be skinny.
In recent years, however, body positivity and inclusivity have gained traction in China. On Douyin and Xiaohongshu, there has been an increasing demand for diversifying the size of womenswear.
Chinese lingerie brand, Neiwai, launched a social media campaign on body inclusivity called “No Body is Nobody” in 2020 which received over 262,000 views on Weibo. The brand relaunched the campaign the following year and it went viral, garnering over 7.5 million views on the Weibo platform.
While body positivity remains an uphill battle in China, there is an increased acceptance of various body types. Some Chinese brands have started to incorporate more realistic features in their virtual models, such as imperfect skin and wider hips. Plus-size models like Ruoxin Xu are starting to grace magazine covers like Vogue China and various advertisement campaigns.
What’s more, thanks to the rise of social platforms Douyin and Xiaohonghu, netizens are increasingly taking part in shaping the world of fashion.
Domestic consumption, government support, and global attention have boosted China’s fashion scene at impressive rates. The country’s burgeoning community of consumers are giving rise to a bright fashion future full of inclusivity and interactions. They are looking to KOLs and their peers for fashion advice, and their favourite brands are those who know how to meet them where they are. They go shopping in boutiques and they also enjoy the efficiency of multi-channel e-commerce like Tmall and JD.com.
It is in this way that the possibilities for western brands hoping to find a footpath in China’s fashion market are infinite.
Let's take the first step.