SANKUANZ: The New ‘Chinese’ Fashion

The original article has been in published in CODIGO Magazine. No unauthorized use is permitted.

By: Christine Tsui

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Tibetan religious symbols,deformed animals, and extraterrestrial beings in spring-bud green are depicted running in tandem with transformed Chinese characters like “diyu (hell)”, “hun (muddy)”, “pei (an onomatopoetic word of spitting)”, “‘lihai (fierce)”. These images are depicted on long black blazers layered on top of longer, oversized T-shirts,and are the signature of SANKUANZ’s new men’s collection. Mixing a bit of different cultures – Asian, African and Western – the line calls on themes such as uncanniness, cynicism, quirkiness, rebellion, mysteriousness, and some humors as well. The clothes in this collection do not look appropriate for professional men who seem quite serious all the time, nor for young boys skating on the streets who are too young to take things seriously. SANKUANZ,then, is a perfect fit for the new, emerging elite force – young creative entrepreneurs. This group of young men carries both the sophistication of men and the youthful vigor of boys, often working in the creative industry, and strikes just the right balance between boys and men, professional and hippy,creative and extravagant.

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The designer of the collection is named Shangguan Zhe, who is considered “100% ‘made-in-China.’”Born in 1984 in Fujian, which is located in the southern region of China, Shangguan obtained his bachelor’s degree in Advertisement and Visual Communication at a local university. He designed graphic tees while he was in his third year of study, and during this time, sold them to his friends and schoolmates. Gradually, he gained a following of loyal fans who brought him profits, which eventually allowed him to establish his own studio,and to extend his design to a full category of clothing in 2008.

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Business has been neither good enough to offer him and his team a consistent quality of life, nor too slow to prevent survival. However, the inconsistent business never bothers this young Chinese boy who was born right after the P.R.C determined that she was going to open her gates to the rest of the world in the early 1980s after nearly 30 years of isolation. “Fun for now” is all that the designer cares about – he started the business “just for fun” – no long term goals, no business planning, no strategy, simply a “let it go” attitude. He is also not aware of how many people he has on staff, nor how much money he currently has on his hands.  To Shangguan, life can proceed as long as he feels that whatever he is doing is fun.

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“Fun for now” is also representative of the attitude of the new Chinese youth culture. Chinese culture has never been seen as having a particularly strong sense of humor. The traditional practices of respecting the older generation, observing the higher hierarchy and the patriarchy, plus a sense of intrinsic conservativeness play a role in influencing most Chinese people to believe that making fun of something or someone can be rude, offensive and impolite. That is why when SANKUANZ debuted at Shanghai Fashion Week in 2013, the line instantly caught the attention of picky and opinionated spectators. GQ China – the prestigious men’s fashion magazine – contracted SANKUANZ and attended his first international show at London Fashion Week in 2014. Apparently, GQ China also picked up on this new, emerging trend of young, Chinese fashion designers and consumers. As many Chinese families have only one child at home, the parents are willing to devote everything they have to helping their next generation by fully supporting whatever it may be that they want to pursue. The children then travel around the world, starting their own businesses when they are just 20 years old. Growing up in an accelerated period of Chinese history during an internationalized age, this young generation are the recipients of much more freedom both mentally and financially. The dramatic changes that have taken place within the country have offered a great opportunity for the young generation to be themselves, to enjoy the life they have today, and to pursue whatever it is that they are passionate about. These young people constitute the consumer base for emerging Chinese young designer brands like SANKUANZ.

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SANKUANZ, apparently, no longer embodies a “traditional” Chinese fashion aesthetic.

In a long run, Chinese designers have been struggling with defining their national identity. What is “Chinese fashion”? Of the majority of established Chinese designers, most of whom were born in the1960s and 1970s, this group is most likely to highlight their Chinese identities either in the form of concrete Chinese symbols like Qipao(Cheongsam), dragon, peony, lantern and Chinese painting, or in a more emotional spirit of “peace”, “nature” and “harmony”, which make up the core of traditional, cultural and ethical values of Chinese culture. Growing up in a totally conventional Chinese culture and having experienced the CulturalRevolution and other political campaigns, the older generation of Chinese designers has a strong affinity to the Chinese traditions and culture. Therefore, their designs carry a strong hallmark of ‘Chineseness’.The ‘Chinese’ identity is rather a consequence of the Chinese national patriotic education and political enforcement than an intentional choice made by the designers.

However, the new generation of Chinese designers is no longer “Chinese”; they aim to be part of the ‘international’ design world. That is why from the design created by the younger generation of designers like Shangguanzhe, audience rarely see the typical ‘Chineseness’.

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Nevertheless, it seems as though the majority of international spectators are still not keeping up with the progress that Chinese fashion designers are making, as they still believe that Chinese fashion should carry with it a “Chinese” identity. Sometimes,international journalists even try to force their readers to believe that there is an association between the Chinese designers’ collection and Chinese culture. So, then, when the Chinese designer Masha Ma did her show in Paris,one of the questions that was raised by a local journalist was whether the“white” she used in her collection bore any significance to memorial or funeral colors. While this is not a totally wrong judgment because Chinese do indeed wear white colors at funerals, this does not mean that Chinese exclusively wear this color for these events. The color white is also evocative of purity,innocence and cleanliness today in China. A further example is about another emerging Chinese designer named Huishan Zhang. A graduate of Central SaintMartin College of Arts and Design, Zhang was asked by one journalist, when he did his show in London, whether or not his Chinese heritage impacted his design. This is such a superfluous question, just as the ‘Habitus’ theory raised by the French sociologistPierre Bourdieu, it does not matter if you are born in Japan, the UnitedStates, or in France, your thinking and behavior are shaped by the place where you grew up. Apparently, the views held towards Chinese design from the international media are far behind the progress of Chinese design.

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Therefore, for the young Chinese fashion designers, there is still a long way to go before they become truly ‘internationalized’.

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