The Sunday Times
For the Chinese male the journey from ‘yellow peril’ to menswear's jeunesse dorée has been a century in the making. Here was a demographic that no one had down as dedicated followers of fashion. If Morrissey was right, back in the 1980s, about Bengalis in platforms then chances were the Chinese weren’t far behind. Or so we believed, those of us that never saw beyond the Triads and the takeaways. Now a wealthy, fashion-fed generation of Chinese men have become the leading consumers of high-end, cutting-edge menswear design. The timing is perfect: men are buying more designer brands than women; sales of menswear is growing at a faster pace than its counterpart. The ballpark figure for 2015 according to market research company Mintel is £14.1 billion. And this, as the world is reeling from the events of the last decade in which China moved in on global fashion in the wake of its economic boom. The embrace of luxury goods by ‘the bling dynasty’ was a rebellion against the regulation Mao suit from the civil war onwards. Wasn’t it?
Mature, wealthy, style-consious Chinese men adopted conservative heritage brands, especially with regard to buying British. There is even a school that coaches them in the pronunciation of designer brand names. Erwan Rambourg author of The Bling Dynasty:Why the Reign of Chinese Luxury Shoppers Has Only Just Begun, published in 2014, says: 'Brands benefiting from the shift in perceptions include Burberry. They're the only legitimate global British brand. Its phenomenal appeal is linked to an association with Britishness and rock and roll rebelliousness’. Meanwhile, the young, wealthy, fashion-conscious Chinese male has distanced himself from the old guard, jettisoning super luxe brands for niche fashion statements in the process. He doesn’t need to be schooled on brand names or where to find them. He knows exactly where to go. Whatsmore, he’s getting there before everyone else.
'They're not only much younger and super-demanding, they're also extremely well informed. If you're complacent and don't communicate the way they communicate, it's going to be difficult’, says Rambourg. 'I think the Chinese customer is savvier than ever before’ says Darren Skey, head of menswear at Harvey Nichols. 'The demand is for the more cutting edge and outlandish look. Streetwear is proving to be the phenomenon responsible for the shift in dress of an entire demographic. This is something that our Chinese luxury customer is buying into'.
It’s a demographic with the finances to buy the labels and the figures to wear them. The younger generation of Chinese have grown up with western consumerism, but the western diet hasn’t fattened them up and filled them out. At least those targeting Harvey Nichols in search of Hood By Air and Off White. Remember the Japan lyric during their ‘Visions of China’ moment: ‘I'm walking young and strong/But just a little too thin’? That’s them.
Not too long ago I spotted a look that I thought might be defining this demographic. I pursued a hat through the west end of London as it headed along Oxford Street - a leaning tower of a hat and beanstalk green, teetering above the black cabs and black burkas - to Dover Street Market. Beneath the hat a diminutive, asthenic, Chinese manchild with those hefty Clark Kent glasses by Tom Ford. It reminded me of the Chinese gangs Tom Wolfe wrote of in his essay ‘Funky Chic’. The well-off, well-educated dressed down in berets and dirty Levis, while the poorer, tougher ones, that could barely speak English, did the opposite: 'He has on a pair of blue slacks, a matching blue turtleneck jersey with a blue shirt over it and a jacket…but it’s the hair…... his is chopped off down to what is almost a parody of the old chinatown rice bowl haircut..’
Each gang became radicals or revolutionaries to survive. Those circling the rails of Harvey Nichols and similar settings have opted for radical fashion and consumer extremism. They won’t play down their wealth - they wear it. But with more subtlety than their forebears of the bling dynasty, and the Chinese elders in Burberry macs and Saville Row suits. They want to be the first with the new rather than the last with the old. But is there a look? If not big hats and pudding basin haircuts - then what? 'The skill of the Chinese shopper is to take a basic shape and by layering pieces create a new proportion using a mix of fabrications for design details and finishes’, Darren Skey tells me. 'Consumers construct silhouettes by layering and lift styles through mixing fabrics and design details. Miharayasuhiro and Junya Watanabe are masters in the field, both deconstructing and radically reworking pieces to bring them into the contemporary sphere’. Into the clearing between theyoung deconstructionists and the old formalists stands Hu Bing.
Last summer he was chosen as the first international ambassador at the British Fashion Council’s London Collections Men. Again, perfect timing: Chinese consumers are responsible for the lionshare of top end menswear purchases: 38 percent of Prada’s customer base, 37 percent of Gucci’s, and 35 percent of Bottega Veneta’s and Burberry’s according to estimates from Paris-based financial services company BNP Paribas. Aged 44, Hu Bing, is a model and actor with 10 million followers on China's state authorised equivalent of Twitter, Weibo. He has modelled forFerragamo, Gucci, Dunhill and knows how to layer and deconstruct. Recently he’s beenmeasured for a suit from theoutfitters Huntsman on Saville Row that will be unveiled at this month's London Collections Men shows. This revered British bespoke tailor, established in 1849, has not succumbed to the empire building of the Chinese billionaires that have colonised Hardy Amies, Kilgour, Kent & Curwen, Gieves & Hawkes and nearby Aquascutum. It’s owned by a Belgian businessman, but remains remarkably upper echelon English. The heads of pursed-lipped stags punctuate the walls in its showroom. Suspended from the ceiling as precious as scalps and skins, as fine as the parchment of sacred scrolls, the patterns cut for esteemed figures from antiquity: Edward VII, Prince Albert, Winston Churchill. And now the chest, the waist, the inside leg measurement of Hu Bing. Elsewhere, his chiselled jaw and evenly-spread chest has been noted.
It’s a long way from 'the crafty yellow face twisted by a thin-lipped grin’ archetype that writer Christopher Frayling addressed in 'The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia’ in 2014. The book is part of a rush to correct us on Chinese culture past and present, it seems. The New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art attempted similar with its recent celebration of all things Chinese. For added gravitas it was staged in the Anna Wintour Costume Centre wing, named after the starchy matriarch at American Vogue. Apparently the likes of Yves St Laurent, Karl Lagerfield, Alexander McQueen had got it wrong with the appropriation of Chinoiserie motifs for their designs. Such exotic orientalism was a myth that misrepresented the Chinese masses - although many colluded in the conceit. 'The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental”, wrote the literary theoretician Edward Said in ‘Orientalism’ (1978), ‘but because it could be - that is, submitted to being - made Oriental’. Arguably, casting the Chinese male as a shallow, rich consumer following the current trend for peacock power in men’s fashion is open to similar charges.
But as some are quick to point out, this current image it not representative of the British Chinese at large - those born, bred or based here. Now there's a group that never had the cultural and social cachet of, say, blacks and Asians. The so-called oriental was never the must-have accessory or cause célébre of the urban media class progressive; never the subject of the research that other minorities warrant. Although an academic embarked on a study of the British Chinese in 2012, when there were 400,000 resident in the UK, including 100,000 in London. According to the fashion writer Susie Lau, it's not so much the British-born Chinese male as the visiting Chinese student that is synonymous with cash and fashion: ‘Generally speaking they have a lot of disposable income because to study here as an overseas student, you need to be pretty well off to begin with. They're the ones that are dominating the customer bases of Bond Street flagships and department stores. Look at the staff who need to speak Mandarin’. They are also influenced by Korean pop culture, which continues to dominate in mainland China and elsewhere. She tells me: 'London is the birth of those fashion labels that are being adopted by K-pop stars. Look at stores like Machine-A which sell cutting edge labels like Cottweiler, Sibling, J.W. Anderson and Christopher Shannon’. The British born Chinese stylist and menswear blogger Karlmund Tang - of the Mr Boy blog - says the generation whose parents ‘started takeaways and restaurants’ are not central to this current trend: 'BBCs I would say was very much a ‘subculture' back in the 90s, but these days everything is quite international. The phenomenom now is certainly the influx of Chinese money and how much these young kids are spending - which is lots’.
It’s the absence of notable Chinese designers that is currently drawing attention. Although Chinese fashions students studying in London are returning to China hoping to correct this. ‘There aren't enough that are prominent within the fashion industry here in comparison to say American born Chinese’, says Susie Lau, ‘Look at the number of designers that are prominent there - Alexander Wang, Derek Lam, Jason Wu’. It looks like this is about to change as a number of Chinese designers debuted their collections at London Fashion Week. Having become the dominant consumers when it comes to menswear designers, the Chinese may yet become the dominant designers according to Erwan Hamburg: 'In the initial phase of developing outbound travel, Chinese are looking for role models and want to relate to the New Yorker, the Parisian, the Londoner, the consumers of Tokyo or Milan. We are still in the discovery phase. There will come a time when Chinese will look inward for talent and inspiration’.