When my mom and her friends visited China, they filled every possible space of their suitcases with Nike tennis shoes, Ralph Lauren polo shirts, and Coach bags. These American brand-name goods were doled out to their younger relatives and cousins, who valued the clothes not for fashion or quality but for the big logos splashed across the fabric. Even though this generation of Chinese teens are slowly discovering their own style, they won’t refuse this sartorial link to the West.
Yet, there remain differences in the way that Chinese and American teenagers dress, although their style directive often comes from the same type of sources: television, film, magazines. In the end, though, it’s culture that leads to different ideas about what and what not to wear.
I noticed how teenage girls present themselves. In the U.S., girls try out makeup, pull their shirts down and hike their skirts up – the goal is to look older. In China, where innocence and childish cuteness is widely prized, girls wear clothing with bows, ruffles, or characters like Hello Kitty in order to appear younger. Even though the Chinese like to borrow from Western fashion, they systematically reject the perceived openness of Western sexual attitudes. Do the girls want the Ralph Lauren sweater with a large polo player embroidered across the chest? Oh, yes. Do they want the mini-sundress with the low-cut back? Absolutely not.
Another observation I had was the extent of celebrity worship and idol culture in China compared to the U.S. From my experience in the States, when celebrities, athletes, actors, or musicians release a clothing line or a new fragrance, a very small fraction of the most passionately devoted fans would anticipate and purchase the new items. (Except for H&M and Target designer collaborations – that’s a different story altogether!) For the vast majority, the difference between a pair of jeans designed by Justin Timberlake (from his co-founded William Rast line) and a pair of Levis is probably insignificant.
My Chinese cousins see it differently. When my family was planning to make a trip back, one of my college-aged cousins specifically requested that we bring back Michael Jordan t-shirts, with the logo or his name stated explicitly on the shirt, and with the silhouette of the basketball player leaping into the air, ready to dunk. As well, the sneakers had to be Air Jordans: not Puma, Reebok, or Adidas, but Nike Air Jordans. My cousin and his friends were fascinated by Jordan’s celebrity status, and wanted to wear his special line to express their idolatry to everyone.
Last, but probably the biggest difference, is the attitude towards counterfeit products. For most Americans, the thought of buying a fake Louis Vuitton handbag is upsetting. Although there are many websites and private sellers offering “silk” scarves, inspired-by-Hermès leather purses, or out-and-out duplicates of the latest goods still on store shelves, people tend not to buy them. However, it’s common to encounter Chinese street vendors offering “genuine” name-brand bags for just a fraction of the cost – perhaps a few hundred yuan instead of hundred of thousands – and just as common to see Chinese youths engaged in transactions.
For the younger generation, it’s not quality they seek, but the images of the luxurious lifestyle evoked by the brands. For them, fashion is a way to express what they want to be to their peers and colleagues, instead of an indication of who they actually are.
Of course, many of these trends have shifted in recent years. Celebrities and political figures like Peng Liyun, China’s First Lady, have shown up to prominent events wearing Chinese designers; the rise of tuhao will change purchasing trends. While the change is slow, and perhaps uncertain, it’s one that may bring Chinese designers to the world stage, and may mean emptier suitcases when we travel to China.