Last Updated on 2021/11/25
Featured image: Photography by Ellen Simons, New York City, 2019. All rights reserved
China fashion design. Elsbeth van Paridon is a sinologist and China fashion writer.
She is Dutch, grew up in Belgium, went back to The Netherlands to study Sinology at Leiden University, resided in Beijing for 6.5 years, and most recently obtained an MA in Journalism.
She is the head of Temper Magazine a publication about the new Made In China fashion, design, and urban culture.
She also works on China Under The Radar, a cultural project, that exploring China’s urban lifestyle and underground.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
China-Underground: You are a sinologist and China fashion journalist. Where does your interest in China come from? How did you develop your interest in fashion? What inspired you to start working and focusing on Chinese fashion and style?
Elsbeth van Paridon: Disclaimer: Before I forget. Yes, I have recently obtained an MA in Journalism, but one degree does not a pro make! Real, actual, news(paper)-reporting journalists are required to “take the bar” in order to keep their journalistic license on a regular basis and I have done no such thing. Nor do I intend to at the moment hehe.
I suppose it’s that crossroads where education meets inspiration and creates passion – a favorite word of mine in any language, just another random fact du jour from/on yours truly.
Growing up in 1980s Antwerp, Belgium, I (the old-fashioned orange- and bitterballen-loving Dutch one) was exposed to colorful pop culture icons such as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Prince, etc., from my earliest childhood onwards.
These boundary-breakers had taken fashion into cutting edge new directions.
The ways in which they played with their clothing proved fascinating and captivating from the start – and remains an inspiration to this day.
Decades went by (slightly exaggerating here) and it was precisely through my studies in Sinology (Leiden University, Netherlands) that I came into contact with then up-and-coming (and now bonafide catwalk crushing) Chinese designers such as Xander Zhou, whose innovative ideas triggered an intense interest for the pioneering fashion scene within China.
The China Fashion scene is more than your mere covershot; it’s the visualization of a changing social landscape.
It is the academic background that equips one with a deeper understanding of a nation – not just on the linguistic level, that for me is a given, but on the historical, political, and social levels too.
Education is empowerment.
In order to understand the movement forward, and to move forward in se, you have to go back to the beginning. Put in fashion lingo… As is the case with any wardrobe, from capsule to couture-committed: Know your basics.
C-U: What about your first time in China? What inspired you most?
EVP: I first came to Beijing in 2007 to complete one year of language studies at Beijing Language and Culture University on a scholarship awarded by international education organization NUFFIC (The Hague)– as a part of the Leiden-based Sinology program.
I returned to the city of all that is mighty in 2010 – to work as an English news editor and fashion author for China International Publishing Group.
After 6.5 years of living there, I chose to pursue a Master’s in Journalism back home, in Europe, and now (having recently wrapped up that academic endeavor) spend my time between New York City, Europe and China. All in the name of China fashion, Design and Urban Culture.
C–U: Can you tell us about your Chinese fashion publication Temper Magazine and cultural project China under the radar?
EVP: Temper Magazine sets out to help promote the still largely hidden, yet dynamic, fashion, design and urban culture scene sprouting within Beijing, Shanghai and China overall. From streetstyle to budding photographers, established designers and the latest updates: They are present.
Temper offers readers a sec yet sexy look at contemporary China through a fashion-focused lens.
Often paired with a deep devotion to the nation’s underground scene. The term “Made in China” is undergoing the ultimate 21st Century makeover. This rapid change is a unique phenomenon which goes beyond the mere Summer/Autumn collections; it waves the flag for the social changes vibrating within China’s society-at-large today.
Escorted by the increasingly strong influence of a new thinking among China’s younger generations regarding individuality and the expression thereof, the fashion scene in the Middle Kingdom is exploding.
And it stretches far beyond what meets the eye. High-end appliqué, one might say: The New Made In China — patent on that one. In sum, if it fares and flares in the realm of China Fashion and Design, Temper is there. “Chasing the fashion dragon” — patent on that one too, – if you will.
The urban underground is where the beat of the new social drums begins. It is below the surface where the core of the Earth starts to shake and shock the aboveground levels. “Sub-” Is Super.
Trending-wise: China is all about young, intoxicating and congenial urban rebellion.
China’s post-95ers, especially, are setting the pace for the nation’s rejuvenation. Their styles and artistic behavior or mannerisms capture and highlight in unbridled fashion the different traits of all layers in Chinese contemporary society.
From that rebellious and unruly bad boy to your classically poised girl, how very “Breakfast Club”, everyone has their own exclusive socio-cultural temper. About to rage — not against the dying of the light, but in pursuit of a new dawn rising.
Flying under the radar, China’s urban underground expands the minds of those post-80 and -90s traveling and reveling in it. Their tempers flare and in manners almost invisible to the naked eye spring to the surface of society. It’s the coming out of China’s creativity.
C–U: How Chinese fashion appeared to you when you started to work in China? How is Chinese fashion changed?
EVP: It’s a tale of economic development.
When you look at South Korea in the 1960s and 70s or Japan throughout the 1980s and 90s, you can spot the pattern.
A nation decided to alter its political system in order to open up and become more appealing to the outside world – and thus becomes more susceptible to global influences.
Economic development, often capitalistically styled (aka “a means to an end”; ahem), ensues and in turn sparks an evolution within society.
Once a middle class is in place, the urban landscape changes into a shopping Walhalla and we reach the final step of development: That of the individual.
Here, fashion comes into play – and plays its finest tunes.
Here, personal style is created.
Here, the individual starts using clothing as a means of communicating with the outside world.
Here, the perception of a society and a nation at large changes.
We have traveled from the omnipresent Minnie Mouse ears and FCUK ME, I’M CINESE (forgive me, I’m Dutch) Tees back in 2007 to the sleekly styled slick that is hardcore designer “stuff” in 2019.
LGBTQ- or Feminism-inspired brands boasting OTT androgyny, sustainable designers dancing to the tunes of tecno felt fabrics, crazy cool Breakfast Club kids venturing out into street-photography and creating their own street-style and -photography WeChat platforms to support the budding talent out there in urban China, tattoo artists defying both social gender and political censorship taboos, visual artists capturing the politics of a society changing at the speed of light and its implications for urban humanity, … You name it, they bring it.
Final funny yet fashionable detail on the socio-cultural side of things: China’s female foray into lingerie.
Shanghai and Beijing now stand at the forefront of a lingerie movement as Chinese women explore their femininity, sexuality and true self via their undergarments. From artisanally bespoke traditional (imperial) inspired lingerie designs by Pillowbook (designer Irene Lu) or (on the kinkier side of things) The End Lingerie (by Taiwanese model and FIT NYC grad Bei Kuo) to the likes of Victoria’s Secet and Dutch Hunkemoller retail hardhitters.
China’s single women are becoming independent and confident. Celebrating their bodies, both inside and out.
C–U: Fashion is influenced by the environment surrounding us and fashion influence the environment. What’s your perception of the Chinese Fashion industry? Do you believe that the global impact can be a topic of significant interest for some Chinese brands? What do you think will be the future of the Chinese fashion market?
EVP: China Fashion and Design… From that old-school “Made In China” label battered by product scandals and haunted by a cheapo-heapo copy-paste mentality to the New Made In China tag embodying exclusive niche design.
A little artistic ‘n historic inspo to get things going: After Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China “open” in 1949, all artistic activity was institutionalized.
Come 2019, it’s becoming individualized. The new legion of post-80 and post-90 Chinese fashion artists too reflect a shift in China’s cultural Zeitgeist.
Many of them have enjoyed a profound and renowned education (talent alone won’t cut that cloth!) in design abroad (Paris, London, NYC) and thus their creations offer the best of both worlds.
It is the merging of culture and education that makes for a revolution in motion.
Speaking of fashion x environment, I’d like to put a spin on this and briefly highlight the concerted sustainable efforts coming in from the Middle Kingdom and its new designing army.
China has forever been a mass producer of clothes; some estimates suggest 50 percent of the world’s clothing is manufactured in the country. In return for the cheaply made Chinese gear, serious environmental impacts have occurred over the years, such as waste water, making the clothing industry the second largest polluter after oil.
Nevertheless, sustainable fashion is finally shedding its hippie-hemp covered image and it’s becoming ‘cool’. It seems that “The New Made in China” label is about to add a shade of green…
Clothes swaps are one-way China is tackling the sustainable fashion agenda and they’re in full swing. In major cities, swaps are being hosted by charities, shops and through social media. Live with less (简生活), a Beijing-based project, holds court quarterly and folks roll up in droves to swap their clothes, reducing excessive consumption. One simple idea, one big impact.
Secondhand clothing was frowned upon and deemed “inferior” in the eyes of traditional China, though nowadays there seems to be a new holistic buzz surrounding the concept of clothes swapping as citizens snap up unique, secondhand garms/ gems.
Millennials too are finding new ways around the shortage of quality designer clothes. Many young people lack the funds to constantly update their looks, Chinese clothing-rental startup YCloset have tapped into this.
Typically, a country of fast fashion, China now bears witness to the rise of brands being built on the grounds of sustainability. Zhang Na of Fake Natoo has created Reclothing Bank (再造衣银行), a lifestyle brand that considers sustainability across the supply chain. What makes these clothes unique, is the fact they are made from second-hand apparel. During Shanghai Fashion Week in April of 2018, Zhang’s “everyday” models wore a mix of recycled fabrics and old clothing, along with natural, organic fibers.
The clothes were also apparently made by a group of women who lost their jobs. It’s wonderful to see more designers giving eco-friendly fashion a chic branding. Even more, it is particularly refreshing to see the outfits on the catwalk in often image-conscious city Shanghai.
Sustainable fashion promotes a new way of thinking for China. As the government promote their new ‘green’ policy for clean air, less coal use and better regulation, we say the fashion industry is just as important.
As the idea becomes more mainstream and demand rises, Chinese consumers may realize it’s actually worth paying that bit more to save our planet (or one can only hope they do). Sustainability in China is on its way to being cracked.
And trending on the long term. Summing up, I think the future of China Fashion will combine the latest in technology with hardcore designer views subtly addressing socio-politico topics. Thus creating both a new socially as well as fashionably sustainable collective.
C–U: Did social media change fashion habits in China? How do you feel social media influence now vs. the past? What makes China a unique place, for fashion, compare to others?
EVP: From the earlier mentioned kids setting up WeChat platforms and thus setting on fire China’s urban impromptu street photography scenery to the latest in clothing swap(p)ing… The Middle Kingdom’s social media proudly stands in a league of its own. What does that mean?
Con: Everybody and anybody can call themselves a designer and set up their WeChat platform/ Mini Program and shop;
Pro: Everybody and anybody can call themselves a designer and set up their WeChat platform/ Mini Program and shop.
We’re now facing an tsunami-styled overload of design and art, bringing along both treasures and trash, thus forcing us to become more particular and pickier about the niches we choose to tackle and/ or target. From a personal perspective, it’s about separating the wheat from the chaff – according to personal taste and topic.
Before we get to that final bottom line, then, a little faddy party “did you know” fact! The Chinese word for “fashion” (时尚| shíshàng) only came into being after the creatively dire, “deconstructivist” days of the nation’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976; 文化大革命|wénhuàdàgémìng in Chinese) were done and dealt with.
China Fashion and Design has now come a long way, baby. From a coerced creative and cultural wasteland to storming the vested houses of design, the New Made In China artistic collective embodies the explicit depiction of an insatiable lust for that ultimate seductive mix between the fashionable and wearable.
Comparing China’s emerging culture of youthful (in every way) urban style and individuality, would undermine the assessment of this unique evolution and rebellion in its own right. In life, who does not physically cherish the springtime of youth through art and design? A young brand to its wearer should be like a thread to a needle.
When it comes to your wardrobe, it should be about love and lust, top to bottom. About throwing caution to the wind. And that’s what The New Made In China tag is all about.
Photos courtesy of Elsbeth van Paridon and Temper Magazine (The New Made In China)
topic: China fashion design, chinese urban culture