China’s fast-growing retro-fashion scene has emerged as a focal point of this year’s Taobao Maker Festival, which has spotlighted some of the platform’s most-exciting, heritage-inspired fashions since kicking off on July 29.
Among the 150-plus merchants showcased at the event, which celebrates Taobao’s makers and innovators, is a new class of designers who are reviving the “hanfu” – a catchall term for the ancient attire worn by China’s Han ethnic majority.
These makers are part of a growing community that has helped transform what was once a niche, subculture trend into a flourishing multimillion-dollar industry. China is now home to more than 3.56 million hanfu enthusiasts, and in 2019, the industry surpassed RMB4.52 billion ($645 million) in sales, according to a May report from Guangzhou-based consultancy iiMedia. Alibaba Group’s B2C e-commerce site Tmall said consumers have been spending more on the category as well, with most hanfu shoppers buying two to three outfits annually.
From the creators of a glow-in-the-dark party hanfu to the visionary making versatile designs for workouts, here are six designers who are turning traditional Chinese garments into modern-day fashion statements.
“We base our designs on history, but they’re not meant to be strict historical replicas,” said Zhou Li, co-founder of the Guangzhou-based hanfu studio Qiaozhi, which recently launched a refreshing, modern take on the ancient attire at the Taobao Maker Festival. Zhou said the label’s “Party Hanfu,” which is marked by embroidered edges to emphasize the silhouette, took inspiration from robes worn in China’s Song dynasty. The Qiaozhi team also added reflective material along the edges of the outfit so it would look like a traditional robe by day and transform into a stylish, luminous oversized jacket by night.
Zhou said hanfu has become a phenomenon in the past few years and has grown from a small fashion subcategory to a mature industry in its own right. It follows its own unique set of design processes, textiles and marketing strategies. Consumers are also becoming increasingly sophisticated and paying more attention to the historical inspirations behind the designs. “Hanfu is not only a beautiful piece of clothing, but it also has cultural significance. It gives young people a strong sense of belonging,” Zhou said.
Wu Qiuqiao, who grew up surrounded by clothes in her family’s garment factory, has always loved making outfits for her cat, Liu-liu. Last May, the 26-year-old quit her job to turn her passion into a business and opened a Taobao shop specializing in handmade hanfu for pets. “I wanted to do something different and make pet products that are original and novel,” said Wu.
Wu looks after every aspect of the business, from designing the products and fulfilling orders to handling the photography (Liu-liu occasionally helps out as her fitting model) and customer service. She has amassed over 16,000 followers and achieved monthly sales of up to RMB70,000 in just one year of business. During this year’s Taobao Maker Festival, Wu launched a hanfu collection inspired by the legend of the four most beautiful women in ancient China, with each of the designs drawing from the women’s personalities and the fashion styles of the eras they lived in.
For those who want to spice up their wedding with something different from the typical white gown, Yang Wenqiong, brand director of Xiaoyaozhai, created a set of hanfu inspired by European-style weddings. It’s designed to be comfortable enough for couples to wear while traveling or in their daily lives as well, she said.
“We strive for hanfu to become a part of the everyday,” said Yang. “My biggest motivation has always been to help recover lost traditions and turn the hanfu into an enduring symbol of our traditional culture.”
For Yang, the hanfu echoes traditional values, like decorum and propriety, while shedding light on the craftsmanship of dressmakers throughout history. “From the Han dynasty’s simplicity, Tang’s romanticism, Song’s elegance to the dignified styles of the Ming dynasty, I think the beauty of our culture is embedded into each thread of the hanfu,” she said.
“People have the impression that hanfu is about long, flowing robes and loose sleeves that just aren’t suitable for exercising. But who says it has to be that way?” said Zhang Jingwen, chair of Chengdu-based hanfu brand Lanruoting.
The 23-year-old designer created the Active Hanfu, which is easy to move around in and even work out in. To create the new design, she researched what people used to wear while playing horse polo in ancient China and incorporated similar details. Zhang also added “panbo,” strips of cloth that help fold back and fasten the sleeves, and also shortened the classic “mamian” pleated skirt – a particularly popular style of clothing during the Ming dynasty – for enhanced flexibility.
While still a university student, Zhang saved close to RMB100,000 to launch her Taobao store in 2016. Her first design listed on the platform sold more than 1,000 pieces, even without any promotional activity. Lanruoting has since grown into one of the most popular hanfu labels on Taobao, selling millions of products last year.
Chen Jizhou’s hanfu wouldn’t look out of place on a fashion-week runway. The 24-year-old dropped out of the architecture program at Australia’s RMIT University in 2016 to pursue a career in fashion design and focus on DeepLunar, a label he founded that specializes in unconventional, experimental takes on traditional Chinese attire.
DeepLunar quickly amassed a large fanbase on Taobao; during one particularly high-traffic month, Chen’s designs generated close to RMB300,000. But as much as his haute-couture looks were admired by fans at the time, they also attracted criticism from the hanfu subculture’s more conservative faction. Faced with these controversies, Chen paused his business operations. After some soul-searching and time spent honing his skills as a designer, he relaunched DeepLunar in June – just in time for this year’s Taobao Maker Festival.
Compared to when he launched DeepLunar four years ago, Chen said today’s hanfu market is becoming increasingly open to innovation. At this year’s Taobao Maker Festival, he featured a new collection of fashion-forward, contemporary hanfu, including a special panda-inspired design created for the event’s Chengdu showcase.
“I want to enrich and deepen the aesthetics of my designs; I want to draw from various modern cultures and fit them into traditional silhouettes,” said Chen. “In the future, I hope hanfu can become more and more diverse.”
Created by a team of history aficionados, the Taobao store Shanjian is known for recreating clothes seen in historical relics and paintings. For this year’s Taobao Maker Festival, Shanjian featured a hanfu inspired by a tricolor-glazed ceramic statue of a woman from the Tang dynasty.
“Hanfu encapsulates thousands of years of Chinese civilization,” said Jiang Rong, founder of Shanjian. She said the ceramic, for example, has been a window into the Tang era for her team. “Artifacts are immensely valuable to help us explore how people dressed and lived in the past.”
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