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The latest fashion trend gripping young Chinese isn’t actually new, but it’s proving lucrative

By Christy Choi and Hassan Tayir, CNN

(CNN) — What’s old is new again. This time it’s a centuries-old skirt design that’s proving popular in China. The “mamianqun” or “horse face skirt” is being worn in cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu as young people in China are giving the attire a modern twist, with unconventional pairings and choice of fabrics.

While once the sole purview of “hanfu” enthusiasts (a renaissance of the ancient clothing traditionally worn by ethnic-majority Han Chinese before the Qing dynasty) and reserved for special occasions, the pleated often brocade skirts have become a part of everyday wear.

The popularity of the skirt has been wrapped into a broader trend being dubbed “xinzhongshi,” or “new Chinese style” — which merges all manner of contemporary design with traditional Chinese aesthetics, applied to everything from clothing to furniture.

While the idea isn’t new, and was once considered old-fashioned, the wide-ranging term is being used as a marketing tool on China’s lucrative e-commerce platforms, with retailers quick to turn Gen Z’s patriotic, and at times, nationalistic sentiments, for profit.

On Chinese social media platforms Weibo and Xiaohongshu, searches for “new Chinese style” and “new Chinese style outfits” hashtags exceeded 100 million in early April, according to state news agency Xinhua. Besides fashion, the posts show everything from stuffed leather armchairs with the curves of traditional Chinese wood furniture to mobile phone wallpapers of landscape paintings.

The state-backed China National Textile and Apparel Council estimates the market size of “new Chinese style” clothing reached 1 billion yuan (nearly 138 million dollars) in 2023.

On Xiaohongshu, a 33-year-old user, who goes by the handle Momo and didn’t give her real name for privacy reasons, frequently gives tips on how to style Chinese clothing. In one post, she demonstrated how you can top an oversized pink sweatshirt with a black mamianqun, pairing it with a matching baseball cap and sneakers.

“More and more young people are willing to use traditional culture as a new way to express their attitudes. That’s a good thing and very cool,” she told CNN in a text message.

It’s mostly young people following the trend, agrees Huang Weizhe, a 32-year-old designer and manager of local fashion brand Longfuji.

On social media, Huang shares ways to dress in “new Chinese style,” and in one post wears a loose silk shirt with jeans.

“There is no set rule in the ‘new Chinese style’ (trend) that you must follow, so it is more inclusive. This is the style that young people like now,” he told CNN over the phone.

Riding the ‘new’ Chinese style wave

Fashion designers like Samuel Gui Yang, whose collections have long taken inspiration from Chinese heritage, are seeing more interest from mainland China turn to their brands due to the “new Chinese style” trend.

But unlike the mamianqun, which is a literal nod to the past – and being mass produced – his 9-year-old brand has been about bridging the gap “between Shanghai and London” and drawing from the rich tapestry of what it means to be Chinese, in China and abroad.

“I think my wider audience (is) really a fan of…the way we bring in this ‘Chineseness’ (the) heritage details in a more subtle way,” he said in a phone interview.

For Yang, the aesthetics and themes of Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee’s 1994 movie “Eat Drink Man Woman” represent his idea of what “new Chinese style” should be. The film about the lives of a master chef and his three daughters navigating the tensions between modernity and traditions, personal freedom and family. Yang said, “subtly reflects the lifestyle of Chinese people, especially the direct connection between a dinner table and interpersonal relationships.” The film, he added, “provides us with a lot of inspiration for our design journey,” and that he always draws from the “80s and 90s Asian dressing style.”

There’s the Lee denim jacket inspired by Hong Kong martial arts and film star Bruce Lee and the Ailing dress, named after Shanghai-born American novelist Eileen Chang. At Shanghai Fashion Week this March, he showcased a long-sleeved bias cut qipao with roll-up sleeves (pictured top), giving the classic silhouette a fresh update.

For Ian Hylton, designer and decades-long China resident, “new Chinese style” is a misnomer. His eponymous menswear label draws heavily on Chinese dress styles and design motifs – think elegant loose silk mandarin collar shirts, Tang puffer jackets and cashmere coats with button knots.

“I’m kind of not a fan of this term ‘new Chinese style,’ because to me that’s like saying new French clothes, new Italian clothes,” Hylton told CNN over the phone. “There’s nothing new. There’s a new way to approach it, but it’s somehow being treated like a trend, like short or long skirts. They’re part of a culture, they’re the fabric and makeup of a culture.”

Hylton’s wife, Min Liu, launched her own Chinese-aesthetics inspired label Ms. Min in 2010, a reaction, he said, to the fact that most people in the country weren’t wearing Chinese clothes. Hylton is the company’s president.

“When I arrived in China…there was not a billboard, there was not an advertisement, there was not an anything that featured a Chinese person,” said Hylton, who moved to China in 2005 as the creative director of luxury fashion label Ports 1961. “Everything was a foreign face…everything that was foreign was good and everything that was local was disrespected.”

The tides he believes have turned in the last decade or so with young Chinese becoming more aware and confident of their place in the world, and embracing China’s culture and history. Domestic fashion labels also saw a boost during the pandemic, as strict travel restrictions prevented mainland Chinese from buying luxury goods abroad.

Meanwhile Momo, the Xiaohongshu user, said the popularity of “new Chinese style” has been down to “serious commercialization,” which she doesn’t necessarily buy into.

Douyin, China’s TikTok released a report in March showing a 841% increase in the sale of the mamianqun skirts that typically retail for around 200 yuan (roughly US$28), on its e-commerce platform compared to the year before. State broadcaster CCTV reported that Cao county in Shandong province, which it said accounts for around half of the country’s mamianqun production, sold 550 million yuan (almost $76 million) worth of skirts in the first two months of the year, a surge attributed to the run-up of the Lunar New Year holiday.

But some of the “new Chinese style” products are “shoddily made” she said, though she thinks that their designs will improve with time.

Regardless of trends, Momo said she will continue to teach her 33,000 followers how to wear traditional clothing as much as possible – out and about, to study and to work.

“Whenever we wear ‘new Chinese style’ or hanfu and mamianqun, it’s a way we can invite more people, including those around the world, to understand (our) culture.”

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