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China Designers: Why This Designer Wants to “Make China Lit Again”

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China Designers is a biweekly series that showcases the wide spectrum of creativity in Chinese fashion design. From small designers to big brands, these names are changing the connotations of “Made in China,” one collection at a time. Write to us if you have a suggestion or submission.

Not in years has an accessory been both so loved and vilified as the “Make America Great Again” hat, worn by US President Trump and his supporters during his 2016 election campaign.

For that reason, this Chinese indie label’s similarly red-and-white hat, which reads “Make China Lit Again,” might raise a few eyebrows.

“Don’t get me wrong — I don’t agree with many of his actions,” says Zhao Chenxi, designer and founder of Fabric Porn (stylized as “fabric porn”). “But I think he was very smart with his design. ‘MAGA’ made the red hat with white lettering into something very iconic.”

fabric qorn make china lit ss20

Models in Fabric Porn SS20

Though the Trump reference may be tongue-in-cheek, Zhao insists that the message behind the hat is, in fact, quite earnest. “China used to be ‘lit’. It was cutting-edge long before people started looking to the West for clues to what’s cool,” he says, echoing a sentiment that many everyday people in China currently have ­– and that its ruling political party is eager to promote.

Zhao sees his fellow fashion designers, however, now coming into their own and gaining recognition for doing interesting things with their Chinese identity. “Samuel Guì Yang, for instance, is a great example of this. It’s a very exciting time to be a designer working in China. I’m proud to be part of this new wave,” he says.

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Raised in Xi’an and then in California, Zhao hopped between universities and prospective majors before finally landing on fashion design. “I originally wanted to do art,” he says, “but I promised my family I’d make them some money.” Relocating to Shanghai, the then-24-year-old designer says he took to meeting other designers before catching the attention of Chinese design incubator Labelhood, and eventually being invited to participate in their inaugural China Energy project with menswear platform Pitti Uomo. “People really responded well to the collections,” says Zhao, “but I don’t think Europe is necessarily doing that well, to be honest. I personally think Asia presents a more exciting and lucrative market.”

models fabric porn china designers

Models in Fabric Porn SS20

Fabric Porn’s first two seasons — and possibly his upcoming third, he says — stem from Zhao’s observation that “Chinese people are lacking in their own cultural confidence.”

He adds:

“For years, everything from movies and media to tech like Huawei has been built off the models of North America and Europe. This has been the theme for the last hundred years.

“Excess nationalism is definitely not good, but a country should have pride in its uniqueness.”

Many of the clothes draw from a straightforward “Eastern elements meet Western silhouettes” formula, tacking traditionally Chinese details such as knot buttons onto denim jackets and trenchcoats. Others include amusing, self-referential nods to Chinese street culture, such as screen printed tees that borrow slogans from the ubiquitous ads plastered all over China’s urban environments.

Peppered throughout are insider references to Chinese social media, television, ‘80s- and ‘90s-kid nostalgia, and Zhao’s own observations about his fellow countrymen. “English words, or any language that seems Western, are still cool to Chinese people,” Zhao says. “Most would wear anything with English text, even if they don’t know the meaning of it at all. The ‘Lorem Ipsum’ shirt we made is a response to that.”

His “serious art” (严肃艺术) hoodie (pictured below center) references a trending debate on Chinese social media platform Weibo last year on the topic. Nostalgic AW20 sweaters borrow from the flat, graphic drawing style popularized in 1970s-era advertisements and cartoons.

Graphic sweaters and hoodies from Fabric Porn AW20

Fabric Porn also faces the uniquely mainland Chinese conundrum of having to navigate the strict censorship algorithms that shape social platforms like Weibo. That’s why within mainland China — and on Instagram, which has its own set of strict content algorithms — the brand goes by “fabric qorn” (with a lowercase “q” swapped in for a “p”), and by its real name elsewhere.

“I actually just recently registered the real name,” Zhao says. (He originally registered it in China as “fabric qorn” in 2019.) “Hopefully they might not know what the name means, and will approve it. But if we become a much bigger brand, I can see we’ll run into problems.”

“The word ‘porn’ is so much more powerful,” he laments. “But if I have to fall back on using two names forever, I will.”

As US-China relations deteriorate further, Zhao does hope that labels like Fabric Porn can somehow work to bridge the gap. “There is a big separation between cultures and mindsets right now, especially between China and the US,” he observes, “I’d like to shrink the gap in my own way, by mixing more of these elements together.”

Related:

China Designers: 8 Menswear Labels We Love

Follow Fabric Porn on Instagram.

Header: Model wearing Fabric Porn SS20
All images: courtesy Fabric Porn

Mayura Jain
    Mayura Jain is a Shanghai-based writer, editor, illustrator and designer originally from Los Angeles. Before joining RADII, she worked for lifestyle magazine City Weekend and Sixth Tone as editor and graphic designer. In her spare time she frequents art exhibitions, fosters cats, and chows on unhealthy vegetarian food.