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China Designers: How This Label Channels Big Chinese Auntie Energy

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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.

Within the developing regional cities of China, you will find an army of unmistakeable yet unlikely fashionistas: Chinese aunties.

These spirited, middle-aged women might be found running your local convenience store, taking care of grandchildren at the playground, or pulling off coordinated dance moves together in the city square. No matter the activity, you can expect them to be flaunting daring prints and flamboyant colors with the utmost confidence.

Using structural stitching and special tailoring techniques, Beijing-based fashion label Marrknull (stylized as MARRKNULL) reinterpret these muses into collections that make social commentary about China’s rapid development — and the people, young and old, that navigate it on a daily basis.

The VFiles Runway 10-winning brand is the brainchild of designers Tim Shi and Wei Wang. Shi was born in Shandong and studied architecture in Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, while Hunan province-born Wang pursued knitwear design at Institute of Fashion Technology also in Beijing. The two met by chance and bonded over a common desire to make clothing that reflected a generation that came of age in the shadow of China’s vast and rapid modernization. Wang tells RADII:

“To me, contemporary Chinese aesthetics are very diverse and inclusive. They absorb elements from foreign cultures, but also blend with this nostalgia unique to modern China, therefore becoming distinct.”

This nostalgia is best felt in designs such as the Pillow Jacquard Bandeau dress from their SS20 collection — which will immediately resonate with anyone familiar with China in the 1980s. To make it, the duo collected jacquard pillow cases and blanket covers that were popular during the period, merging three to four types of jacquard to make one dress.

“We are constantly collecting items that have become obsolete in China’s manufacturing history, and finding a place for them in each of our collections,” says Shi. “Besides the pillow jacquard evening dress, we’ve also used recycled scarves and head accessories as elements in our designs. This is an area we will be exploring more in the future as well.”

Many of their garments seem straightforward at first, but distorted on closer inspection. A jacket sleeve stretches into a pant leg, while the jacket itself hangs loose atop the pants. A ripped denim skirt front reveals the back hem, flattening the skirt into two dimensions, while a trenchcoat is deconstructed into a sleeveless dress draped over the body. These functional change-ups and optical illusions work together to give familiar items new meaning, and express the complexities of living in today’s society.

For their AW20 collection, the duo turned their spotlight onto “outsider” (waidi, 外地) workers, a term used to describe the millions of migrant workers who have moved from small towns to big cities in the hope of a better life. Many make a living through labor-intensive jobs such as food delivery, housekeeping, or construction work. “These ‘outsiders’ are integral to city-building,” observes Shi. “They live and labor in the glamorous big cities, but cannot call it ‘home.’ We hope that through this collection we can paint a picture of this group of people, as our way of expressing social concerns.”

In the campaign’s lookbook, models carry duffle bags and don motorcycle helmets, reflecting the sartorial necessities of many workers as they head back to their hometowns during their rare breaks. This collection, entitled “Homesick,” speaks to the vibrant experiences of the multitude of people coexisting in China’s megacities, each with a different place to call home.

marrknull retro china aw20 fashion design

The bedazzling, hot pink colors, and distressed denim stiletto boots used to style the campaign vividly recall the “McBling” aesthetic popular in the early 2000s. If jacquard pillow cases are emblematic of the ’80s, then bling and stilettos are iconic for this era, making them the latest retro trend to officially make a comeback.

A key element in each of the brand’s lookbooks is the use of mature women, or “auntie models” as the duo likes to call them. According to Wang, Chinese aunties encapsulate the traits and energy of the small-town woman image that Marrknull frequently uses as inspiration.

“Our clothes serve the new generation of young people,” says Wang.

“However, we want to stress that ‘young’ is not defined by age. Rather it’s about an attitude and mentality.

“We believe the ‘young’ people who wear Marrknull are confident and open-minded, passionately pursuing new experiences while also embracing traditional culture.”

This may explain why Chinese aunties, who regularly make waves for their creativity — think Chinese square dancing, star-shaped group photo poses, or the facekini craze — are the apt muses for and performers of Marrknull’s vision.

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While select pieces are certainly kitschy, with garish prints or over-the-top embellishments, the designers counter any apparent “poor taste” with their exquisite cuts and expert tailoring. They also include more on-the-pulse elements such as oversized bomber jackets, logo prints, and activewear trimming to spice up their designs for a streetwear loving crowd. When asked about the gender-fluid nature of some of the garments, Wang says that they “do not design an item with a specific gender in mind” but rather the “the diverse personalities our items could serve.”

These diverse personalities could be a middle-aged aunt who’s young at heart, or a nostalgic young man wishing to connect with his childhood. By paying homage to sidelined communities, Marrknull opens a window into the colorful universe of contemporary Chinese style — a hodgepodge of visual elements that welcome the nostalgic, strange, ordinary and bewildering.

The stereotypical tags of “unrefined” or “unfashionable” often placed on their muses are peeled away with each slash and twist of their reinterpreted garments.

Follow MARRKNULL on Instagram.

All images: courtesy MARRKNULL

Yi Jing Fly
    Yi Jing Fly is the author of China Too Cool: Vernacular Innovations and Aesthetic Discontinuity of China. With a background in fashion design as well as critical and visual studies, her interest lies in understanding society through aesthetic and consumer trends.