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China Designers: This Quirky Menswear Label Epitomizes “Geek Chic”

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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.

It’s been official for some time: geeks are cool again. From bucket hats to chunky ‘90s-era inspired “dad shoes,” “geek chic” has been creeping its way onto the high fashion runway.

Defining themselves as “geeky and poetic,” menswear brand Staffonly taps into an updated, 21st century definition of the “geek” —  a person that’s sensitive, savvy, humorous, and perhaps most striking of all, stylish.

Through Staffonly, designers Shimo Zhou and Une Yea have made it their mission to explore all types of masculine expression and what dressing like a man can look like.

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Model wearing Staffonly AW20

Like many in their generation, the Staffonly founders say that both wuxia (武侠)  a Chinese fiction genre centered on war heroes  and ACG (anime, comics, and gaming) had a lasting impact on them growing up. They reference their AW18 collection, in which they worked influences from Japanese shonen manga and extreme sports into their take on a modern-day warrior’s wardrobe. “A world that is relevant to reality, but also filled with fantasy, is a common virtual world shared by Chinese people,” the designers tell RADII.

The designers add that while these subcultures have often given rise to their own unique aesthetic, “other groups and trends that haven’t grown to a relatively decent size yet are worth paying attention to as well.”

For their SS20 collection, they played with the idea of the “househusband,” subverting how men are typically portrayed in media as macho in the wider world, and as breadwinners at home.

Mixing streetwear fabrics with pastel checks and seersucker, Staffonly embellished clothes with ric rac, delicate cutouts, and flowery trim — details that wouldn’t be out of place in a home decor magazine from the 1950s. The duo kept things modern, however, by using these embellishments for impact, making them high contrast and imposing them onto looser silhouettes and clean tailoring.

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Models wearing Staffonly SS20

Zhou and Yea, both born in mainland China, met in London during their studies before returning home to found their label. Yea was earning her MA in Accessory Design from London’s Royal College of Arts, while Zhou graduated from London College of Fashion, and worked at established houses such as Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford before founding her own label with Yea.

For the duo, the gambit paid off. The two relocated at a time when Chinese designers were starting to garner more attention from international boutiques and platforms. Staffonly has since been featured in premier menswear platform Pitti Uomo three times — most recently as part of Guest Nation China, a showcase in partnership with design incubator Labelhood exclusively for “made in China” menswear. In 2019, they were selected as finalists for Business of Fashion’s inaugural BoF China Prize.

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As streetwear has become increasingly popular in China, the duo have seen opportunity in that trend as well over the years. They teamed with Onitsuka Tiger as part of the Japanese brand’s 70th anniversary in 2019. Giving their tracksuits and Serrano shoe a Staffonly spin with the theme “Protection,” they added a ’90s-worthy color palette and utilitarian details, inspired by the packaging and materials used to protect objects when they’re shipped.

“In our own design process, we always use the structure of objects we observe in daily life, especially packaging materials and insulation materials,” the designers say in an interview with Metal Magazine“These materials bring a sense of security to people… [and] emphasize the theme of ‘protection.'”

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Models wearing Onitsuka Tiger x Staffonly

Though the label has appeared numerous times at Europe’s biggest fashion weeks, Zhou and Yea add that their plan going forward is to have “a deeper focus on… [uniquely] Chinese lifestyle,” reflecting the wearer’s needs and wants in China’s more fashion-forward major cities. Given the growth of the male beauty industry as well as the wide spectrum of masculinity present in pop culture, there is plenty to inspire the pair in their home country.

Related:

From “Little Fresh Meat” to “Wolf Warriors”: Understanding Chinese Masculinity in Pop Culture

Whatever these two put forward next season, we can expect their take on “geek chic” to command the attention of fashion nerds the world over.

Follow Staffonly on Instagram.

All images: courtesy Staffonly

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.