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China Designers: This Streetwear Label Captures the Spirit of China’s Underground

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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.

As models marched out in Sankuanz’s AW19 presentation in Paris, everything about the label’s latest collection, from its industrial Airpod-inspired jewelry to its colors — edgy black with violent neon accents — screamed “modern non-conformity.” But off the runway, you might see any of this outfits on a clubgoer at ALL — a famous underground club in Shanghai — or any of China’s alternative music spaces.

Now worn by celebs like Bella Hadid, Miguel, and Billie Eilish, the label still stays true to the flavor of China’s underground — and the cool kids that populate it.

Looks from Sankuanz AW19

Founded in 2013 in Xiamen, a city in southeastern China, Sankuanz draws from a dense encyclopedia of high- and lowbrow references as diverse as rave attire, monk’s robes, biology, cosmology, and punk rock. Classical references are given the pop treatment in the label’s graphic, yet playful prints. Restrained collars, exaggerated lapels, tapered waists, and flared bottoms make for a juxtaposition between je m’en fou punk rock defiance and clean-cut uniformity.

Shangguan Zhe, the label’s designer and founder, has made going against the grain something of a personal motto as well as an aesthetic. Zhe was once a visual communications and advertising grad from Xiamen University; while his classmates went job hunting, he chose instead to set up his own fashion line with two friends and a 3,000RMB bank balance. The brand started to build up its cult following by selling its now-defunct subbrand, Ze by Sankuanz, on Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao.

Zhe would later be dubbed the leader of the “Xiamen Gang,” a fashion wolf pack that renounced the grueling pace of life in China’s fashion capitals, preferring instead Xiamen’s independent spirit and laidback vibe. This congregation of fashion talent led trend experts to compare Xiamen’s fashion circle to the Antwerp Six in early ‘90s Europe.

Looks from Sankuanz SS20

Backed by GQ China, Zhe first presented his wearable brainchildren in 2015 at both London and Paris Fashion Week Mens. That very same year, the designer was named an LVMH Prize finalist.

Known in the early days for its sharp tailoring, Sankuanz has since integrated a more relaxed silhouette through oversized layering and tech-inspired, bordering astronautical apparel made from fabrics like aramid and transparent cuben fiber. Tendrils of Americana and the Wild West have also been creeping into Zhe’s collections — albeit with the Sankuanz treatment; think neon green chaps and fringed jackets.

sankuanz aw19 campaign models

Models wearing Sankuanz AW19

Back in China, the brand also earns its “cool kid” stripes by teaming up with a “who’s who” of visual artists and underground musicians, including multimedia artists Xu Zhen and aaajiao, rappers Doughboy and Bridge, and rocker Zuoxiao Zuzhou.

And like many of Zhe’s post-‘80s and ‘90s born peers, the brand has a bit of shoe crush, cashing in on China’s current sneaker craze with chunky, retro collabs with brands like Puma and adidas Originals that ooze Nickelodeon nostalgia and ‘90s nerd-chic. (Fitting, seeing as yesterday’s calculator crunchers are suddenly the “cool kids” of the day.)

Puma x Sankuanz SS19 (image: Puma)

In defining “cool,” we know that it’s not only ephemeral, but also prone to change; once the trend pendulum starts to swing the other direction, something on the pulse can suddenly feel dead in an instant. Yet Sankuanz — one of China’s most successful streetwear stories, seven years on — manages to do something remarkable: it flashes high-fashion credentials that still feel in touch with the ever-evolving Chinese underground.

Follow Sankuanz on Instagram.

Header: Puma x Sankuanz SS19 (image: Puma)
All images unless otherwise stated: courtesy Sankuanz

Elsbeth van Paridon
Sinologist Elsbeth van Paridon is an aficionada of fashion and urban culture. Deeply devoted to China’s urban underground scene, van Paridon also reports on trends in her own publications “The China Temper” and “China Under The Radar“.