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5 Key Takeaways From Shanghai Fashion Week AW21

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One of the few live in-person fashion weeks anywhere in the world right now, Shanghai Fashion Week AW21 was slightly postponed due to worries around the pandemic, but has ultimately been in full force the past few days, with shows taking place across the city.

As China’s biggest and most prominent fashion week, SFW made a glitzy comeback after scoring a “worldwide first” with a fully online version last year.

RADII was runway-side throughout Shanghai Fashion Week AW21 — and here’s what we learned…

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PRIVATE POLICY at SFW AW21 (photo by Siyuan Meng)

Chinese Designers are Getting Seriously Playful

Not just with their clothes — that’s been the case for a while now — but with their shows as well. Sure, there were still a few run-of-the-mill runway walks, but in amongst them were unconventional runway presentations including a staged dance performance, a stylized commemoration of Transcontinental Railroad workers, and even an Anna May Wong-themed immersive theater experience from Angel Chen.

Themed “Fly Me to the Moon,” fabric qorn‘s noteworthy showcase had came with a nondescript set up of an old-school airline lounge complete with metal benches for waiting passengers. In the brand’s typical nostalgia-laden style, the new season reimagined the aesthetics of China’s socialist era.

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YUEQI QI at SFW AW21 (photo by Siyuan Meng)

Many labels made full use of the spaces secured for this season’s SFW, which included Tank, an art gallery space set in converted oil tanks beside the Huangpu River. YINGPEI STUDIO’s show took particular advantage of this architecture, by placing two giant clock-like spinning metal pointers at the center, where models followed its movement. Louis Shengtao Chen, meanwhile, featured a circular riptide animation in the middle of the runway.

In addition to these artistic approaches, there was also a strong lean toward deeper “Made in China” elements. No, not Xinjiang cotton (although T-shirts with messages in support of using it were present at a Mark Fairwhale show in the first day), but instead creative and interesting interpretations of Chinese literature and traditional culture. Hanfu was also present — more on that below.

There was a Focus on Eco Credentials

It’s no secret that the fashion industry has a serious problem when it comes to its environmental impact, but SFW has been trying to work in more eco-conscious elements for a number of years now.

Related:

Meet the Designer Whose Upcycled Garments Dazzled Shanghai Fashion Week

According to the organizers, 40% of this season’s participants were “eco-conscious labels” (though it’s unclear precisely what the criteria were here), while SFW announced its first ever sustainable fashion ambassador, snagging one of the country’s most famous ecommerce livestreamers Li Jiaqi for the role.

It Ain’t Paris or Milan — Yet

Shanghai Fashion Week is an exciting place for up-and-coming designers in particular, but it still lacks some of the commercial know-how to really kick on to the next level. And this year — perhaps understandably — it felt quite inward-looking and lacked a fully international feel (a notable exception being Dior’s spectacular show).

On our visits, several onlookers remarked that some of the showcases felt more like design school graduation shows than real attempts to break into the global fashion business. There was little to no information about the brands available surrounding the shows and it felt like many participants were focused on getting those front-row seats rather than really observing the designs on the runway or learning about the brands behind them.

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Lu Yan at the COMME MOI show (photo by Siyuan Meng)

Added to that was the fact that a lot of the glamor seemed to be happening away from the main SFW events. Yes, there were appearances from the likes of supermodel-turned-designer Lu Yan, but things felt a little overshadowed by events such as Li-Ning’s star-studded non-SFW affair, attended by celebrities such as Xiao Zhan and Akini Jing.

It All Felt Very Accessible

Okay, so maybe it’s not quite like an elite European fashion week just yet, but that means SFW also doesn’t feel as snootily exclusive.

Labelhood shows — which as ever, provided many of the highlights of the whole event — had two sessions, one for media and professionals, the other one open to the public. This is in contrast to major international fashion weeks, which are all limited to people who have invitations.

Hanfu Isn’t Going Away Any Time Soon

Waiting in line at the shows, one couldn’t help but notice how much Hanfu was present among attendees. And not just costume-y Ming Dynasty apparel, but chic blazers in Chinese patterned silk and updated mens robes in modern materials, like brightly colored poplin. Is it possible that China will become like Japan where the fashion set are known to wear traditional kimonos as well as Dior, Gucci, and other top brands? Or is Hanfu just another trend, like punk or color blocking? It must be noted that no one sporting Hanfu appeared above the age of 30.

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Hanfu at SFW AW21 (photo by Greg Young)

Less pervasive were people dressing up for particular shows. Yet for the Shushu/Tong showcase in particular, a lot of the audience came with bows in their hair and jeweled headbands as well as wearing clothes by the label. These were real die-hard fans, which was great to see for one of China’s most interesting labels.

Related:

China Designers: Girlhood, Interrupted with Shushu/Tong

For lots more highlights from Shanghai Fashion Week AW21, head to RADII’s Instagram Stories.

Reporting by Elaine Chow, Mavis Lee, Siyuan Meng, Greg Young and Lu Zhao

Cover photo: Shie Lyu at SFW AW21 by Siyuan Meng

RADII Staff
RADII (rā'dē-ī') is an independent platform of artists, writers and creators dedicated to sharing vibrant stories from the rarely explored sides of new China.