China’s Independent Fashion Designers Break Free: A Glimpse From Shanghai Fashion Week

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Until March 2022, Shanghai had spent much of the “Covid years” largely without a lockdown. The international epidemics of 2020 had caused a massive return to the homeland. Chinese models and photographers flocked to China’s fashion and financial hub – never busier – as New York, London, Paris and Milan came to a standstill. Up-and-coming Chinese designers have brought their businesses home, followed closely by a wave of fashion graduates like Parsons and Central Saint Martins, who would otherwise have stayed abroad to intern at international houses. Shanghai’s fashion scene has never felt so vibrant.

“Shanghai, from a creative and design point of view, was booming. There were so many new brands popping up. Established Chinese designers were evolving and entering a new chapter. The city was really becoming this unique cultural center on the world stage,” says designer Ming Ma from his apartment in Shanghai, where he had been locked up. Last week he emerged from his apartment for the first time in 60 days. The first thing he did was cycle around the city for hours.

Indeed, as lockdowns swept through Shanghai after the Chinese New Year, Lü Xiaolei (Deputy General Secretary of the Shanghai Fashion Week Organizing Committee and affectionately known in local fashion circles as Madame Lü) and what should have been a jam-packed schedule of Chinese designer shows, found themselves at an impasse.

Construction was halted on the usual Shanghai Fashion Week Xintiandi show pavilion. Designers with overseas studios or manufacturers in other cities dropped their show pieces being made in Beijing, Guangzhou, London or New York. Those who had returned to town after vacation to shoot lookbooks and design ensembles ahead of their shows, either made hasty exits or locked themselves at home with their unfinished collections.

“Shanghai Fashion Week should have started on March 25 this season, but the Covid surge in Shanghai has tipped us into unprecedented times,” says Madame Lü. After delaying the launch for a week, then two weeks, then a month, it became clear that the offline celebration of Shanghai Fashion Week’s 20th anniversary wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. The call has gone out to move to the digital format of Fashion Week, now scheduled for mid-June, to give Madame Lü and her team enough time “to help designers succeed with sales plans and of marketing”; to give designers a rhythm to orchestrate sample production, fittings and remote shoots. The verdict is now in. Facing the greatest uncertainty the local industry has seen in years, Chinese independent designers delivered Shanghai’s strongest fashion season yet.

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