China’s Independent Fashion Designers Are Breaking Free—A Preview of Shanghai Fashion Week

Until March of 2022, Shanghai had spent much of ‘The Covid Years’ largely lockdown-free. 2020’s international outbreaks had prompted a mass return to the Motherland. Chinese models and photographers flocked back to China’s fashion and financial hub—never busier—while New York, London, Paris, and Milan ground to a halt. Upcoming Chinese designers moved their businesses back home, closely followed by a wave of fashion graduates from the likes of Parsons and Central Saint Martins, who would otherwise have stayed overseas to intern with international houses. Shanghai’s fashion scene had never felt more alive.

“Shanghai, from a creative and design standpoint, 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 hub on a global stage,” says designer Ming Ma from his Shanghai apartment, where he had been locked down. Last week, he stepped out of his apartment compound for the first time in 60 days. The first thing he did was cycle around the city for hours.

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

Construction was halted on Shanghai Fashion Week’s usual Xintiandi show pavilion. Designers with studios abroad or makers in other cities jettisoned their work-in-progress show pieces back out to Beijing or Guangzhou, London or New York. Those who’d returned to the city from their holiday breaks to shoot lookbooks and design sets ahead of their shows, either made hasty exits or bunkered down with their unfinished collections at home.

“Shanghai Fashion Week should have kicked off on March 25 this season, but Shanghai’s Covid surge tipped us back into times,” says Madame Lü. After delaying launch by a week, then two weeks, then a month, it became clear that the offline celebration of Shanghai Fashion Week’s 20th year was not going to materialize any time soon. The call was made to pivot to a digital Fashion Week format—now slated for mid-June to give Madame Lü and her team sufficient time “to help set the designers up for success with sell-through and marketing plans”; to give designers a beat to orchestrate remote sample production, fittings, and shoots. Now the verdict is in. Faced with the most uncertainty the local industry has witnessed in years, China’s independent designers have delivered Shanghai’s strongest season of fashion to date.

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