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This article originally appeared on our sister site, Jing Daily.

Key Takeaways

  • Since gaining popularity in 2018, Hanfu — a blanket term for traditional or tradition-inspired clothing — has become a major market trend of 400 million, predominantly young consumers. 
  • Post-’80s and post-’90s generations enjoy Hanfu as a playful means of self-expression that connects with Chinese traditions. In turn, Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and Hanfu-specific hashtag pages on social media reflect and propel the trend. 
  • The rise of Hanfu is part of a broader phenomenon in which young Chinese are increasingly engaged with China’s history and traditions, something the country’s cultural institutions are benefitting from not only in increased onsite attendance, but through creating products that balance traditional aesthetics and modern tastes, including items of Hanfu clothing themselves. 

During the last few years, young Chinese have elevated Hanfu — traditional Han Chinese costumes — from a niche hobby to a generation’s tool of cultural expression while transforming it into a consumer market of 400 million people. Driven by a mix of rising nationalism, savvy local branding, and KOL-propelled hype, the rise of Hanfu is a telling example of what young Chinese consumers want from brands today — an acknowledgment of their cultural heritage and a post-hegemonic attitude to style making.

According to Alibaba, over 20 million people bought Hanfu last year on the shopping site Taobao. In July 2019, Alibaba launched its Gutao App, a social platform dedicated to Hanfu shopping to meet the skyrocketing consumer interests. Shisanyu, a DTC Hanfu label founded in 2016, climbed atop the site’s 10-best-selling brands list last year and is now worth 16-million-dollars.

Gen-Z China’s passion for Hanfu has also turned this trend from just an internet phenomenon into one of the hottest cultural themes in the country. At the SS21 Shanghai Fashion Week last year, Hanfu shows were scheduled as a central part of the events. Since 2018, the annual Hanfu festival in Xitang has seen more than a hundred thousand visitors flock to it each year to meet fellow enthusiasts and scout for new trends.

Hanfu

A Hanfu show from SS2021 Shanghai Fashion Week. Image: Weibo

Yet despite Hanfu’s mega-success in young China, few international brands in luxury and fashion have started participating in this trend.

There are real reasons that brands have shied away. First, Hanfu is a cultural-specific costume. As such, Hanfu’s aesthetic dissonance and sartorial difference from Western fashions are difficult for brands to incorporate into designs meant for a global audience. Second, as consumer boycotts accusing brands of “cultural appropriation” becomes more frequent in the industry, brands may want to avoid getting themselves involved in a high-stakes subject due to cancel-culture fears.

As irrelevant or difficult as the Hanfu trend may appear to luxury and fashion brands, it still offers precious insights into the industry’s most coveted consumer segment: young, affluent Chinese Gen Zers that take pride in their cultural heritage. The rise of Hanfu signals a shift in how they are defining what is cool and how they construct their self-image in a country increasingly resistant to Western cultural power.

The trend of blending traditional Chinese elements like Hanfu into one’s daily fashion routine is surely here to stay among China’s youth. On Gen Zers’ favorite social platforms, Bilibili and Douyin, KOL content like “everyday Hanfu guides” and “genderless, streetwear Hanfu” have gained traction, as more and more youngsters match Hanfu pieces with Balenciaga sneakers and Supreme hoodies. Travel vlogs with titles like “Wearing Hanfu in Rome/London,” where young bloggers make Hanfu their uniform in Western tourist destinations, have also become a popular genre.

Hanfu trend

“Genderless Hanfu Lookbook,” a story from Bilibili blogger @Li YiRu. Image: Bilibili

Referred as “汉洋折衷”(the middle way between Chinese and Western styles) in the Hanfu community, this term perfectly sums up the new golden formula of looking cool for young China today: pairing traditional Chinese culture with a bit of Western flair — and add a lot of swag.

@喵爷碎碎念, a Hanfu KOL on Bilibili, told Jing Daily that consumers are expecting more modern, well-made Hanfu over the next few years. “[Consumers expect] designs that could better suit a modern lifestyle without losing respect for Hanfu’s traditional forms. And as young people gain more knowledge about Hanfu over the years, they will become more sophisticated and demanding,” she said. The historical accuracy of the pattern-making, the craftsmanship of the embroideries, and the hours of artisanal labors spent are all important metrics in evaluating a Hanfu’s quality.

Aside from the increasing role of heritage-inspired styles in Gen Zer fashion routines, the rise of Hanfu also signifies their interest in traditional Chinese culture as a whole. On Chinese Tiktok (Douyin), the hashtag #hanfu is a mega-trend page with over 300 million views. But Hanfu fashion content is only a small part of that. The bulk of this trend consists of posts about traditional cultural hobbies people practice while wearing Hanfu, such as martial arts or finger dances.

Hanfu KOLs have therefore expanded content from Hanfu fashion to a full-scale revival of Chinese traditions. @Shiyin, who appeared on the cover of US Vogue‘s March issue as the poster child for China’s Hanfu movement, has been busy launching a video series called “What is luxury” to demonstrate Chinese luxury traditions pre-Louis-Vuitton. @Gu Xiaosi, another major Hanfu KOL, pivoted her usual Hanfu beauty content to introductory videos about Chinese tea ceremonies and art history.

For many young Chinese, wearing Hanfu has served as a potent gesture that reminds them of their cultural identity and inspires them to delve deeper into that heritage. Necessarily, this heightened cultural awareness will raise the bar for international brands wanting to launch Hanfu-inspired or China-inspired products.

“I think it is a good thing for Western brands to participate in and promote Hanfu culture. After all, Chinese luxury culture is reflected in Hanfu-making, where precious fabrics like gambier Guangdong silk and cloud brocade are often used. But brands would need to have an in-depth understanding of Hanfu culture first, not simply put out some Han elements and use them as a marketing tool,” said Hanfu KOL @喵爷碎碎念.

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When the Hanfu craze first burst into sight in 2018, most international news stories viewed the trend as a symbol of young China’s surging cultural confidence. Three years later, not only did the trend refuse to dwindle, but now it is hitting the masses and has grown stronger than ever.

For brands, Hanfu’s enduring appeal has broader implications than proof of China’s growing pride. Instead, it suggests that what China’s young generation wants is a sense of agency. They want to wear something according to their own traditions, outside consolidated Western beauty standards. Their resistance to homogenization, not a politically fueled patriotism, lies at the heart of Gen Z’s attraction to Hanfu.

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