China Insight: How a New Generation of Chinese Designers Is Driving Sustainability

Since the lifting of all COVID-19 restrictions, the Chinese government has prioritized an economic recovery and consumption boost, implementing a series of preferential policies to support the fashion industry and drive consumption. To fully leverage the potential of this “Year of Consumption Boost,” fashion brands and retailers have been working hard to gain more market share. At the same time, a new generation of Chinese designers are committed to transforming the fashion consumption ecosystem through their unique approach to sustainability.

On May 6, which marks the beginning of summer in the Chinese calendar, the WWD China Fashion Lab on Changle Road, in the heart of Shanghai’s former French Concession, opened an exhibition featuring 12 of China’s leading sustainable fashion designers. The area, better known as “Jufuchang” (the blocks between Julu Road, Fumin Road and Changle Road), has over the last years become one of Shanghai’s trendiest neighborhoods.

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This is the second major exhibition to be held at WWD China’s Fashion Lab, which opened officially in late December with the exhibition “Tech(ae)sthetics.” The show explored the interconnection between technology, artistic expression and aesthetic perception and was held in cooperation with mobile phone giant Honor.

With the recovery of the physical economy, the “Jufuchang” quarter has been home to a series of events to support the local fashion industry, many of them with a strong focus on sustainability. When Chinese stand-up comedian Li Dan’s video riding a bike through the area went viral through a green cycling group, slogans like “say no to plastics” and “low-carbon travel” were hot topics on social media. With many other activities such as this, “going green” has become a major symbol on the streets of Shanghai.

There are numerous social and labor issues behind the growth in buying secondhand clothing and upcycling. In 2018, the recycling rate of used clothes worldwide was low, within China at only 0.1 percent. Now the global average recycling rate for used clothes has risen to around 15 percent, but in China it is still less than 10 percent. Last year, China’s Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology jointly issued guidelines titled “Implementation Opinions on Accelerating the Recycling of Used Textiles,” which said China aims to establish a recycling system for used textiles and raise the recycling rate to 25 percent by 2025.

While it is still a question how to meet this target, a new generation of designers is already working toward this goal with different approaches, ranging from inspirations from traditional Chinese culture to new technologies.

Take, for example, Feng Chen Wang, a Chinese-born, London-based menswear designer who looks for inspiration to her home in the mountains of Southern China’s Fujian Province. For centuries parents would visit 100 households to collect 100 pieces of fabric for the 100th day after the birth of a child and sew them together to make a patchwork garment, commonly known as “clothing from 100 families.”

Feng, who has collaborated with many international brands and recently has teamed with Estée Lauder to launch a makeup collection inspired by her Fujianese heritage, used this as inspiration for her fall 2023 collection, recycling fabrics from previous seasons and piecing them together in a sustainable and symbolic way.

Works like these, which express the concept of sustainability in terms of formal symbols and cultural connotations, are frequently seen in the exhibition “[re]Shaping Practices — Forward Thinking Design: 12 Fashion Designers x 12 Sustainable Narratives,” which was curated by WWD China cofounder Johannes Neubacher.

As Feng says, in the ancient villages of China, the clothes sewn out of 100 fabrics are a kind of emotional bond, behind which is humanity and community, and what the Chinese value most is the sustainability of this community and clan culture.

Small bamboo bag by Feng Chen Wang
Small bamboo bag by Feng Chen Wang

Sustainability as a social concept is also important for Zhang Na, known as “China’s leading designer in sustainable fashion,” who has been transforming used clothes throughout China into new fashion for the past 12 years. Since 2010, her Reclothing Bank has hired low-income migrant worker women, teaching them sewing skills and transforming used clothes discarded by residents of first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai to new garments, turning waste into sought-after fashion items.

Since 2014, Reclothing Bank has also been working with herdsmen in Tibetan areas on yak felting materials to support the local economy and improve the living conditions of local residents. In 2016, a fabric laboratory was set up to link up the industry chain and upgrade the recycling concepts, reclamation, design and sales processes with technological know how. Today, the lab has more than 1,000 types of recycled materials.

In front of the flagship store of the Reclothing Bank there is always a recycling bin that tells pedestrians who donate used clothes that these clothes will be “reborn” in the hands of the designers.

Recycling bins in front of the flagship store of Reclothing Bank.
Recycling bins in front of the flagship store of Reclothing Bank.

As a leading sustainable fashion lifestyle brand in China, Reclothing Bank has built a design system that uses art, design and technology and traditional arts and crafts to define the relationship between people and objects, forming a unique and complete closed-loop system of recycling, re-producing and re-selling, powered by the brand’s R&D lab.

Whether it’s inspirations like the “clothing from 100 families” or an R&D driven approach to redefining the fashion system, the creativity of this new generation of designers is all about a sustainable and far-reaching meaning. This goes beyond the narrow category of fashion and becomes representative of a new era in Chinese fashion.

Technology is also helping to drive innovations in sustainability. Pinghu, a provincial city in Zhejiang Province, with a population of only 700,000 people, produces more than 50 percent of China’s down garments, with annual shipments of more than 150 million pieces and annual sales of about $4.34 billion. In this legendary city, the production, distribution and design industries have employed more than 100,000 people.

William Shen, who launched his brand Christopher Raxxy only three years ago, marked his successful debut at Milan Fashion Week with his fall 2023 collection and received good reviews. For him as well, Chinese cultural traditions play an important part in his creative process. He applies traditional techniques — like bamboo weaving and traditional paper-cutting — with iconic visuals, such as the Great Wall, in the design of his high-end down jackets.

In this process, Shen, a trained mathematician, realized that the inheritance of intangible cultural heritage itself is a kind of differentiation advantage and a path to sustainability in an increasingly competitive fashion design industry. The use of the colorful paper-cutting sculpture process to achieve ways of creative expression through algorithms reduces the pollution caused by the traditional fashion printing processes.

Also a science student, Zhi Chen — known as “the color master chosen by Apple” — started from fiber material and knitting processes to make her fashion items and the production process sustainable at the same time. Judy Hua, the “architect in fashion industry,” uses recycled fiber as yarn material to create sculpture and architecture-like knitted works. Her work is a metaphor for the philosophy of “transcending geometry in geometry and escaping from fate in fate.” By combining fashionable aesthetics with humanistic introspection, she emphasizes “a decade of continuous design. In addition to the initial concept, the whole process is a sustainable practice, from design, R&D to production, and even transportation, her fashion tries to create a virtuous cycle.”

A work by Judy Hua.
A work by Judy Hua.

What is a real virtuous circle? Represented by Judy Hua, the new generation of Chinese designers is extremely ambitious about the industry’s entire process. The concept of “no waste” is implemented throughout the process of pattern design and mass production with the unavoidable remnants of fabrics made into interesting products or gifts. As part of this pursuit, they strive for zero inventory.

In addition, more and more designers have become the advocates of “high fashion.” They strive to create a piece of high-quality fashion that is almost like a piece of art with minimum carbon emissions. When the product is purchased, they hope it can be worn for ten years. “To make and purchase a piece of clothing that can be worn for ten years is in itself is environmentally friendly,” Hua said.

This new generation of designers is working hard to make fashion products speak for consumers, to create positive social impact, and even contribute to public issues. In today’s society, fashion is no longer simply to meet people’s basic needs. Just as fashion long ago moved away from the basic function attribute of covering the body to become an expression of the wearer’s aesthetic, personality and attitudes, Chinese consumers today are increasingly aware of the significance of streamlined consumption: every dollar spent is a vote for the world they want.

In this context, designers who want to create a better world through design are no longer just impressing people with their concepts. When more consumers and designers reach a consensus on sustainability, it will force more industry giants to start practicing sustainability, and the market will no longer need to pretend everything is going well.

Riding a bicycle through the “Jufuchang” quarter can contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions. Visiting the exhibition in Fashion Lab and experiencing the designers’ dedication to sustainability, from materials to every aspect of production, is paving the way for a more sustainable future. Fashion today is more than ever about shared values. “Sustainable fashion” has gradually gained momentum in Shanghai — it is no longer just the creative concept of designers and brands, but a mindset that penetrates the behavior and lifestyle of consumers.

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