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    Face of Chinese Chili Sauce Becomes Fashion Symbol in New York

    Hoodies with portraits of Lao Gan Ma’s founder are being sold at New York Fashion Week.
    Sep 12, 2018#fashion#food

    New York Fashion Week’s annual fall/winter collection had a surprising addition this season: a Chinese entrepreneur best known for her spicy sauce.

    Portraits of Tao Huabi, the founder of Lao Gan Ma chili sauce, were plastered on hoodies sold at fashion retailer Opening Ceremony’s Broadway store on Monday. The event was the part of the fashion week’s China Day promotion — a collaboration with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba that aims to put popular Chinese brands on an international stage.

    The hoodie is a fusion of signature Chinese sauce and essential American apparel, splashed with Tao’s vintage-looking portrait along with the Chinese characters for lao gan ma, or “Old Godmother,” emblazoned underneath. The right and left sleeves, respectively, show words “sauces queen” and the Chinese characters for “national diva.” The item is being sold in the U.S. throughout New York Fashion Week for $120, and at home it’s being given away as a surprise gift to customers who purchased Lao Gan Ma food products on Alibaba’s e-commerce website Tmall on China Day.

    Portraits of 71-year-old Tao have taken on new life as memes on the Chinese internet, where many netizens feel strongly nostalgic for the sauces that have delighted their taste buds for decades. Tao founded the Lao Gan Ma company in 1997, and has since expanded her business into a 7.5 billion yuan ($1.09 billion) empire. Today, her name is synonymous with brand itself, and her products are beloved by locals and foreigners alike.

    Chinese cuisine holds an important place on the American palate, with humble staples like jianbing and restaurant chains like Haidilao Hot Pot appealing to a broad swath of non-Chinese consumers. Now designers and clothing brands are jumping on the “Made in China” bandwagon: Sportswear company Li-Ning and fashion designer Chen Peng were among those invited to participate in the first China Day events during the men’s New York Fashion Week in February.

    This season, Tao’s chili sauce is one of several domestic brands invited by Alibaba to feature at New York Fashion Week. Others include a traditional Chinese medicine company, cosmetic brands, and a mineral water company. “China Day is an opportunity for us to enable some of China’s best up-and-coming designers and established brands to showcase their collections on a global stage,” Jessica Liu, president of Tmall Fashion, an Alibaba subsidiary, said in a press release last week.

    Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that on the hoodie’s sleeves, “national diva” appears in Chinese and “sauces queen” in English.

    Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

    (Header image: Jars of Lao Gan Ma chili sauce are displayed at a store in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Dec. 31, 2016. Lü Yi/VCG)