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2021-10-19 10:04:15

SHANGHAI — Sultry Virgin’s runway show looked like no other: A female model in dreadlocks and green laced-up bralette, holding a cocktail glass, walked across a room complete with a poolside décor, including pool boys. She then took one of the beach chairs and sat to watch her colleagues flaunt the remaining collection.

Titled “The Fem Beach,” the show marked the debut for Sultry Virgin at Shanghai Fashion Week, which concluded Oct. 16. The label’s co-founders Wang Qiuge and Xu Yan say their brand is built on the vision of defying the male gaze and to encourage “women to do what they want and wear what they want.”

“For us, it’s not about opposition to the gender binary — there is no hostility toward men — we just want girls to be proud of who they are,” Wang told Sixth Tone before their show on Oct. 12.

“I certainly think that our brand’s response to the rise of female consciousness shares the same roots with other platforms and social media accounts that speak to the subject, but the awakening mostly comes from ourselves,” added Xu, who identifies as a member of the LGBT community.

A previous collection by Studio Copula that merges elements of pearls and weapons as symbols of femininity and masculinity. Courtesy of Studio Copula

A previous collection by Studio Copula that merges elements of pearls and weapons as symbols of femininity and masculinity. Courtesy of Studio Copula

Sultry Virgin was among several up-and-coming labels at Shanghai Fashion Week’s Spring/Summer 2022 shows to explore gender expressions and challenge the preconceived notions of gender and sexuality in their designs. The new breed of Chinese designers aim to continue, and elevate, the global trend of gender-bending fashion at home.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see Sultry Virgin’s new collection,” Jacky Chen, the founder of Voguing Shanghai, told Sixth Tone. “I don’t recall seeing any brands discussing gender issues before 2019. (Designers) these days are certainly more daring and eager to express themselves.”

Alongside Sultry Virgin, multiple newfound labels such as Ponder.er and Group Therapy showcased their designs with renewed definitions of masculinity, while Anno Mundi and Do Not Tag included unisex elements in their collections. The fresh labels follow the likes of internationally acclaimed Chinese designer Zhou Rui who recently co-won the prestigious LVMH Karl Lagerfeld Special Jury Prize for her genderless label, Rui.

But behind the glitz and glamor, the designers’ collection and their urge for self-expression are inspired by their painful childhood experiences. Alex Po and Derek Cheng, the creative duo behind the gender-fluid brand Ponder.er, who met while studying in London, said they both faced discrimination while growing up in Hong Kong for not fitting the masculine image prescribed by society.

“My dad, who was very traditional, always thought I was too weak growing up and wanted me to train at Shaolin Temple,” Po said, referring to the birthplace of Shaolin kung fu.

“Alex and I are soft males, and we think there are a lot of breakthroughs to be made in the menswear category,” Cheng told Sixth Tone, adding that a school teacher once told his mother her son excelled in everything, but wasn’t “man enough.” 

Looks from the latest collection by Sultry Virgin. Courtesy of Sultry Virgin

Looks from the latest collection by Sultry Virgin. Courtesy of Sultry Virgin

The designer duo said that Ponder.er’s new collection is titled “Love for Speed” defies traditional definitions of masculinity forced on young boys and men. In recent years, though more and more Chinese celebrities have shown their “softer sides,” both the authorities and online trolls have attacked them for being “sissy men.”

“Many men haven’t been encouraged to accept or express their soft side — that’s the central idea of our brand,” Cheng said.

But it’s not just clothes that are blurring the lines of gender identity. More men are now adorning accessories such as earrings — previously blurred on select TV shows — and other items once largely reserved for women to express their personal style.

Liu Chubai, co-founder of accessories brand Studio Copula, said their sleek and futuristic ring, bracelet, and necklace designs are helping to overthrow the aged notion of gendered accessories. The jewelry designer, who attended one of the exhibitions during fashion week, told Sixth Tone that “the boundaries between genders will be increasingly blurred in the future.”

And while that future may have already arrived in bigger cities, where clothes from labels such as Sultry Virgin are available, its creators believe it may take longer for them to reach smaller, more conservative markets. Some designers and fashion critics say that a domestic industry unafraid to embrace new ideas can eventually help shift mindsets among the masses, making society more tolerant of people’s clothing choices.

“Fashion can break the stereotypes of people’s styles and what they should wear, and bring more fun to their lives,” Dai Moli, a blogger and fashion critic, told Sixth Tone. “However, fashion can only reflect changes in a part of the society but not all because it’s essentially a business that holds consumption as its main goal.”

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Left and right: Ponder.er Spring/Summer 2022 collection “Love for Speed.” Courtesy of Yan Yufeng & COSMO TEAM; center: Jacky Chen (middle) attends Didu show. Courtesy of Jacky Chen)