Shoes Are Still an Afterthought Among Chinese Designers, But There Are Signs of Hope

Over the last six years or so, Shanghai Fashion Week has been touted as Asia’s most exciting industry event. Its ambitions, observers said, have stacked it up against other up-and-coming fashion weeks around the globe: Copenhagen, Tbilisi, Lagos.

The hype has been mostly well-founded. Through the seasons, and as the world has increasingly turned its attention to China, SFW has become a remarkable stage to display homegrown Chinese talent. Some of the country’s most noteworthy designers — Angel Chen, Haizhen Wang, Uma Wang – have used it as a launch platform, and gone on to show at Milan, Paris, London. Every season, flocks of international buyers grace its front rows.

But as its spring ’20 edition wrapped up on Oct. 19, it seems the excitement phase hasn’t really morphed into something more concrete yet.

The 100-plus shows spread across different — inconveniently far — venues along the Huangpu River presented a robust roster of labels and individual designers. So did the several showroom and trade show venues all over the city, with over 1,000 brands on display. But overall, the event lacked consistent displays of creativity, playing it safe rather than offering truly interesting take outs.

Footwear, in particular, seemed to be more an afterthought than anything else. Little if any focus was put on it — most collections sent out models in very generic heels, flip-flops or trainers. (In contrast, the slew of sneakers worn by attendees to the shows proved way more interesting, confirming China’s still very strong obsession with athleisure and casual kicks.)

There were some notable exceptions, of course, particularly from the more seasoned designers in attendance, and some of its youngest, American- or European-educated darlings. The most audacious, internationally appealing presentations happened under the umbrella of Labelhood, an independent platform that curates more “indie,” boundary-pushing creatives.

There, design duo Liushu Lei and Yutong Jiang of Sushu/Tong had square-toe clunky ballerinas as the guiding thread for their looks — the whole collection was actually inspired by the 1948 film “The Red Shoes.” And Berlin-based, Chinese-Korean designer Ximon Lee, one of the most recognizable names in Chinese fashion today, unveiled his line alongside a collaboration with Reebok, with models wearing the new DMX Trail Hydrex sneaker model — a teaser for a bigger collaboration for fall ’20.

Sushu/Tong Spring 2020 Shanghai Fashion Week
Sushu/Tong spring 2020 runway show at Shanghai Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Courtesy
Ximon Lee Spring 2020 Shanghai Fashion Week
Ximon Lee spring 2020 runway show at Shanghai Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Courtesy

London-based Feng Chengwang teamed up with Converse for a second season to debut her own takes on the Chuck 70. Taking inspiration from the A-6 Pilot Winter Flying shoe, the classic sneaker featured extra leather panels running across the upper, resulting in a bulkier silhouette.

Men’s streetwear label Staff Only, also based in London, showed white sneakers, elevated with black side and upper panels (the brand is another one to have released a shoe capsule collaboration with a sports brand recently, for the 70th anniversary of Japanese Onitsuka Tiger, though it didn’t present it at SFW). Meanwhile Shanghai-based Yingpei Studio played with white, black or gray slides adorned with lace or voluminous fabric foot straps. Both shoe displays were basic, but showed aesthetic consistency and high commercial appeal.

Staff Only Spring 2020 Shanghai Fashion Week
Staff Only spring 2020 runway show at Shanghai Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Courtesy
Yingpei Studio Spring 2020 Shanghai Fashion Week
Yingpei Studio spring 2020 runway show at Shanghai Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Courtesy

Among the other designers that put some effort in presenting head-to-toe thought-out outfits, color, patterns and elaborate embellishments seemed to be the most recurring motifs, as well as low, sometimes kitten heels.

Leaf Xia Studio, the brainchild of Parsons graduate Leaf Xia, showed whimsical, pastel-hued sandals and stretchy ankle boots, embellished with layers of lace, pearls and flowers, to match her print-heavy “The New Tang Dynasty Collection,” which imagined a present-day girl traveling through time and history.

Leaf Xia Spring 2020 Shanghai Fashion Week
Leaf Xia spring 2020 runway show at Shanghai Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Courtesy

Shuting Qiu, a recent graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium — and “one to watch” since her debut at New York Fashion Week via the Vfiles showcase last year — crafted block heels and boots in the same rich floral patterns of her eclectic, gender-fluid clothes, to create a bright camouflage effect.

Chen Zhi of knitwear label I Am Chen, too, played with details, paring pointy suede flats with straps made of pearls, and white kicks with colored laces, to match the vibrancy of the collection’s Mondrian-esque looks. Again, simple, but well put together.

I Am Chen Spring 2020 Shanghai Fashion Week
I Am Chen spring 2020 runway show at Shanghai Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Courtesy

Overall, the most accomplished examples of footwear were the ones that seemed to best reflect the tastes and narratives of today’s fasting changing young consumers: sneakers, flats, fanciful, statement-type heels that stay short and sweet.

There was nothing ground-breaking, though, and nothing we haven’t seen before, but it is a sign that the most promising Chinese designers are vying to present fully executed collections, showcasing both their visions and, as importantly, market-awareness. Still coming-of-age, but slowly stepping into adulthood.

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