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Picture from V&A’s Landmark ‘Africa Fashion’ Exhibition. Photography JUERGEN TELLER.

The surge of China’s global power has caught the interest of the general public, policymakers and scholars alike, often focalized in discussions about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – the Chinese government’s ambitious global development strategy. The nation’s cultural and creative industries (CCI) have been at the top of the Chinese government’s strategic development agenda to export its cultural power to the world, playing a crucial role in promoting “neonationalism” (Fung 2016), “strengthen[ing] socialist spiritual civilisation” (Zhang 2016: 108), and bringing forth a collective “Chinese dream” of national realisation (Keane 2016). As part of CCI, fashion is recognised as a significant cultural and economic force globally. Yet, fashion studies remain ethnocentric to the point of systematically ignoring, mistaking, and excluding those fashion circuits and consumption practices of billions of people in the Global South that do not operate via “the West” or seek legitimacy from it (Baizerman et al. 1993). Although there has been a growing body of research into inter-cultural fashion exchanges and influences (e.g. Aspers and Godart 2013; Crane and Bovone 2006; Ling and Segre-Reinach 2018; Rabine 2002; Sylvanus 2016), most relate Asian or African fashions to Western norms and power dynamics, not to each other (Bhachu 2004; Hendrickson 1996; Hansen 2000; Rovine 2015; Tarlo 1996; Zhao 2013). Rabine (2002) first proposed a new model of informal linkages between the Global South that remain un-influenced by the West, along which fashion travels directly between what she calls “peripheries”. These “peripheral” South-South interactions rely on different circuits of goods and knowledge, and commercial and aesthetic exchange (Haugen 2018; Maclean 2019). These interactions, reinforced by the BRI, are key to understanding how fashionability is created, circulated and consumed in Chinese-African cross-national contexts, generating a unique form of cultural and economic power arguably independent of Western spheres (Allman 2004; Jansen and Craik 2016; Maclean 2019).

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African traders buying clothes at a wholesale mall in Xiaobei, Guangzhou. Photography Gwenn Dubourthoumieu, CNN

In 2023, seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies will be located in Sub-Saharan Africa (International Monetary Fund 2021). African consumer expenditures are expected to rise to US$2.5 trillion by 2030, double the level of 2015 (Signé 2018). Although the biggest spending increases will be in the sector of fast-moving consumer goods, the consumption of clothing and footwear on the African continent is growing rapidly too (Signé 2018). Meanwhile, the largest fashion producer in the world is now China, accounting for 47% of the world’s textile output in 2017 (McKinsey&Company and Business of Fashion 2018). However, non-Western costumes and styles from Asia, Africa or Latin America are typically perceived as lacking the cultural achievement and individual creativity that constitutes “Western” fashion (Craik 1994; Hansen 2004); they are often described as folk, primitive, tribal, exotic or ethnic, or are orientalised, exoticised and reduced to “ethnic chic” (Bhachu 2004; Clark 2000; Steele and Major 1999; Tarlo 1996), becoming a “mere currency in the [Western] fashion system” (Chan 2000). Africa’s long history of creative adaptations and cross-cultural fertilisation is downplayed (Fair 2004; Hansen 2004; Rabine 2002; Rovine 2015), even its consumers are stereotyped as passive and traditional (Niessen et al. 2003). Moreover, scholars often focus on high fashion (Finnane 2007; Steele and Major 1999), disregarding how foreign cultures and their aesthetics also influence ordinary fashion practices “in all directions, across class lines, between urban and rural areas, and around the globe” (Hansen 2004: 372).

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ChinaFashion Power asks: How is China’s global power exercised and negotiated through the Chinese-African networks and social interactions involved in the production, trade, retailing and consumption of ordinaryfashion, and what are the entailed meanings and forms of creativity, authenticity, cultural mediation, and consumer agency? These networks became especially relevant in 2013, when the Chinese government introduced the contested BRI. Initially promoted as a revival of ancient trade routes, it now includes 140 countries all over the world. While predominantly met with suspicion in the West, the initiative is perceived more favourably in the lower- and middle-income countries of the Global South, which seem to be the true target of China’s politico-economic and international relations strategies (Arase 2021). In the past years, a frenzy of BRI-related, highly visible Chinese infrastructure and construction projects on the African continent has raised concerns about the influence of China on African governments and economies particularly. Since 2020, there are also signs of further Chinese dominance of global manufacturing during the COVID-19 pandemic (Hessler 2021). Has China successfully become a neo-coloniser exporting both its cultural and economic power to the world based on the country’s neonationalist, soft power building agenda? Or has China become a white knight who enables South-South cooperation, leading to co-dependent economic growth and cultural exchange and a more egalitarian world? What other impacts has China’s new global power created across the South? Existing scholarship largely focuses on how China’s hardware and software development, infrastructural expansion and Confucius Institutes can achieve China’s ambitions abroad. Yet, how China’s power is manifested, negotiated or resisted in people’s daily life in a South-South, cross-national setting remains underresearched and ndertheorized. There is an urgent need to more fully analyse China’s new global power structure and expansion in order to understand its actual economic, political, social, cultural, and affective impacts. Adopting a multi-methodology, the PI and his team will analyse the multifarious interactions and negotiations taking place along the full length of fashion value chains in a purely South-South context. Following what the PI theorises as Global Souths Value Chains (GSVC) enables close analysis of how Chinese fashion destined for Africa is inspired by several cultures, co-designed and produced in the largest African trading community in China (Guangdong), and then traded for everyday consumption to two different African markets (Nairobi and Maputo) under peculiar legal and politico-economic conditions. Building on the PI’s research expertise in fashion/cultural production and consumption in Hong Kong, China, South Korea and Eastern Africa (e.g. Tse 2015; Tse and Tsang 2018; Tse et al. 2020), this project analyses the situated geopolitical and sociocultural factors shaping creativity, authenticity, cultural mediation, and consumer agency in a completely Southern context while focusing on how power is exercised in and through everyday fashion (clothing, fabrics, and footwear) instead of high fashion practices. Seeing China as “an important source of inspiration for theory building and theory rebuilding” (Fang 2012: 46), this project will remap China’s global power structure in light of the co-development of Chinese and Eastern African fashion industries, and discern their variegated impacts upon the social, cultural, economic and affective lives of Eastern African consumers.

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