Sneaker brands in China must look beyond the Guochao craze
Ask any sneakerhead in China, and chances are their style vocabulary was ruled by world-famous names like Nike, Off-White and Yeezy – until a few years ago, of course.
“When I started collecting sneakers in the early 2010s, all the buzz was about the big names in the industry like Nike and Adidas. The idea of collecting sneakers from Chinese brands didn’t exist,” said Mengyi Xia, a 28-year-old sneakerhead based in the southeast city of Xiamen, said: “Until now, most sneaker launches by Chinese brands have been knockoffs of international sneaker hits. They don’t literally plagiarize the design, but they follow what global brands do, for example to imitate a particular shape,” Xia continued.
Things started to change around 2020 when the pandemic caused young Chinese consumers to turn to comfortable shoes and Guochao, or patriotic consumption. The first Chinese sneaker to hit Xia’s radar was Nike’s Chinese acupuncture-inspired Air Max 1 collaboration with CLOT, the HK-based streetwear brand founded by Edison Chen and Kevin Poon. “It was big news among us sneakerheads, but it was a rare example. Then, over the past couple of years, there’s been a boom in collaborations with Chinese design names,” Xia added.
The lucrative growth potential of the Chinese market has sparked not only a craze for collaboration, but also the rise of tech players in the space. Poisona Chinese analogue of the US sneaker market StockX, had around 100 million monthly active users in 2021, and local research firm iiMedia predicts that the Chinese sneaker market will reach $30 billion by 2025.
With the rise of Guochao, domestic enterprises quickly seized the opportunity. In 2018, local sportswear giant Li-Ning made its global debut during New York and Paris Fashion Weeks to launch its sneaker line. Meanwhile, brand rival Anta Group has acquired a host of established international names like Fila, Salomon and Descente to enhance the group’s footwear portfolio.
Heritage-inspired elements were the first things brands tapped into to win over China’s increasingly patriotic youth. Since 2018, Li-Ning has been designing sneakers inspired by Zen philosophy, Yin Yang and Shan Shui, a style of Chinese landscape painting. Similarly, Anta launched sneakers emblazoned with designs such as the traditional Chinese symbol of luck, Koi fish, terracotta army, Beijing Palace Museum and zongzi, a traditional Chinese sticky rice dumpling.
All over the world, sneakers have become a way for shoppers to express their personal style. In China, this sense of identity is inseparable from national pride. According to a recent report According to the 21 Century Institute of Economic Research, 43% of post-1995 generation respondents said they have a strong preference for international brands that collaborate with domestic companies, over those that do not.
“Sneakers were historically popular among black American communities, and they saw sneakers as a way to leave a unique mark on mainstream culture. Today, younger generations in China are trying to do the same. They want to show they are proud of their Chinese identity with sneakers,” said Shanghai-based sneaker merchandising manager Ricki Cai.
But Yang Xin, a former sneaker designer for Anta Group, cautions against treating these heritage-inspired designs and patterns as a panacea. “The core of sneaker culture is subcultures, not identity politics,” Yang said. Daily Jing.
“The reason why Chinese sneakers have taken off in recent years is [thanks to] nationalist discourse. Suddenly, every brand is making sneakers with dragons, signs of ancient monuments, and all sorts of traditional symbols. But that doesn’t actually create a culture around the product. From my perspective, this trend of Guochao sneakers relying on Chinese national pride seems a bit empty, and it probably won’t last long,” Yang explained.
As the Chinese streetwear market matures and sneakerheads become more sophisticated, brands mimicking Western trends or applying traditional Chinese motifs to designs will fall behind. To keep up with changing consumer tastes, a new wave of local sneaker brands are focusing on quirky design and subculture-inspired cultural imprints.
Equalizer, a sneaker brand founded in 2021, is part of this cohort. The brand has gained a niche but loyal following by collaborating with Chinese independent music artists. Meanwhile, Melting Sadness, a streetwear brand founded in 2016, features street art themes in its sneaker collections. In 2020, the brand collaborated with Adidas to release a line of pop-color sneakers that are still selling for around 40% above their original value on the resale market.
For international brands, collaborating with local niche labels has also proven to be a clever way to attract local sneakerheads. In 2019, Vans launched a capsule with four Chinese streetwear names: Attempt, Myge, Randomevent and Roaringwild. In 2022, American sneaker house Saucony also conducted a collaboration with Costs, a Shenzhen-based sneaker store.
Although these streetwear names are not as recognized among traditional Chinese consumers as Nike and Adidas, they provide a targeted path to loyal buyers in the segment. The goal is to create an aura of niche, quirky style, not just salable merchandise.
For international and national brands, generating winning media moments will separate the winners from the laggards. “The real power of today’s sneaker industry lies in its cultural impact,” Yang Xin said. “No brand has been able to create iconic moments like Michael Jordan’s Nike jumps in China so far. And no capsule collection or limited-edition style could even come close.