The topic of masculinity – and perceived threats to it – seems to be more and more sensitive in today’s China. The country’s state broadcaster has decided to ban shows featuring “girlish styles“, education officials have propose ways to fight “feminization” in schools and state media decried the “morbid aesthetic” that propels “ambiguous” young men to stardom.
For the co-founders of menswear brand Pronounce, whose androgynous collections defy categorization, the headlines belie an emerging reality among the country’s youth. In fact, Chinese-born Yushan Li and Jun Zhou see a “disconnect” between official attitudes and what is happening on the ground.
“The atmosphere on the Internet has become more and more conservative,” Li said by phone from Shenzhen. “But we came back to live in China from (the beginning of) Covid-19, connecting with a lot of young people, and it’s just a really gender fluid generation. People will eventually accept it.
“When I was young, similar discussions were also taking place,” he added. “Masculinity and the idea that boys should be men – these topics have always existed in our Asian culture.”
Pronounce may be widely seen as a men’s brand – even becoming, in 2019, the first Chinese brand to stage a show at Italy’s most prestigious menswear event, Pitti Uomo – but the pair don’t design with a specific demographic group in mind. Instead, both male and female models are used to showcase their loose yet structural designs, which were designed to be worn by anyone “who is curious, who likes new and desirable things, who wants to be confident”, a said Li.
Connect the worlds
In addition to its progressive attitude towards the genre, Pronounce’s appeal in Europe stems from its founders’ ability to bridge the aesthetic gap between East and West.
Having both studied in London before launching Pronounce in 2016, Zhou and Li based their headquarters between Shanghai and – before the pandemic hit – Milan. With Zhou drawn to Italian tailoring heritage and Li more focused on Asian craftsmanship (“that’s why we have a lot of arguments,” the latter joked, “but we find a balance at the end of the day”), the pair have established a reputation for incorporating Chinese influences into their work.
Their Spring/Summer 2020 collection, for example, saw images of the country’s iconic terracotta warriors printed on oversized turtlenecks and wide leg jeans. But nods to their homeland are often more subtle and expressed through shapes, patterns or materials, from woven bamboo vests to modern iterations of “Mao suits” widely worn in China after the communist revolution of country in the late 1940s.
In their creations, the duo played with the proportions, lines and sleeve lengths of Mao suits for successive collections. Versions are available in pink with widened collars or embroidered with delicate gold threads. Other renditions of the tunic have seen Li and Zhou use fishnet fabric to reveal models’ skin, or cinch garments at the waist before buttoning them with butterfly-shaped fasteners.
“We’re really obsessed with Mao suits,” Li said. “We think the people wearing them are really beautiful, really charming — the silhouette, the feel when they’re worn, the really positive energy.”
Pronounce’s latest collection, digitally unveiled at London Fashion Week in February, embodies this approach. In a blur of thick woolen overcoats, knee-high boots and animal horn accessories, looks inspired by Mongolian and Tibetan cultures burst onto the screen against a backdrop of colorful patterned rugs.
Dubbed “Modern Nomads,” the project was informed by dresses and outerwear found on the Tibetan Plateau, and the couple’s trip to Inner Mongolia, where most of China’s ethnic Mongolian minority live (the visit of Mongolia itself, or Tibet, was excluded due to pandemic-era travel restrictions, Li said). After spending time with the region’s nomadic communities and acquiring local textiles for reference, the designers put their own spin on rugged, textured garments designed to withstand harsh conditions.
By reinterpreting what they found in a gender-neutral style, the label’s founders hoped to play on Chinese stereotypes that associate nomadic cultures with typically masculine traits.
“The men are super strong, super tough,” Li said. “But we found that the Mongolian women are also very tough. ) and building houses. It’s across gender, across generations – it’s part of their DNA. For those of us who live in cities, it’s so different, and they have had such an impact on us.”
In spanning visual languages, Pronounce’s challenge is, in part, to find Asian motifs that are familiar enough to resonate with a global audience without veering into stereotypes.
“It’s something we’ve discussed since the beginning of our brand,” Li said. “How do we get rid of the clichés, or get our own (take) on those really famous styles.”
For this reason, he added, the brand eschewed classic garments like the qipao, the form-fitting dress widely associated with China in the Western imagination. “We couldn’t find a solution and don’t have (a unique interpretation) of this style yet,” Li said, “so we didn’t touch it.”
The brand doesn’t want to pigeonhole itself either, as Li and Zhou look beyond China for inspiration. Pronounce’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection, for example, was based on the couple’s trip to flower markets in India, while a recent collaboration with Puma turned to the ancient Pumapunku temple complex in Bolivia.
“It’s not like, ‘We’re Chinese designers, so we have to do this kind of style,'” Li said. “It’s more that we have really strong feelings about something, and then we bring them out.”
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