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3 Aug 2023 / by Anouchka van Driel

China and the Cosmotechnics of Fashion: Interactive Fashion Weeks and the Rise of Independent Innovators

Six models are filmed on a phone at Shanghai Fashion Week. The phone is on the left of the image and held horizontally by a pair of hands. Through the screen, the models are seen standing in formation. Beyond the phone, a model wearing a short-sleeved black dress with a yellow flower design is seen from the chest up on the right of the image.

SOCIAL-WORK Spring/Summer 2022 fashion show at Shanghai Fashion Week presented by LABELHOOD, 2022. Photo courtesy of Anouchka van Driel

Anouchka van Driel, an M+ / Design Trust Research Fellow of 2021, investigates China’s fashion sector today and the changing dynamics between designers, users, and consumers through the mediated relationships of online platforms.

Fashion is a visual language and artistic practice continuously reshaped and redefined through social exchange. As technology becomes prominent in all aspects of contemporary life, especially as part of our social interaction, it enacts a significant influence on China’s fashion landscape today. Using Hong Kong philosopher Yuk Hui’s concept of ‘cosmotechnics’ as a lens to frame recent developments in China’s independent fashion sector, one can see how technology enables and mediates changing dynamics across key infrastructures of the industry and how these shifts affect the creation, marketing, and consumption of clothing.

Hui coins and defines ‘cosmotechnics’ as ‘the unification of the cosmic order and moral order through technical activities, whether craft-making or art-making’.[1] This idea of unification stems from Confucian philosophy, in which the order of the universe also has a moral dimension that extends to all spheres: heaven, the earth, and humanity. The integration of these realms is a fundamental characteristic of traditional Chinese thought that differs from Western philosophy.

Cosmotechnics is ‘the unification of the cosmic order and moral order through technical activities, whether craft-making or art-making’.

Yuk Hui, Cosmotechnics: For a Renewed Concept of Technology in the Anthropocene

In his work, Hui questions how modernity can be analysed from a non-European perspective by reflecting on the varieties of aesthetic and technological experience. As a phenomenon and an industry, fashion traverses aesthetics and technology and is inherently tied to time: the need for freshness, the desire for new commodities, and a logic based on ephemerality and transience. From a Euro-American-centric standpoint, which has been the dominant narrative, European modernity is where ‘the centre’ of ‘genuine’ fashion originates. The rest, or anything outside of this region, is considered peripheral. However, this narrative is breaking down to make way for a more pluralistic vision, one offered by a cosmotechnical framework that unravels new pathways of thinking about fashion.

China and the ‘Cosmotechnics’ of Fashion talk featuring Anouchka van Driel and Shaway Yeh, Group Style Editorial Director of Modern Media and founder of YehYehYeh. Moderated by Tanja Cunz, Associate Curator of Design and Architecture at M+.

Fashion is one of the core industries of China’s creative economy. It is strongly visual and plays an important part in a modern consumer society the government aspires to create. The industry has also undergone rapid development within a very short period of time. In just a quarter of a century, China shifted from heavy to light industries, then from textile to apparel production, and more recently to the establishment of creative fashion labels. While independent designer fashion grew relatively slowly in the early 2000s, the industry experienced a huge acceleration from 2010 onwards. This expansion has been driven by organic shifts like maturing consumer habits and the rise of China’s soft power, followed by infrastructural milestones like the growth of buyer stores and select shops (shops selling a curated selection of designer labels) and the prominence of social media and online platforms that democratise fashion.

Compared to the tradition of European couture houses, modern and contemporary fashion in China has been less focused on exclusivity and technology has driven access to new and further directions. Formally established in 2001, Shanghai Fashion Week is a key industry function and platform for independent labels. The biannual event grew from featuring only a handful of brands in the early 2000s to being an unmissable milestone on China’s fashion calendar, attracting over two hundred brands in 2020. Since its inception, it has firmly focused on Chinese brands. Shanghai Fashion Week is also the major driver of a more accessible and audience-focused model through livestreaming, a practice that influenced fashion weeks and events across China.

Three screenshots from Tmall Live are depicted in a row. The left image shows a female model wearing a blue jacket against a magenta background. The middle image shows three models showcasing different hat designs. The right image shows a staff member from a clothing shop fitting a female model in a white patterned shirt and green trousers.

Screenshots from Shanghai Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2020 online at Tmall Live featuring FFIXXED STUDIOS, THISNORTHAT, and Damo Wang, March 2020. Photos courtesy of Anouchka van Driel

These digital initiatives allow fashion shows and other fashion week events to reach much larger audiences while providing instant feedback and engagement, which are parallel to wider changes in society in terms of virtual access and participation. In the wake of the pandemic, fashion weeks around the world followed Shanghai’s move to produce online iterations, but more opted to livestream pre-made video productions, a practice that continues into the present. In contrast, the Chinese model livestreams the event itself, a user-facing approach that is more engaging, accessible, and highly decentralised. What follows is a democratisation of the fashion ecosystem in which creators, fans, buyers, and industry professionals can interact more freely.

Although these developments offer greater freedom and control for designers, they also raise questions about how designers can best navigate this new industrial framework. What do designers make of the industry’s development and what strategic assets can they leverage? In an age of hyperactive social networks, digital worlds, and e-commerce, in what ways does technology influence their practices? And how are they, in turn, influencing the development of emerging technologies? How do their practices deviate from the mainstream and what kinds of local factors are involved?

Six models present knitwear clothing by Nan Knits. The clothing comes in vibrant colours and evokes neon lights, bionic flowers, metal shields, and video game armour designs fused with Chinese ornamental motifs. The models pose as a group against a grey background, some with brightly dyed hair in yellow, orange, and red.

Neon Consciousness campaign image. Courtesy of Nan Knits

Founded in 2021, Nan Knits is an emerging independent designer brand and debuted its first collection Neon Consciousness for Shanghai Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2022. According to its brand statement, Nan Knits ‘explores the futuristic style in the context of Asian culture [and] tries to break the public’s stereotype of knitted garments through the innovation of technology and material application.[2] Through research and development and the use of yarn with innovative materials, it also aims to break the preconceived notion that knitwear is old-fashioned and crafty.

Created by Nan Hu, an avid post-90s gamer, the collection evokes visions of neon lights, bionic flowers, metal shields, and video game armour designs fused with Chinese ornamental motifs. These visual elements evoke a certain promise of the future, creating an aesthetic in which space and time overlap. Nan Knits is an interesting case in point with its rapid development and professionalisation enabled by technology and China’s unique platform infrastructure. At the same time, it seeks to redefine Chinese aesthetics vis-à-vis a global, virtual world.

A spread of a lookbook from Nan Knits featuring four garments: two tops, a skirt, and a one-piece. Two photos of female models presenting the garments on a runway are on the left and right sides of the spread.

Nan Knits Spring/Summer 2022 lookbook. Courtesy of Nan Knits

Nan Knits studio is located in Dongguan in Pearl River Delta, a region that has attracted a large number of foreign enterprises and promoted garment manufacturing since China’s reform and opening up. This is in part what attracted Nan to the region, but he also recounts his struggles establishing his studio. ‘For an emerging designer brand that focuses on knitwear, it’s not easy to find skilled professionals and factories that are in step with each other,’ he said.[3] Although he would prefer to locate his studio in Shenzhen where he now lives, Dongguan makes the most sense with available factories, infrastructure, and skilled labour. When setting up his studio, Nan was able to obtain the required machinery through a connection with an established local knitwear production company. He also obtained access to the company’s personnel during their pandemic layoffs and employed technicians to his studio.

Asked about his ambitions for the brand, Nan commented, ‘The future is full of possibilities and so is knitting. The process can take countless forms in different contexts and even in different hands, showing different features regardless of gender, race, and class restrictions.’[4] Since its debut, the brand has catapulted at the speed of a tech start-up. In the span of only a year, it has been signed for an incubation programme, created several more collections, and even launched a fully virtual clothing collection.

A digital iteration of two knitwear designs by Nan Knits. On the left is a grey-blue set with a thick long-sleeved sweater and a midi skirt with rectangular sections of fabric cut out at the back. The set is accentuated with red and yellow parts, with a filled heart design at the front of the skirt. On the right is a yellow set with a long-sleeved turtleneck with a red heart outline and a long skirt with a quilt-like design. The fabric is decorated in orange and blue.

Digital iterations of Nan Knits Autumn/Winter 2022 collection. Images courtesy of Nan Knits

Nan Knits’ growth reflects several factors at play today. Young Chinese designers can now conceive strategies that leverage the strong production base and technological know-how in their local regions and find ways to innovate within established systems. At the same time, with a growing fashion community, there are more opportunities for brands and budding designers to develop, allowing designers to mature at a much faster pace, build upon networks and existing insight, and nurture multiple labels through sales platforms and buyer stores.

The future is full of possibilities and so is knitting. The process can take countless forms in different contexts and even in different hands, showing different features regardless of gender, race, and class restrictions.

Nan Hu

From fashion weeks incorporating livestreaming and digital interactions to designers leveraging heritage and market power, China’s fashion industry is experiencing accelerated change and evolution. Technology serves as a mediator between traditional Chinese thought and contemporary industry, enmeshing cyber and history, and between our social fabric and the online realm. At the same time, different digital temporalities are emerging. Today, fashion in China provides an impetus to cultivate alternative kinds of technological thought and practice. From the case of Shanghai Fashion Week to the emergence of brands like Nan Knits, fashion uses technology in new ways but also reframes its usage, creating cracks in the fashion ecosystem that invite technodiversity and unique industrial phenomena. In turn, these emerging practices and circumstances influence how we view fashion and its apparatus and how it is framed and scheduled. It may be that the system can transform into something more pluralistic in nature, in line with a cosmic worldview, as we move beyond modernity and its consequences.

  1. 1.

    Yuk Hui, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2016).

  2. 2.

    Shanghai Fashion Week, ‘Nan Knits’, YouTube, 18 June 2022,, accessed 26 January 2023.

  3. 3.

    Nan Hu, interview by Anouchka van Driel, 7 February 2022.

  4. 4.

    Nan Hu, interview by Anouchka van Driel, 7 February 2022.

Anouchka van Driel
Anouchka van Driel
Anouchka van Driel

Anouchka van Driel is a curator, researcher, and innovation lead based in Beijing. She has been active in China’s creative sector for over a decade, collaborating with cultural organisations on curatorial projects. Van Driel also runs People’s Works, a platform for social innovation as part of the architecture studio People’s Architecture Office. Her research and curatorial projects focus on the social effects and implications of design across the disciplinary spectrum. Recent exhibitions include Social Design: Learning at Play (2019–20) with People’s Architecture Office, and the regenerative design exhibition Disruptive Matter (2020) for K11 in Hong Kong and Shenyang. She is an M+ / Design Trust Research Fellow of 2021.

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