Li Yuchun, also known as Chris Lee, is China’s biggest pop star but you might not have necessarily heard of her. So here is some context: the current darling of China’s dominant pop genre, Mandopop, Lee’s 2016 album, Growing Wild, outsold both Drake’s One Dance and Beyoncé’s Lemonade in the first 16 days of its release. In the same year, Lee (also known as Li Yuchun) signed a deal with L’Oréal, starred in two films and became an ambassador for Gucci, one of the world’s biggest fashion brands. And now, she has been named brand ambassador for Diesel. Not bad for someone you likely just had to Google.
But what is really significant about Lee – and this is by no means to diminish her album sales – is her style, musically and aesthetically. Because just as her music is heavy on electric basslines, rather than saccharine harmonies, her look is not typically pop star pretty, but androgynous. She has short, spiky hair, and a wardrobe full of Balenciaga-style, oversized mannish pieces and luxe sportswear, such as Gucci tracksuits, beanie hats and Nike trainers. In a world of bubblegum, manufactured pop – Lee found fame when she won China’s version of The X Factor, Super Girl, in 2005 – she is a very different kind of style icon.
Androgyny has become a key signifier of generation Y. From Celine to Off-White, it’s par for the course at fashion week to see a model with short hair in mannish tailoring in a womenswear show. Not so in China, until Lee rose to prominence and brought that aesthetic to the mainstream.
We meet in a cavernous event space in Beijing’s art district, where Lee is launching a capsule, gender neutral collection of ripped jeans, beanies and T-shirts for Diesel. Her pixie haircut is dyed pastel lilac and she is wearing pale blue ripped jeans, a ripped jacket, silver Nike Air Max 97’s, a Gucci tiger ring and matching tiger stud earrings. Lee is shy and softly spoken. She talks through a translator, although it is hard to hear either of them above the screams outside – a crowd has gathered in Biebermania fashion. A few clusters of teenage girls are inside the venue too, squealing in Lee’s direction, and all are wearing ripped jeans and tapered jogging bottoms: the “Lee effect” is apparent.
Lee talks animatedly about how Tilda Swinton and Rihanna are her style icons. She says that she has dressed in an androgynous way since childhood – her sartorial turning point occurred in the 90s, when she noticed that her mum and dad were both wearing the same leather bomber jacket. No one else’s parents did that. “Her mum encouraged her to try different styles, her dad was more traditional and wanted her to focus on her school work,” the translator says.
With a quietly confident air, Lee explains how she likes to “go against the traditional”, how she doesn’t see herself as a follower of trends and, more importantly, wants to puncture the concept of “perfection”. It’s refreshing talk from a pop star whose career is largely manufactured.
If anything, the appetite for Lee’s look among Chinese teenagers crystallises a movement that is taking place in fashion and beauty around the globe, with traditional notions of glamour and beauty being eclipsed by a yearning for authenticity and individuality. With influential brands such as Vetements and Yeezy favouring “normal”-looking, sometimes street-cast models with short, jagged haircuts, while creating clothes that are proportionally “off” and shoes that are chunky and heavy. Lee’s fashion influence confirms that, from Bolton to Beijing, fashion’s aspirations, and entire aesthetic, have changed.
Melanie Wilkinson travelled to Beijing with Diesel
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