Streetwear Brands Are Looking to Chinatown for Inspiration, But at What Cost?

A look at the difference between a tribute and appropriation.
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A look from Alexander Wang's "Collection 1" show. Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images

A look from Alexander Wang's "Collection 1" show. Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images

Four servers at Wo Hop, the 80-year-old below-ground noodle shop located at 17 Mott Street in New York City's Chinatown, huddled around my phone, heads bent down to peer into the screen. Displayed was a picture from Los Angeles-based brand Hubble's Instagram account that showcased its limited drop for the summer: a couple of now-sold out graphic tees with the Wo Hop logo stamped prominently across the back—a design that had been available for $90.

One of the servers — the first to recognize the branding — immediately pointed to the restaurant's takeout bags, which featured the same layout and the same font that was seen on the T-shirt. "That's not our shirt," another said, almost accusingly, as if by showing them the tee, I was somehow responsible for its existence. None of them had prior knowledge of the shirt or of the studio that had completely ripped off their shop's logo and printed it on a tee for profit. (Wo Hop actually sells its own souvenir design with a panda printed across the front; a request for a comment from Hubble was never returned.)

That's an extreme case of the movement that's currently underfoot, but it nevertheless speaks to the recent trend among streetwear labels and skate shops and their growing interest in Chinatown. Paying homage to the oldest enclave of Chinese immigrants in Manhattan is all well and good, but when does it cross over from being a sartorial tribute to straight-up appropriation? Or is there no point in making the differentiation if it's all harmful in the end?

In this year alone, a flood of brands spotlighted Chinatown in some way. Only NY, the SoHo-based New York-centric streetwear label, collaborated with Philadelphia's P's & Q's to launch a limited edition Chinatown bus-inspired tee. Similarly, Labor—a skate shop that has called Canal Street its home for the last six years — did the same with its own: a Labor Lucky Bus graphic tee, which nodded to the fact that the store used to be a Chinatown bus stop. And when Alexander Wang decided to do away with the fashion week schedule, he presented his "Collection 1" as a salute to his immigrant Taiwanese-American roots, featuring flannel pajama pants and shorts that read "Chinatown" down the leg. But perhaps the earliest — and most prominent — marker of this recent hypebeast-driven pull toward Chinatown started two years ago, when Mike Cherman founded Chinatown Market.

Even though it's in the name, it's important to note that Cherman didn't create his label to be about Chinatown. In all honesty, he says, the entire brand was created in less than four hours when a friend called him up to make bootleg shirts, like "Thank you have a nice day" and "Fuck you you fucking fuck" — all the classic Canal Street bootlegs that were iconic to him. Together, the two showed their designs, including a Frank Ocean-Nike Swoosh mash-up, at a free booth during ComplexCon. By the end of the day, they had sold everything. The Frank Ocean/Nike T-shirt would go on to net $45,000 in online sales in less than 24 hours. (He didn't get to keep the money; he was sued by Ocean for trademark infringement.) But that was when he knew he was onto something, that there was a market for remixing pop culture references. Still, there was the issue of the name.

"We got pushback from the beginning — by naming a brand Chinatown Market as a white male in America, it's not the right climate for anyone to start something like that," says Cherman, whose earliest memory of Chinatown were weekend trips into the city with his dad at 11 years old. "I've had conversations about changing the name because I'm not here trying to make a brand based off Chinese culture, but we had gone too far for me to change it. I can knowingly say, though, we're not out here doing anything malicious. I know what's true in my heart and I'm not going to do something that's disrespectful."

True to his word, he's walked away from collaborations that have suggested using stereotypical Chinese motifs. He's traveled to Asia and educated himself about different cultures in China, Korea, and Japan. And now, Chinatown Market has become a huge hit among hypebeasts in Asia, so much so that he's seen knock-offs of Chinatown Market pieces in China — an ironic twist for a brand whose origins began with bootleg merch.

When it comes to bootleg culture, it's hard not to draw parallels between Chinatown, a neighborhood notorious for peddling counterfeit goods, and the free-for-all attitude that's pervasive in streetwear. "You go to Chinatown, you know it's fake, and you buy it anyway. Streetwear is the same thing: People know the reference and they'll still buy it," says RaShaad Strong, keyholder at Only NY. "Streetwear is basically designs of fake brand logos."

It exists on a luxury level, too. You have Demna Gvasalia riffing on Bernie Sanders' campaign logo, Ikea's signature Frakta shopping bag, and DHL's signage for Vetements, and then there's Jeremy Scott who's earned a reputation for co-opting just about anything for either his namesake label or Moschino.

James Rewolinski, founder of Labor, traces it back to the early '90s, when skateboard brands would shamelessly subvert big-name branding, with the most famous being skateboarder Jason Lee, who remade the Burger King logo in his own name. "That happened for years in skateboarding, and I think it's trickled into other facets of design," he explains. "I'm not sure if it's exploitation — it might be partly because of shock value, and partly because they think it looks gritty, it looks cool, even if it's a direct rip."

But while there are knockoffs sold in Chinatown, Lexton Moy, a fourth-generation Chinese-American who grew up in Chinatown, is quick to point out that it has nothing to do with Chinese culture; to solely equate Chinatown with bootlegs is a misrepresentation — and a disrespectful one, at that — of what the neighborhood embodies.

"There's a level of coolness that surrounds knockoffs and illegal trade — it's law defying, it's underground," Moy muses. "But I wouldn't consider Chinatown to be the creator of that, and if you talk about Chinese culture as being that, it's infuriating." 

Be that as it may, the bootleg scene attracts tourists in much the same way that Chinatown’s "exotic otherness" continues to attract anyone who lives outside of its borders. It holds intrigue, it's been the backdrop of photo shoots, campaigns and lookbooks for years, and it's considered, by many, to be the last remaining touchstone of "real New York" that's somehow evaded gentrification.

"Chinatown is obviously an important part of New York — it's a big part of our culture, but it also has its own identity, its own design language," Strong says. "I think it's hard for Chinatown to be gentrified — you'd have to destroy the whole area and all the local businesses. When you're in Chinatown, you know you're there and when you leave, you know you're out of Chinatown. Not a lot of places in New York are like that."

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And yet, signs of gentrification are already visible. Diane Wong, community organizer and assistant professor at New York University who has studied Chinatowns for the past eight years, says the acceleration of gentrification can be pinpointed to post-9/11, when Mayor Bloomberg pushed for the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan.

"Chinatown is one of the closest neighborhoods in proximity to the World Trade Center towers; after 2001, we saw an uptick of government policies that encouraged development, like old garment factories being converted into multimillion dollar lofts, which has increased property values and the cost of living in the area," Wong says, calling out the onslaught of new galleries, upscale boutiques, and hotels in Chinatown. "There's the assumption that Chinatown is immune to changes — developers like to use the term, the 'last frontier'— but the reality is, it's not. Chinatown residents are now facing massive displacement and evictions." (My mother-in-law who grew up in Chinatown says her family's monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the '60s was $29; now, it runs upwards of $2,000.)

Victims of racism, oppression, and institutional barriers, earlier Chinese immigrants created Chinatown out of necessity, to "survive the economic, housing, and labor restrictions on both coasts," Wong explains. And now, for brands to capitalize on Chinatown-inspired iconography — and without permission — it poses major problems.

"These brands are profiting off of Chinatown and not necessarily even caring to learn more about the people and the places behind those images and the challenges that they're facing," Wong continues. "The question is to ask: What do they bring to the neighborhood besides rising rents? What do they give besides appropriating images and creating shirts that residents would never wear?"

She offers Moy's year-old clothing label CYNONYC as a shining example of a way to promote awareness without exploiting the neighborhood, especially since he was once a Chinatown resident himself.

"I created CYNONYC as a preservation of Chinatown, of what I knew and grew up with — it tells a story, an experience that, hopefully, people can connect with, rather than slapping another dumpling on a shirt," Moy says. Since he launched his brand, he's struck meaningful collaborations with three establishments that are important to the community: Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Wing On Wo & Co. and Pearl River Market.

All of this is not to say that no one outside of Chinatown is ever allowed to do anything remotely linked to the neighborhood. "But if brands are trying to understand the cultures that are involved, giving back to the community in some way, being a part of something rather than taking a piece of it, or shedding light on a cause that's important to people—like a Nike campaign — then that's pretty cool," Moy says. "Otherwise, how does it build Chinatown? It doesn't, really."

Unfortunately, there's not a lot that's building up Chinatown. But, Wong says, there are organizations, like CAAAV, The W.O.W. Project and the Chinatown Art Brigade, that are dedicated to resisting the gentrification — and ultimately, the destruction — of Chinatown and the eviction of its tenants.

"You can see Chinatown buildings being knocked down, and I can only imagine that in five to 10 years, there's not going to be any difference between uptown and downtown," Cherman says. "It's really sad to watch. Trust me, nothing of what I do is hoping that I'm contributing to that."

But it's not necessarily the buildings that are key to Chinatown's survival, Wong wants to remind us. It's the residents. "Some places in the neighborhood have stayed the same, but the people in the buildings are changing," she says. "At the end of the day, Chinatown is not Chinatown because of the buildings, but it's because of the people who live there."

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