Pronounce, the Chinese fashion brand that subverts male stereotypes

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

The issue of masculinity – and the perceived threats to it – appears to be increasingly sensitive in China today. The country’s state broadcaster has moved to ban shows portraying “effeminate styles,” education officials have proposed ways to combat “feminization” in schools, and state media have denounced the “sickly aesthetic” that drives “gender ambiguous” young men to stardom.

For the co-founders of the Pronounce menswear brand, whose androgynous collections defy categorization, the headlines belie an emerging reality among the country’s youth. Indeed, Chinese-born Yushan Li and Jun Zhou see a “disconnect” between official attitudes and what is happening at ground level.

“The atmosphere on the Internet has become more and more conservative,” Li said over the phone from Shenzhen. “But we have returned to living in China since the beginning of Covid-19, connecting with a lot of young people, and it’s just a truly gender-fluid generation. People will eventually accept that.

“When I was young, there were also similar discussions,” he added. “Masculinity and the idea that boys have to be men: these arguments have always existed in our Asian culture.”

Although considered a menswear label, Pronounce often displays its gender-neutral designs on female models.

Although considered a menswear label, Pronounce often displays its gender-neutral designs on female models. Credit: Courtesy of Pronunciation

Pronounce may be widely considered a male brand – becoming, in 2019, the first Chinese label to stage a fashion show at Italy’s most prestigious menswear event, Pitti Uomo – but the couple don’t design with a specific demographic in mind. Instead, both male and female models are used to showcase their loose but structural creations, which were made to be worn by anyone “who is curious, loves new and desirable things, who wants to be confident,” she said. There.

Bridge worlds

In addition to its progressive attitude towards the genre, Pronounce’s appeal in Europe draws on the ability of its founders to bridge the aesthetic gap between East and West.

Having both studied in London before launching Pronounce in 2016, Zhou and Li founded their label between Shanghai and, before the pandemic hit, Milan. With Zhou drawn to the Italian tailoring heritage and Li more focused on Asian craftsmanship (“that’s why we have a lot of arguments,” the latter joked, “but ultimately we find a balance”), the couple have established a reputation for incorporating Chinese influences in their work.

The famous terracotta warriors are among the Chinese themes that Li and Zhou have incorporated into their designs.

The famous terracotta warriors are among the Chinese themes that Li and Zhou have incorporated into their designs. Credit: Courtesy of Pronunciation

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 the “Mao suits” widely worn in China after the country’s communist revolution in the late 1940s.

In their designs, the duo played with the proportions, lines and sleeve lengths of Mao dresses for subsequent collections. Versions came in pink with flared collars or embroidered with delicate gold threads. Other interpretations of the tunic have seen Li and Zhou use mesh fabric to reveal the models’ skin, or tighten garments at the waist before buttoning up with butterfly-shaped closures.

“We are really obsessed with Mao’s clothes,” Li said. “We think the people who wear them are really beautiful, really charming: the silhouette, the feel when they are worn, the really positive energy.”

A contemporary version of the

A contemporary version of the “Mao clothes” widely worn in China after the communist revolution. Credit: Courtesy of Pronunciation

Pronounce’s latest collection, digitally presented at London Fashion Week in February, embodies this approach. In a confusion of heavy wool overcoats, knee-high boots and animal horn accessories, looks inspired by Mongolian and Tibetan cultures appeared on screen against a backdrop of colorful patterned carpets.

Dubbed “Modern Nomads”, the project was informed by the robes and outerwear found on the Tibetan Plateau and the couple’s trip to Inner Mongolia, where most of the Chinese Mongolian ethnic 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 purchasing local fabrics as a reference, the designers gave their take on rugged, textured garments made to withstand harsh conditions.

An overcoat from the brand's new collection,

An overcoat from the new collection of the label, “Modern Nomads”. Credit: Courtesy of Pronunciation

By reinterpreting what they found in a gender-neutral style, the label’s founders hoped to play on Chinese stereotypes that connect nomadic cultures with typically masculine traits.

“Men are super strong, super tough,” Li said. “But we found that Mongolian women are really tough too. Even playing with young children, we saw that they had started (raising animals) and building houses. It’s beyond gender, beyond generation: it’s part of their DNA. of us living in cities, it’s so different and they have had a big impact on us. “

Avoiding clichés

In embracing visual languages, Pronounce’s challenge is, in part, to find Asian motifs that are familiar enough to resonate with global audiences without turning stereotypes.

“This is a topic we’ve been discussing since the beginning of our brand,” Li said. “How to get rid of clichés, or have our (take) on those really famous styles.”

For this reason, he added, the brand has avoided classic garments such as the qipao, the fitted dress widely associated with China in the Western imagination. “We haven’t been able to find a solution and we still don’t have (a unique interpretation) of that style,” Li said, “so we didn’t touch it.”

Pronounce's recent collaboration with Puma was inspired by the ancient Pumapunku temple complex in Bolivia.

Pronounce’s recent collaboration with Puma was inspired by the ancient Pumapunku temple complex in Bolivia. Credit: Puma

Nor does the brand want to pigeonhole itself, 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 involved the ancient Pumapunku temple complex in Bolivia.

“It’s not like, ‘We are Chinese designers, so we have to do this kind of style,'” Li said. “It’s more like we have really strong feelings about something, and then we have what comes out.”

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