Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.
An estimated 2 billion people – in Asia and beyond – will celebrate the Lunar New Year on February 1. For many, this means welcoming one of the Chinese zodiac’s 12 animals (this year, the tiger), their sequence following the order in which they finished the Jade Emperor’s folkloric Great Race, from rat to pig.
Astrologists claim that each creature heralds different fortunes for the months ahead. At the world’s major fashion houses, however, the drill remains the same each year: release animal-themed collections in the hunt for all-important Chinese shoppers.
For 2022, Burberry has rendered its signature monogram in beige and orange, giving trench coats, pleated skirts and woven jackets a sleek, tiger-like appearance. Kenzo’s capsule collection meanwhile includes a $565 windbreaker emblazoned with a fearsome tiger graphic. Even brands that traditionally eschew fleeting trends in the name of sustainability have joined in, with Stella McCartney releasing a pair of luxury striped bags.
These zodiac campaigns may now feel as much a part of the holidays in parts of China as wearing red or eating dumplings, but they are a relatively recent phenomenon. Last time the Year of the Tiger rolled around, in 2010, China accounted for just 12% of luxury spending. For high-end brands, the country was either an enigma or an afterthought – or both.
Prada was among the few luxury labels to experiment that year, vying for a slice of New Year spending with simple tiger-themed accessories, including tote bags, phone straps and key-holders. But the novelty Lunar New Year market was largely left to sportswear brands like Nike, Reebok and Converse, which all released tiger sneakers that year.
What a difference 12 years makes. With China expected to account for 40% of luxury spending by 2025, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the number of labels ignoring this annual business opportunity is now vanishingly small. And with holiday spending in China rising to 821 billion yuan ($128 billion) last Lunar New Year, who can blame them?
Annual shopping binge
Fun as they are, the resulting novelty fashion items are often unlikely to live beyond the annual cycle, drawing the ire of environmental critics who consider holiday shopping binges wasteful and unnecessary. Recent years have seen gimmicky and literal designs flourish – from a pig-shaped gold handbag to a sweater featuring New York’s infamous Pizza Rat and a pair of loafers plastered with cow heads.
This year’s collections, on the other hand, could enjoy a surprising degree of longevity.
After a succession of decidedly unglamorous animals – the pig, the rat and, last year, the ox – the rotating zodiac has finally landed on a more familiar muse. Big cat motifs were popular among fashion designers long before executives began chasing Chinese money, and brands appear very much at home with this year’s theme.
Take Italian label Valentino, which delved into its own history of tiger prints to produce a tasteful range based on one of its collections from the late 1960s (pictured top). Or Balenciaga, which stuck with classic items like track jackets and twist dresses, but simply reimagined them with black stripes on orange and taupe.
Of course, there was room for whimsical designs. Italian brand Marni has printed a charmingly child-like tiger doodle over sweaters and bags, and Moschino, as ever, looked to pop culture, this time bringing “everyone’s favorite childhood breakfast icon into the world of Italian luxury” (in other words: models dressed in Tony the Tiger caps, hoodies and T-shirts, diving into life-sized Frosted Flakes in campaign images). In a playful imagining, Gucci “invited” real-life tigers to an afternoon tea with its models, though some activists criticized the campaign for “glorifying” keeping wild animals in captivity. The Italian brand responded by saying that it supported an animal welfare charity and that the tigers had been superimposed onto its campaign imagery.
Others, however, took a more subtler approach. Salvatore Ferragamo, for example, invited Beijing-based artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu to create a striking bag inspired by traditional Chinese paintings. Meanwhile Prada – showing how far it has come from the basic accessories of 2010 – is using its understated campaign to raise awareness for the plight of real-life tigers, promising to donate money to the China Green Foundation’s conservation efforts.
Whether these designs are timeless enough to be worn when the tiger rears its head again in 2034 remains to be seen. But the animals’ standing in Chinese folklore may help.
Admired for its prowess and strength, the tiger is considered one of China’s favorite zodiac animals (second only, perhaps, to the dragon). Stripes on the creatures’ foreheads are said to resemble the written character “wang,” meaning “king,” and so they were often associated with power and royalty in ancient times. They have also been a common motif in Chinese art, design and even historical clothing, with “tiger-head” shoes – featuring toe caps decorated to resemble tigers – once widely worn by children to ward off evil spirits and protect from disease or misfortune.
As such, there’s a good chance this year’s holiday gifts will live a little longer in the wardrobe than recent efforts. The question, then, may be: Will 2023’s rabbit theme prompt a return to the cheesy, wasteful ways of old?
A tiger may not be able to change its stripes, but maybe fashion can.
Top image: A promotional image from Maison Valentino’s Lunar New Year collection.