CNN  — 

The topic of masculinity – and perceived threats to it – appears to be increasingly sensitive in today’s China. 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 has decried the “sickly aesthetics” that propel young “gender-ambiguous” men to stardom.

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

“The atmosphere on the internet has become more and more conservative,” Li said over the phone from Shenzhen. “But we’ve been back living in China since (the start of) Covid-19, connecting with a lot of young people, and it’s just a really gender-fluid generation. People are going to accept it eventually.”

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

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

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

Bridging worlds

As well as its progressive attitude to gender, Pronounce’s appeal in Europe draws from its founders’ ability to bridge the aesthetic divide between East and West.

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

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

Their Spring-Summer 2020 collection, for instance, saw images of the country’s iconic Terracotta Warriors printed on outsized turtlenecks and wide-legged jeans. But nods to their homeland are often subtler 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 has played with the proportions, lines and sleeve lengths of Mao suits for successive collections. Versions have come in pink with enlarged collars o