Trend Spotting

By Viva Goldner (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-01-21 09:08


American Nels Frye says China's fashion industry has inspired him to experiment more with his personal style. Photo Courtesy Of Nels Frye 

When American Nels Frye first took on the cyber identity, Stylites, he had little inkling his blog would become a barometer of Beijing style, keenly watched by marketing professionals and others monitoring consumption trends in the world's hottest economy.

While Frye's finger is firmly on the pulse of young China, it was not initially the objective for this trend watcher, who arrived in the capital in 2005 to work for American merchant banking firm, Kamsky Associates Inc.

Then, Frye had seen himself as having something in common with the Christian ascetic, St Simeon Stylites, a Syrian monk who lived in isolation on top of a pillar in ancient times. Named after this religious figure, Frye's blog, Stylites in Beijing (, was originally a platform for personal musings, but evolved as a broader commentary on fashion and local street style.

"It turns out that works very well, because most people just assume the website's name is derived from 'style'. Actually, I was kind of feeling hermetic here in Beijing, like a bit of an ascetic myself," the 26-year-old Massachusetts native says.

Today, of course, there is nothing about Frye's lifestyle that brings to mind a hermit. During working hours, the University of Chicago history graduate works with Kamsky as an investment consultant assisting multinational companies with market entry strategies.

On weekends, he takes to the streets with his camera in search of Beijing's hip, young things. Regular haunts include busy malls such as Xidan, Oriental Plaza and Jianwai SOHO, the eclectic Nanluoguxiang and Gulou Dajie downtown strips, the expat haunt of Sanlitun, and Houhai Lake. Frye's photos are posted online, with comments on the subjects' threads of choice, while a selection of pictures are also published by the monthly local listings magazine, That's Beijing.

Stylites in Beijing echoes the format of the popular fashion blog, The Sartorialist, although Frye is quick to draw distinctions between his platform and the New York site launched in 2005 by Scott Schuman, who was last year named one of Time magazine's Top 100 Influences in Fashion and Design.

"Mine uses his as a model to some extent, (but) Beijing isn't a place that you would call a fashion leader. His has the most stylish people in the world, which is not what I'm doing. Mine is more anthropological, in the sense that I am documenting the development of personal expression here through style," Frye says.

"A lot of people tell me that the people I am photographing aren't that stylish but my response is these are people that are at least trying to be stylish, and that are catching my eye.

"I'd also like to expand the profile aspect - how these people buy and spend, how they think. The ideal is for the website to be a resource for people in the fashion industry and people who are interested in tapping into this incredible marketing industry that is just starting to hunger as China becomes more and more a consumer economy," he says.

Frye cites the broader social aspects of increasing urbanization, Internet and foreign media penetration, and more opportunities for residents to study or work abroad as key drivers of China's fashion market.

More specifically, he notes the emergence of youth subcultures, such as hip-hop, skateboarding and gay liberation. The diversification of the local entertainment scene is also impacting the growth of the fashion industry, Frye says. While a night out for most Chinese youth once entailed visiting a restaurant or karaoke bar, today's nightlife and professional networking events are varied, and socialites are increasingly dressing to impress.

China Daily meets Frye on a Sunday afternoon in the small tailor shop that is his joint venture with Chinese business partner, Sen Li, a Shanghai-trained designer.

Apologizing for being late, Frye smoothes his dark blue corduroy suit (created by Sen Li) and adjusts the pink-and-purple polka dot scarf tied at his neck. He wears a bright, blue sweater over a collared shirt with floral print, and pink-and-white striped socks peeking out from brown brogues. The look is finished with a peaked, brown cap - which Frye says he added because he was due for a haircut.

While admitting to being "a pretty vain person", Frye says his fashion obsession was something of a recent development, having emerged in the last three or four years. A longtime devotee of thrift-store chic, the "clean slate" of China's fashion industry has inspired him to experiment more with his personal style.

"Probably if I were to be in the West I wouldn't be a very stylish person. With people in China, there is not much of a knowledge of rules if they don't care, why should I?" Frye says.

"I think Beijing people, or those that I have photographed, have a distinct style, and they want to be fashionable, not just buy the latest brands and follow. (But) it is hard with the products that are available here to have a look that is both distinct and tasteful."

Locally, there is a gulf for youth seeking fashion options between stores selling cheap, mass-produced clothing and high-end foreign brands. Much of Frye's own wardrobe is either custom-made or sourced overseas, from consignment stores or through eBay.

"I had been very anxious to get nice clothing made, and in that process I have pretty much used every tailor in Beijing," he says.

Frye was a client of tailor Sen's before the two formed their business collaboration.

"He wants to do something that is different from the others," Frye says of his partner's style.

Frye's broader interest in China backdates his focus on its fashions. A student of the Chinese language since high school, he says his curiosity about the country was sparked by a video game based on Luo Guanzhong's classic historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Today, though, his eye is firmly on the future. "The thing I am most focused on is the trend-watching," Frye says.

New influences in local fashion include Korean and English styles. Military-inspired garments and natural colors are becoming more predominant, while growing environmental awareness among youth is spurring an eco-fashion movement.

(China Daily 01/21/2008 page10)

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