China is the world’s biggest manufacturing hub, with the world’s most populous nation making everything from whitegoods to women’s underwear. If you can think of it, it’s made in China – although that label doesn’t always inspire confidence.
But generally speaking, when the Chinese want to do something properly, they do it right – think Moutai liquor or Hongqi limousines. As China continues to grow, domestic brands of all sorts are becoming increasingly competitive on a global stage – where Chinese brands were once imitators or following trends, they’re now creating trends.
One area in particular where Chinese brands are becoming dominant is that of sneakers.
Of course, foreign sportswear brands have long manufactured sneakers and apparel in China. Indeed, Nike was one of the first Western companies to start offshoring to the People’s Republic full stop, with Nike founder Phil Knight hailed as a pioneer for establishing a manufacturing presence there as early as the 80s, Highsnobiety relates. Other big players like Adidas, New Balance and Under Armour all also make clothes in China.
Now, in 2021, Chinese sneaker brands are becoming hot property in the West, including Australia.
The most prominent Chinese sneaker brand is easily Li-Ning. Founded by the successful Olympic gymnast of the same name, in recent years Li-Ning has become a hit among both athletes and sneakerheads, thanks to their highly unique, out-there designs.
Li-Ning first rose to prominence in the West after its eponymous founder lit the Olympic flame at the 2008 Beijing Olympics clothed head-to-toe in his brand. Then, Li-Ning caught the attention of basketball fans when it became the official partner of the Houston Rockets, home of former Chinese NBA sensation Yao Ming.
But Li-Ning’s real breakthrough was when they signed former Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade after his Jordan Brand contract expired in 2012 – a deal that’s perhaps rather emblematic of Li-Ning’s (and Chinese sportswear brands’) ascendancy. His signature sneaker line, the ‘Way of Wade’, has become a breakout success.
Li-Ning in many ways opened the door for other Chinese brands to make a splash outside of their home market, including brands like Peak, Xtep and Health.
It’s no surprise that Li-Ning and other Chinese brands’ growth is connected to basketball. Basketball, more than any other sport, has been instrumental in the success of many sneaker brands. The NBA, too, is increasingly popular in China. It all feeds back in on itself.
Now Chinese brands are looking beyond basketball and moving into other territories. Just last week, Li-Ning announced it’s teaming up with American pro skater Erik Ellington on their very first skateboarding line – skating, of course, being another fertile source of inspiration and success for sneaker brands.
Chinese sneaker brands are also increasingly jumping on the trend of brand and pop culture collaborations, something Western brands have been doing for yonks. Anime series are shaping up to be hot property – for example, Anta Sports’ and 361°’s Dragonball Z and Mobile Suit Gundam basketball sneakers, respectively.
It’s not just sneaker brands but Chinese sneaker boutiques that are becoming respected players in the sneaker game. Hong Kong’s CLOT and Xiamen’s Sankuanz are two standouts. Chinese fashion designers, too, are penning their own sneaker collaborations, like Feng Chen Wang with Converse.
In short, there’s a good chance that the next pair of trainers you buy might come from a Chinese brand.