Super Taste with Sporty and Metropolitan Berber Embroideries
Made in China but bearing English text, ubiquitous garments spotted across the globe feature texts and aphorisms which appear to be mistranslations from some obscure fashion manual. These phrases connote trendiness but exist as intriguing nonsense. Brand names and major cities abound—Proenza Schouler, New York, Paris—alongside the lesser-known Tofyo, Zondon, Cnanel, while pop lyrics and celebrities run the gamut of widely recognized (William Shakespeare, Allen Ginsberg) to the eccentrically misprinted misfit (Andy Warnol, Carfield). Hallmark sayings are interwoven with military slang, and then there are long strings of gibberish curbed by mysterious numbers and dates claiming alleged typologies and histories. The prerogative of fashion, as Caroline Busta writes, has always been that of “metabolizing the surplus of one’s environment.” Indeed, the manic mash-ups of realms and registers often read as poems distilled from the detritus of consumerism.
China has long been known for its vibrant counterfeit culture. The “World’s Factory” produces iPhones, Uniqlo and Gucci, but also Pardo, Muimui and Diro. “Copycat” or shanzhai brands are at once cause for law disputes and labor concerns as well as demonstrative of recent trends in China’s growing domestic market. In flagrant disregard of the concepts of authorship and originality which underpin Western brand worship, a new breed of designers has emerged as masterful manipulators of fashion rhetoric, skilled at subverting the ceaseless barrage of contemporary signifiers. This cacophony of copies has a flattening effect whereby logos are reduced to interchangeable images and words become patterns rather than text.
The French theorist Roland Barthes, in his ruminations on fashion, distinguishes the real garment from its visual and metaphysical counterparts. Referring specifically to magazine spreads, he notes two versions of the garment: the plastic “image-clothing” presented as a photo or drawing, and the corresponding verbal description, the “written garment.” These two forms of garment-being at once complement and contradict one another, and stand jointly in contrast to the real. Chinese shanzhai garments conflate the real, written and plastic where the written is no longer an ancillary description, but adorns the actual garment front and center. Text is thereby transformed into image, rendering it plastic. Often, a plain white t-shirt will bear a description that clearly contradicts its form:
midnight technical double faced wool jacket
midnight silk jersey v neck knit
midnight double laced wool embossed pocket wrap skirt
black tumbled calf ankle strap metal hell pump
Other times, design details and instructions are themselves the adornment, as when a t-shirt simply says “insert your text here.” The result is a cloth in whose wildly disjunctive nature lies a certain honesty about the space between the real garment and the fantasy it offers.
While it is difficult to determine with certainty the design process, manufacturing conditions and intentionality behind these items, the poetic juxtapositions are likely generated by some combination of computer search engines, translation programs and the work of anonymous designers. The rampant peculiarities of phrasing and spelling could be due to errors in translation, transcription and typing or deliberate changes in avoidance of copyright violation. At the same time, they also reflect purposeful design choices, statements and humor, using the surface as a site to carve out creative agency within the schema of commodity, and often looking towards parody.
The skilled shanzhai designer responds to market wants with an acute cultural barometer, composing and selecting phrases they predict will effectively speak to the wearer while appealing to current style. An internet search for the words “London,” “Paris,” or “New York” paired with “luxury,” “fashion” or “fantasy,” for example, may yield plentiful results for the designer, who then enters and alters the found text into flattering layouts. The misplaced and abrupt line breaks that form new words, syntax and grammar can be attributed to these design choices. A consumer might recognize global fashion meccas, or else simply delight in hefty type. The effect is simulacral; it wears the shape of fantasy but offers:
YILIAN IN NEW YORK
SESR SP & CASUAL PAINT CAME LAND
WERE CVXZOH FGBDASWBYCAIUR
Nostalgic design, restorean
cient ways, embodiesthe
essence of western culture.
Cheaply made, the shanzhai garment exudes a tone of glamour, extravagance, and quality—everything which it physically lacks. A landscape of false equivalencies is revealed: the exaggerated language of longing and luxury suggests a degradation of material. The louder the garment speaks, the more likely it is to unravel and warp soon after its first washing. A surface-level sheen makes visible the deceit of the counterfeit (its pasted-on words are sure to peel off) and yet it also beckons and glints:
IS IN MY DAYTO FIND YOU SHINE AWAY
TODAY I’LL BE COMING FOR YOUR LOVE OK
TAAWAYS STAY WITH ME
Fashion is a commodity, fashion is shine. On the surface, commodities appear incorruptibly smooth, making promises whose fulfillment hovers just beyond grasp. Shine in Chinese—閃亮 (shǎn liang)—is made up of 閃(flash) and 亮 (bright), describing a glare that is both illuminating and distracting. In these garment texts, shine is often made literal, emblazoned in shimmering alphabets. As Tom Holert and others suggest in e-flux’s recent editorial on the “Politics of Shine,” shine mobilizes desire while obscuring its origins; its dazzling quality at once attracts and deflects attention. If shininess is to render invisible the mechanisms of capitalist production, “mistakes” reveal a certain agency, the labor or gesture of the human hand:
however you want to describe
the trend, its time to shine.
of course glitzy, red-carpet
worthy gowns are eternally
but now the dirty-metallic daytime looks seen
atbalmain and proenza schouler feel just as
desirable see the trend on the catwalk
with the eestive season fast approaching. look to stella
Where shine exists as a material quality, gloss refers both to the material and the action by which a dull thing is made to appear shiny. An investigation of the term ‘gloss’ points to its contradictions as a substance and method: as superficial as it is revealing. To gloss over is to make attractive or acceptable by deception or superficial treatment, while to offer a gloss on something means to perform an exegesis, implying a degree of knowledge. Physically speaking, to gloss means simply to smooth over, to apply a layer of something that glistens. And gloss is often attended by the ulterior, something hidden by the sheen. It is the cover-up that calls for closer inspection.
Shanzhai garments are glossy in multiple senses of the word. A glossary of gloss, the t-shirt text at once compiles unintelligible words, offers explanations, defines the terms of Western fashion, and attempts to smooth over the incongruities. This nonsense language often recalls the phenomenon of glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” To read these texts is to grasp after meaning, stumbling to make sense of the sounds. The shanzhai lyric speaks through mangled references and so pushes forth unthought shapes:
By writing outside of language norms, t-shirt text destabilizes standardized English and enables an experience of immediate encounter with unforeseen relations, between words and between the cultures that espouse them. Creolization, as poet and theorist Edouard Glissant writes, “creates a relationship on an egalitarian footing and, for the first time, between convergent histories.” Shanzhai language is a literary ecology of mixing that similarly has the potential to upset hierarchies:
MAY I THANK YOU NEED AN
KNOCK—DOWN DRAG OUT
I GOT TO MAKE MYSELF A LATITUDE ADJECTIVE
WITH ON WITHOUT
Hybrid composition opens up a space between seemingly incompatible (or unexpectedly compatible) systems. Conceptual “stuttering,” as fashion and art collective Bernadette Corporation might call the repeated letters, misspellings and redundancies, is a way of “inserting a break, or a pause, or a disruption into the usual unquestioned flow of things in order to make space for reflection and questioning.” Shanzhai text, therefore, might be included in the discourse surrounding the strategic use of language as a mode of resistance, as a subversion (through reappropriation) of Western cultural imperialism. By misreading the grammar of consumerism one might gain access to a deterritorialized space, shifting the angle of shine towards the insights of interlingual gleam. By evading translation, these phrases defy homogenizing attempts to gloss over irregularity and difference. Speaking in the language of surfaces, shanzhai text employs the strategy of shine to challenge its own claims. In its opacity, it defends complexity, eluding the smoothness of easy understanding.
To engage with shanzhai writing is to encounter an English which reads the contributions of a non-native body of text not as error-ridden and aspirational, but rather as its own rich mode of communicating. Shanzhai language reflects thought fragmented by form, information overload, chatter and collision, the intertwined industries and languages of production. If “shan liang” is shiny then these shanzhai texts are a sort of “shan lingo,” which guides the gaze towards a nonsense language of fashion signifiers:
THE CLOCK TOWER
FASHION TREND CONTINUES
CHOOSE DIFFERENT DESIGN STYLE
COAST TO COAST TRIP
CARRYING AIR MAIL
MAY & 1932
The curiously revelatory quality of this text lies in its astute reflections on a contemporary world that is defined largely by consumerist longings. And yet, these garbled aphorisms confuse the salesmanship of their content, complicating the use of language as simply a tool for exchange and an act of giving and receiving information. Glossolalia, as Emily Apter writes, “bars access to translation and posits a non-signifying model of communicability against the grain of language’s inherent profit driven motive.” In its unbridled alteration of words and insertion of nonsense into standard speech, shanzhai text, while undeniably a for-profit enterprise, evinces alternative markets and values. The shanzhai text is born of collective method. Translated—or transmuted—texts, having become hybrid and allusory forms, enter a shared domain: their artful slogans “belong fully to no one.” Authorship askew, a shared voice cries out, one that demands and enables the redistribution of capital.
That shanzhai manufacturers have found ways to skirt the system of copyright and manufacturing regulations exhibits a resourcefulness that is key to navigating a rapidly shifting economy and new world production order. “Systeme D,” a shorthand first observed in French-speaking Africa’s bustling underground economy, describes a particular strain of adeptness at responding quickly to challenges while getting a job done. Shanzhai culture participates in this ad hoc and inventive industry, and in fact has an origin story embedded in Chinese history. In his influential explanation, author Yu Hua writes, “‘Copycat’ (shanzhai) originally denoted a mountain hamlet protected by a stockade or other fortifications; later it acquired an extended meaning as a hinterland area, home to the poor. It was also a name once given to the lairs of outlaws and bandits, and the word has continued to have connotations of freedom from official control.” Shanzhai text exhibits this sense of freedom and defiance that emerges from the margins and seizes the tools of the powerful for its own means:
CREATE THE TUN
If we trace the Made in China tee back to its manufacturing origins, Western notions of authenticity and its accompanying value immediately begin to unravel. The bootleg and the original are commonly manufactured in the very same factory, using the same slightly altered blueprints. But in recent years, economists and business strategists have ushered in an “Era of Quality” for China. Companies are being trained to shift their attitudes away from traditional production models, to distance themselves from the “faster, cheaper” reputation and associated “copycatting” techniques. The Chinese E-commerce enterprise Alibaba, which formerly turned a blind eye to counterfeit items and services, in the past year announced measures to inhibit the sale of overtly fake goods following a series of lawsuits from luxury brands. Despite all this, small business owners continue to invent ways to produce and evade copyright laws while internet sites such as Taobao and even Amazon enable such practices to go on uninhibited.
The counterfeit industry is a mass aggregator of appropriation poetics and its particular take on production offers an experience of estrangement in a world so inundated by branding, defamiliarizing the language of advertisement so we take a closer look at that which our gaze typically glosses over. The shanzhai garment composes its own lyric, it waxes nostalgic but doesn’t shy away from unknown futures. It takes back language from the teeth of marketing and coerced desire. We ought to listen, even if we can’t quite make sense of it. The counterfeit glosses over and on, speaking through surfaces. It says: