BEIJING — The Chinese fashion social network P1.CN recently held an exhibition called The Great Style Leap.

Of six million photos in its database, the exhibition showcased several hundred images taken in Chinese cities — Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou — over the past six years, a sort of slide show of popular fashion evolution

The photos reflect Chinese street style over the last few years, but they also correspond perfectly to changes in Chinese consumer views about luxury apparel. 

Svante Jerling, the Swedish curator of the exhibition and P1.CN’s vice president, titled the show The Great Style Leap because of the way fashion in China has changed in recent years. When he first arrived in China, he found that it was difficult to spot people with style. Whereas today even ordinary people on the street demonstrate their unique flair for fashion — in particular, in hip districts such as Beijing’s Sanlitun and Shanghai’s Xintiandi.

Style photographers who work for websites and fashion magazines are constantly stationed on the street in Sanlitun's Taiguli Square. This place has become the platform for the Chinese capital’s fashionistas showing themselves off, perhaps precisely in the hopes of being spotted.

Street shooting was originally the Hollywood paparazzi’s way of uncovering the less glamorous side of a star’s life by exposing their off-screen personalities and how they wear casual clothes on the street. Paradoxically, the move led to giving celebrities their best opportunity for showing their real character. Many gained fans thanks to their personal good taste in clothing. The model Kate Moss and the American star Jessica Alba are two very good examples. Fashion brands in turn saw a business opportunity in this and began sending clothes and accessories to stars with the hope that they’d become product symbols.

The shades of fashion

Though taken just seven years ago, the set of photos from 2007 show an amusing idea of Chinese taste in fashion back then. Conspicuous logos were everywhere — even the combination of a checkered scarf from Burberry, a Louis Vuitton bag with a colorful pattern, and a Gucci belt. People believed the bigger the logo, the better. The best fashion was in everybody knowing that you wore status accessories.

In 2009, wealthy Chinese people began to care about whether their fashion choices were unique. But Louis Vuitton and Gucci remained favorites. Even modest white-collar workers could save a month’s salary and fulfill the dream of owning an affordable item from these brands.

By 2010, China’s female fashionistas had become infatuated with Hermès handbags. But many young fashion hounds also began looking for their own style, and street fashion was a blend of rock ’n’ roll and retro.

Making full use of accessories

For those who don’t have a bulging wallet but do have a strong sense of fashion, using accessories cleverly is a smart strategy. When haute couture handbags are out of financial reach, a strong and affordable accessory choice can still help someone stand out.

For example, it was popular Chinese singer Zhou Bichang who inspired the Chinese trend of black-rimmed glasses. By 2009, even a big film star such as Fan Bingbing was also showing up wearing them at airports. All of a sudden, whether it was exaggerated big rims or refined and thinly rimmed black glasses, all variations were fashionable. 

Other accessories were also “in,” although they were not as universally popular as the black-rimmed glasses. Bringing a pet along was one of them. Cycling has also been during the last couple of years. Though Beijing’s air is notoriously bad, its traffic jams are even worse. Many bicycle companies are taking the opportunity to promote their items, retro or trendy, and make their bicycles essential equipment for hipsters.

The uniqueness of China’s fashionista

Looking through the several hundred photos chosen for the exhibition, it is impossible to generalize China’s street fashion. There is not a single overall sensibility — such as simplicity in Paris or New York. Nor does it reflect neighboring Japan or Hong Kong, where black reigns.

China’s street fashion is, in fact, much bolder. Fluorescent colors, for example, are very popular. Meanwhile, when prints or mix-and-match become the designers’ new love, Beijing and Shanghai’s trendsetters are probably the first to catch the fashion. What’s clear is that the only rule of Chinese street fashion is to be as bold as possible.