Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Street Style Beijing: My Conversation with Nels Frye of Stylites


Nels Frye of Stylites.net and Lifestyle Magazine
Since leaving business consulting in 2008, American Nels Frye has forged himself into a significant figure in the Chinese fashion scene. The Editor-in-Chief of a bilingual fashion and lifestyle magazine, appropriately named Lifestyle, and founder of the Beijing-based street style blog Stylites (www.stylites.net), Frye is uniquely equipped to discuss the state of fashion, and street style blogging, in China today. He is currently finishing a book based on Stylites, and my conversation with him via Skype on August 26 began with that subject.

Brent: So do people in Beijing find it interesting to hear an American perspective on what’s going on in Chinese style?

Nels: Yeah. I guess I would say so. Stylites has been a great publicity vehicle for me, let’s say. It’s part of what its function has been for me.

Brent: Did it start out as that for you?

Nels: No. Not really. It  started out quite accidentally. It was really more of a personal blog, and then, very soon after I started doing it, one of the local English magazines asked that I start contributing street style pictures for them. And that’s really what did it, because I hadn’t necessarily intended to make it into such a big thing, but with the pressure coming from the publication deadline I was sort of forced to generate more content, and that’s how it developed.

One of Nels' early street style photos for Stylites, taken in 2008. Image by Nels Frye. 

Brent: So when was that?

Nels: Oh, God. That was already way back in ’07.

Brent: And when did you go to Beijing in the first place?

Nels: Oh my first trip here was all the way back in ‘96.

Brent: And what brought you back to Beijing on this most recent stay?

Nels: Yeah, well my long-term, permanent life here started with a consulting gig in ’05.

Brent: What kind of consulting work were you doing?

Nels: It was business consulting. Market strategies for foreign corporations, finance groups, etc. It was with the oldest consulting company to have a China focus, Kamsky Associates. It’s been here since 1980.

Brent: And when did you end up leaving that position? At what point was Stylites a viable entity of its own?

Nels: Well it’s never been a viable entity of its own. It still isn’t. Unfortunately. I wish I could find a way. But I’ve never been able to figure out how to make it into a viable entity.

Image by Nels Frye.
Brent: But you’ve parlayed it into a number of opportunities, it sounds like.

Nels: Yeah, it’s certainly been related to quite a lot. No doubt. And that’s why, even though I don’t know how long I would have done this if it didn’t have other benefits. I think you might have noticed it’s been a year since I’ve been a regular photographer for (Stylites). I have someone else who does most of the pictures for it (Suzy). But, yeah, it certainly does connect me to other things. In any case, I quit that job to focus on a book I never finished in 2008. And I started up the job at Lifestyle, this magazine where I’m the Editor-in-Chief, in ’09. And now I’m working on another project, which is a men’s essentials website.

Brent: Are there many other Chinese street style blogs these days?

Nels: Not many. I mean, the blog, as its own address, is sort of a dying form, I think, in China.

Brent: So does that mean that it had its peak already?

Nels: I don’t know that it ever had its peak. Nobody here has ever been in the habit of having their own URL and having a blog. I think there were more blogs associated with larger blogging platforms that were very successful, but everything has really transferred to Weibo (www.weibo.com). My blogging form, of having your own address, and all that kind of thing, it’s not really something that has been quite the same in China. I mean, there are some, it’s just that most blogs are Weibos, basically, which is called China’s Twitter, but that’s really not even all that accurate.

Brent: Does Stylites, then, resonate in China? Or is it more of an international thing?

Nels: It’s both. I wouldn’t say that it’s been more successful internationally, but I think the reason why, in some ways, Stylites has never caught on in a big way is the fact that it’s in a sort of peripheral zone, which is neither/nor. And it’s certainly an object of great curiosity for locals, but the fact that it’s mainly in English —I’ve done it bilingually before, but I started doing it bilingually right as the rise of Weibo. I decided there’s no point in it, because Chinese people don’t go to independent URL blogs. And I think that’s another reason why it hasn’t been that successful locally.

Gia, former lead singer of Hang on the Box. Image by Nels Frye.
Brent: Do you think being a foreigner has been an advantage or disadvantage for promoting the blog and your other ventures?

Nels: I think there is something of an advantage to it, but I think on the whole your ability to operate here is in the end is about the relationships you have and your ability to form relationships. And I think you’re sort of more distinctive as a foreigner automatically, so that’s certainly an advantage. More of a novelty in terms of attracting attention, but in terms of really being able to get into the system and make things work for you, it’s quite tough. Very tough.

Brent: Yeah, I can imagine. Breaking into the sort of old boys clubs and whatnot must be rather impossible.

Nels: Yeah. I don’t know if I would describe them as old boys clubs, but the equivalent.

Brent: You said you don’t do your shooting for the blog regularly anymore, but when you did, how did people tend to respond to you when you would stop them for a picture.

Nels: It was actually interesting to see the evolution of responses. I think it started out as really sort of mild shock, people not understanding why I was doing this. When I said there weren’t any other street style blogs I should have added that there certainly are other street style platforms. They’re just not independent blogs. I would say that the form was taken up by various on and offline media outlets, rather than there being individual figures associated with it as you have in the West. I mean, there’s probably no other individual figure associated with it from here aside from me.

Early image from Stylites. Image by Nels Frye. 
Brent: And by the end of it, were people aware of Stylites specifically as a platform?

Nels: No. Well people within a certain set most definitely. The wider public, no, not at all. Although as it turns out, the people I was photographing often were members of that certain set. So they may very well have been aware of Stylites already. I guess you could say that they were aware of it.

Brent: So that certain set, did you go out combing the streets looking for them, or did you tend to go to events where you knew they would be?

Nels: Yes, the latter. I think when it started out I tried to go out just street combing, but that’s just too time consuming, and maybe I’d get one person after four hours that I wanted to take a picture of. And the thing is, Beijing, you know, is not the Lower East Side. Beijing doesn’t really have a place like the Lower East Side or Kreuzberg in Berlin. You don’t have these walking areas, nearly so much in Beijing, not even compared with Shanghai, which has the French Concession, something of a walking area. Beijing isn’t really a walking city. There are some very touristy areas. And I shouldn’t really make such categorical statements as that, but really, it’s a driving city. People that have money certainly drive.

Brent: So street style in a sense is already a misnomer. It’s not on the street.

Nels: To some extent. I shouldn’t say that it’s a complete misnomer. There are certain very small pockets where it exists. I think street style exists wherever stylish people walk. And, you know, so there are certain pockets. I think in Beijing the place where you’re most likely to see those people is Sanlitun, and that’s become more of a place where you see them, only because a major outdoor mall was constructed there. I don’t even know if I would call that street style. It’s sort of an occasion-based thing in itself, although it’s not only on certain occasions that people are there.

Image by Nels Frye.
Brent: Do people in Beijing, especially stylish people, tend to gather in indoor malls? I mean, I know Beijing has famously bad air quality.

Nels: Yup. Well, yeah, they do. That’s also been an issue. There were pictures early on from indoor malls. (But) I think I haven’t had that many pictures from those places, partly because I’m loathe to hang out in them.

Brent: I can understand. That was always an issue for me trying to shoot kids in Jakarta.

Nels: But maybe given the air quality I should be more inclined to go into those places.

Brent: Well, you know, in a lot of parts of Southeast Asia that I’ve spent time, the tendency is to mimic the outdoor space indoors, so there’s a lot of these sort of fake skies overhead, fake streets and stuff.

Nels: Also the heat.

Brent: Yeah, and that’s true too. It’s not just air. It’s also, as you said, that dense humidity. But it means that street style ends up taking on a very different meaning, and as far as street style blogs are concerned in Indonesia —they tend to be more like personal style blogs, rather than street style — they’re all shot at malls, like in book stores, coffee shops, and things like that. Because you’re not going to find cool people on the streets.

Nels: And the other factor actually is that it is in fact the wealth disparity, beyond just the pollution and the inclemency of the weather, I think even more so the issue is that there are very few areas that are, let’s say, “yuppie,” or “chuppie,” as they’re called in China, Chinese yuppie, public spaces, outdoor spaces. I think that one area that I was mentioning Samlitun, where there is sort of an expanse, mainly because it’s an outdoor mall, or highend outdoor space, is an exception. The point is that the traditional conception of Beijing is as these islands of development — or I should say islands of affluence — separated by streams of undeveloped grunginess. And you would kind of jump from island to island.

Image by Suzy.
Brent: So does stylishness in Beijing then tend to be entirely concentrated among the wealthy. Is it a middle class phenomenon? Is there such a thing as a working class cool?

Nels: That’s a very good question, and I think that’s something I should take up in my book also, but yeah, the class issue and style, I think the people on my blog are not necessarily upper class as such. Now one thing, though, that we have to keep in mind, is that in the mass of the Chinese population, even people that we’re calling middle class are in the upper ten percent. Even to this moment, 80% of people — I would no longer say 80% are farmers — but 80% are less affluent people. Not really quite middle class in the sense of having disposable income and such that they would spend on style. I think what I’ve captured on my blog is a segment that is rather distinctive to Beijing, a sort of bohemian group in a very broad sense. I’m using the word “bohemian” in (way that) encompass(es) hipster and rock musician and even fashion types. There are some of them that might come from a less affluent background, no doubt. I think it’s even more difficult to tell in China what kind of background somebody’s from, in fact, than it is in other places. Sometimes you can judge it based on the way they speak and such. But remember the Cultural Revolution screws everything up. And the fact that wealth is generally off the records, makes it so that if you ask somebody what their parents do it isn’t necessary going to give you a very good notion of whether they’re affluent or not.

Brent: So much has changed between those generations.

Nels: Yeah, but a big part of it there, though, is the grey economy, which is just so dominant. It’s complicated. People both want to downplay and show off their affluence. So I think it’s a tough question to answer, but I would have to say that the amount of people (on my blog) that could genuinely be called working class or even part of that 80% is limited. But at the same time, the number of wealthy is also kind of limited. I think there are some people that are certainly the artsy children of wealthy people, definitely. No doubt there are those people appearing on my blog. But what we don’t have are the more interesting, from the perspective of luxury brands, consumer, who is the sort of wealthy luxury brand buying, brand obsessed person, that has, without a doubt, money.

Brent: Because that’s less appealing to you, or because it’s less prevalent?

Nels: It’s less appealing. I mean, if I were going to those upscale malls that are in the Central Business District, I think I would see a lot more of those people, although there are even more in cars, of course. I think there’s sort of a mainstream affluent person that is not appearing on my blog. And I don’t think they really appear on other street style blogs like this either abroad. There is a Chinese type, that has its own Chinese characteristics, but is also comparable to that type elsewhere. Although they can have a lot more style abroad, as it turns out. I think, let’s say that rich people in Paris look better than rich people in Beijing.

Brent: So you used the term “bohemian” and also “hipster” to describe the kinds of people that end up on Stylites, so I’m just curious, are those concepts that make sense to people locally?

Nels: I think bohemian is probably one that people do a second take when you (use it). Although there is a word in Chinese, translated from English, that just means the same thing. But I don’t think people use the term “bohemian” in the US that much any more compared to, (for example), “hipster.”

Brent: Bohemian comes and goes.

Nels: But it is prevalent in that it’s part of that whole “bobo” (bourgeois bohemian) thing. And I also would use the word bobo, the David Brooks term, to describe the people here, obviously with their own characteristics, quite distinct from the bobos in his book, but that’s clearly also, to some extent relevant, and those are the people who are appearing on my blog. But it’s also a lot of the fashion types. Fashion and magazine types. A lot of these photos can be taken either at fashion parties or art openings. And then I have a ton of photos that are from music festivals. I think it’s almost more helpful to think of my blog in terms of the occasions in which the photos are taken.

Brent: So music festivals, I imagine, would be a big source, and I was wondering, are music festivals a regular occurrence?

Taken at the Strawberry Festival. Image by Nels Frye.
Nels: It’s become this massive thing over the last 3 or 4 years — well it’s been happening for like ten years. I think a lot of things in China, once they realize it’s big, have this tendency to just sort of multiply. Everyone does it. So, yeah. Music festivals, they’re just sort of multiplying. Somehow like regionally their governments got the notion that this was the thing to do, so they have them in all sorts of random places. And around Beijing there always seems to be a new music festival. There are a couple of these longstanding ones. And I go to the ones that are known to be more style conscious.

Brent: Does that correspond with, say, more independent music types too? All the bloggers in the US go to Coachella if they can. Is that sort of the equivalent, or is it its own thing?

Nels: I think it’s certainly similar, but it’s also different. The one that I go to mostly — I’ve been to others — but the one I make a regular thing of going to is the Strawberry Festival. I think in some ways the name tells a lot. It’s kind of an indie sort of event, although the record label that does it, Modern Sky, has become really quite massive. And well it’s often described by Western media, and local media, as a fashion show in a way, although for the masses — college kids and young professionals/young creative types. And I see on the Internet people having discussions about whether they’re going all three days and their outfits and all that. So people take how they’re going to dress for this very seriously.

Brent: Given that the music festivals are sort of a fashion show of their own, is it easy to divide peoples’ styles based on musical preference in Beijing these days?

Nels: To an extent, although I would love to a little research (for the book on that topic). And the one thing I will definitely do is continue to take a lot of pictures at the music festivals, because that’s the one time people can definitely get a lot of them. But I think what I’m going to do at the next one is in fact to ask that very question. I think that would be really entertaining to do a musical preference correlation sort of thing. So I think obviously when it comes to people who are in fact making music — rockers and what have you — there certainly is a correlation, and I think if you were to search for rockers in the category that’s at the bottom, you would see in my blog, the people who are more (in that vein). There’s a Britpop band that I know, and they dress sort of like dandies and mods. And then there’s a rockabilly sort of thing right out the 1950s. So yes, with them there really is, and it’s almost done in like a Japanese-ish, fetishistic kind of manner. But when it comes to the larger public… I think the people that I photograph for my blog are inherently more aware, a little more international, a little more savvy, so I think there probably would be a correlation. However, I think with the wider public it’s often interesting to note the misplaced or sort of entertainingly placed associations, I mean, people wearing very very punk outfits without really being very punk, or even being aware of that kind of genre of music. So I think the more “authentic” types often criticize those types, because there sort of saying, these people are sort of fakers.

Image by Nels Frye.
Brent: That’s a significant category in Beijing these days, the faker vs. the authentic version of whatever?

Nels: I’m sure it’s a spectrum more than anything else. I don’t even think I’d want to call them a faker. They’re almost like an accidental faker. I don’t think it’s a deliberate (or) malevolent faking. It’s often just because they saw such and such piece, and they saw a picture somewhere. In a lot of cases they’re not even trying to be a fake punk rocker. It just happens that that’s the clothing they found and fancied and bought.

Brent: They haven’t necessarily invested a lot of time in investigating what that style is about.

Nels: Yeah. You could say that that’s what Beijing is now, and that the trend is in fact in the direction of people being more aware. Just in general people are much more style conscious. In all of my time here people have been interested in how they dress, but I think when I say “conscious” I think they are more and more conscious of the associations with how they dress.

Brent: So continuing on that theme, have you noticed any significant changes since arriving in 2005 in the way that people do style or do fashion in Beijing?

Nels: Oh definitely. And part of it is just an availability of product. Within sort of the affluent urban set — not the rich, but the middle-class set — the onslaught of the fast fashion brands has made a huge difference. And I hate to give them too much credit, it’s just that I think the H&M, Uniqlo, and Zara has just made quite a bit of style available to the wider public.

Image by Suzy. 
Brent: And those are readily available throughout China these days?

Nels: Well, certainly in the first tier cities, and they’re expanding as fast as they can to the other markets. But the thing is in ’05 none of them were here. I was there for the opening of the first H&M and the first Zara. And that was not until ’09. I think Zara was a year or two before that.

Brent: Do they have local competition as well?

Nels: Yeah. I would love to be able to cite more style-oriented causes, but I do think that their availability has made a huge difference, because I mean everybody, or most people that I take on the street — not necessarily everybody I photograph, because these are somewhat more avant garde or vintagy types, but in the wider public everybody seems to be incorporating some. These are the basics. There was no affordable option for basics before. Before they were available you would have to go through a whole pile of shirts with funny English, with sparkles, with lace before you got to the plain shirt. I don’t know if it’s just their arrival that caused this, but they certainly made an evolution into a less over-adorned, over-decorated style. I would never give H&M or Zara credit for being classic, but they’re at least certainly more simple than was previously available.

Brent: I know exactly that same phenomenon, and I’ve noticed that just since 2005, when the style has gotten just so much more stripped down. The indie fashion scene in Indonesia used to be just like fill the surface as much as you can with design. So that’s interesting that it’s had that push towards simplicity. Is there a big independent fashion scene in Beijing?

Nels: Sure. There are a couple of different generations of designers here. Everybody in China is always trying to do things on a large scale, so it probably wouldn’t have quite the indie scene that you get in other places. But there is. There are a lot of independent designers, and they have their workshops, do fashion shows. One thing I would say about them is sometimes it seems like they’re not selling that much, but they’re certainly well known. Several of these young designers that are under 30, they don’t have stores or anything like that. They’re sometimes available in like two or three multi-brand stores in Beijing and Shanghai. But they’re sort of mini-celebrities. And going beyond some little indie set. I mean someone like Xander Zhou or Zhang Chi, they’re super well-known. But I find it hard to believe, that they’re actually selling huge amounts. But their level of fame is really quite astounding. And the level of the fashion shows they do is also astounding. Zhang Chi does a show, it must be every 6 months or so, I mean these are massive affairs. It would be like a 500,000 dollars kind of thing. I think Martel is his big sponsor. But they always have some sort of auto sponsor. The last Zhang Chi show must have had like a thousand people.  It was bigger certainly in scale that the Jean-Paul Gautier, who came himself recently. This was certainly as big or bigger than the foreign brand shows. Now that said, that isn’t to say that his sales are in any way comparable. But Zhang Chi is probably almost as well known as Jean-Paul Gautier here.

Designer Zhang Chi. Image by Nels Frye.
Brent: So bringing things back to the blog a little bit, are you connected with, or have any kind of relationship with other bloggers in the international street style/street fashion world?

Nels: A lot of people contact me to exchange links, and sometimes I do. But as you can see, it’s sort of one of my projects. I can’t say, though, that I look at other street style blogs. I probably should. And I have in the past. Stylites has never had the popularity that I want, but it is a special thing, just because, of course, China is, Beijing in particular, (a special thing). It’s Beijing. I say that as someone who’s here, but I think people can sort of grasp what I mean. That Helsinki blog (Hel Looks) is really really good, and a lot of people like it, but it’s Helsinki. This is Beijing. It’s the center of the world. It’s too bad there isn’t a better blog than mine here for this

4 comments:

  1. Looking back on this interview, it is funny to see the discussion of "hipster" and "bohemian". I think the term "bohemian" (波西米亚人) is probably never used. They might be more likely to call this group "fashionable youngsters" (时尚青年) or "avant-garde youth" "前卫青年". "Literary youth" ( 文艺青年) is sometimes taken as a synonym for hipster.

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    1. @stylites interesting. I'll make note of that in the book.

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    2. I am trying to find some of the more slang terms as well. I will get back to you on that.

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