China is the new retail giant – and a fashion-conscious younger generation is bringing a fresh look to its city streets

As the finishing touches are made to the Olympic venues, across Beijing another temple to sport is rising from the ground. Or rather, a temple to sportswear in the form of a colossal Nike shop. International shops and malls are springing up in the city faster than a 100m sprinter.

With China predicted to become the world's biggest luxury market within the next decade, every well-known international label wants a piece of China's retail pie. In the Oriental Plaza mall in Beijing, Louis Vuitton, Burberry and MaxMara have all opened sleek new shops. There is a popular conception that the Chinese are obsessed with big brands, and to a great extent this is true, as the obvious logos that emblazon everything from an office worker's fake Louis Vuitton bag to a teenager's copycat Kappa tracksuit attest. It's even possible to determine the popularity of a brand by how heavily it is imitated in one of the country's malls or markets.

However, China is a vast, populous country and, as such, tastes vary from city to city, and among individuals, just as fashion varies between Liverpool and London. According to Gary Wong, who owns a chain of boutiques called Shine, there is a huge difference between north and south China – he believes that in the north people want to dress in a more loud, conceptual way, and in the south, they are more influenced by their friends. Overall, however, the years of forced uniformity have given way to a new desire for individuality, and while for some this might be simply a desire to show off their wealth through status logos, others, particularly young people, are embracing more experimental, street styles.

On a Saturday afternoon in Wanfujing, a popular shopping area of Beijing, three teenagers dressed in various takes on the goth style – think bondage trousers, stack-sole Buffalo boots and lace skirts – stand out among young people dressed in the more standard attire of distressed jeans, hooded tops (many bearing misspelled slogans such as "fest dressed list" or "Fendy") and branded trainers – particularly Kappa and Nike. Their spokesperson, by virtue of the fact that he is the only one who speaks English, is Frank, a Chinese-American teenager. He and his two female friends copy Japanese goth and gothic-Lolita style, but he says that they are in an underground minority, and the main trends in Chinese streetwear are the Emo scene, punk and rock, and hip-hop and gangsta fashion – all of which are also on display in Xidan, another thriving shopping market. "There is also a more avant-garde, trendy strand of fashion by the likes of Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto," he says, as two black-clad twentysomethings who wouldn't look out of place on Paris's Left Bank, sashay by. He also highlights a trend for Korean-influenced fashion, which is "basically bad hip-hop style, with a fake Kappa top and a fake Kappa bag"– mention Korean style in a market, and the price goes up. "The fashion scene is still quite small," he adds, "because young people like to study hard and don't spend too much time figuring out what to wear."

The number of people putting time and effort into their look is growing rapidly, however, as is the idea of "mixing it up". The coolest customers combine clothes by major brands with craft-market finds or pieces by new local designers, adding DIY details such as bag charms and scarves; while hip girls tend to anchor their outfits – however feminine – with boyish chunky boots or trainers, rather than impractical heels. Many wealthy Chinese women might still wear a head-to-toe outfit straight from the catwalk, but more cutting-edge fashion lovers aspire to an eclectic look that prizes something that is still limited in China – freedom of expression.

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