China's fashionistas find inspiration in Mao

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At China's National Congress this week, the military fatigues and Mao suits once favoured by the Communist elite have given way to sober blue business suits and striped ties. But out on the streets of Beijing, the imagery of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward live on with the nation's fashionistas.

The floral patterns on fabrics sold during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 now feature in T-shirts by Hong Kong's leading designers. Meanwhile, street fashion is taking the Sun Yat-sen suit beloved of Chairman Mao Zedong – with its sober trousers and austere, four-pocket jacket – and mixing and matching it with trainers, tracksuit bottoms and baseball caps with red stars on the front.

While leaders in the Great Hall of the People decide the course of the world's fastest-growing economy, young people made wealthy by the boom are mining their recent past for inspiration for cool clobber.

"Young people who are working and active now did not live through that period," said Angelica Cheong, the editor of the Chinese edition of Vogue. "Lots of artists and designers were born in the 1960s and 1970s but did not experience it. For them it's a novelty. In art and fashion, people seek inspiration from the past. This happens in the West all the time. All things come in cycles."

As the Communists choose their Politburo on the edge of Tiananmen Square, the gently subversive use of party icons shows how life on the street has moved on in many respects.

Dominic Johnson-Hill, an Englishman, runs a company called Plastered which makes T-shirts, posters and merchandise inspired by Communist imagery and retro styling from China in the years before it was opened up to the wider world. He said: "This time last year, 90 per cent of my customers were foreigners. Now 70 per cent are Chinese. The initial reaction from Chinese people was, 'Why would you put that on a T-shirt?' Then they say, 'Why didn't I think of that?'"

Mr Johnson-Hill, 35, came to from China from Cornwall as a backpacker in 1993 and never left. He started the T-shirt business two years ago, down a narrow hútòng alley in one of the city's last remaining old sections. Among the shirts he sells are Communist Party images from 1971. Posters show heroic female farm workers, their arms raised to the sun. Students from the Central Academy of Drama, just down the lane, are among his biggest customers. When the Brighton-based indie dance group Go! Team played in Beijing recently, they wore Plastered shirts. Li Peng, a singer in the punk band Reflector, is one local celebrity photographed wearing Plastered products. "There is no political dimension. I'm not here to protest. I'm here to celebrate the city and the beauty of the city," he said.

At Shirtflag, another fashion label in cosmopolitan Shanghai, there is a playfulness about its designs incorporating pictures of workers and farmers, as well as Mao icons and Cultural Revolution imagery. They are worn proudly by the fashion soldiers of today on handbags, tracksuit tops and other accessories.

"These old-fashioned clothes are a kind of cultural symbol of the special periods in history, such as the Cultural Revolution and the 4 May Movement," said Shirtflag's 35-year-old founder Ji Ji, an avant-garde artist.

"People can separate the political from the aesthetic. In some ways, people use this kind of clothes to resist Western fashion and support Chinese style as well as contemporary Chinese values, just like we use the Chinese sports brand Lining to resist Nike."