Sidelines | A Loose Victory



'Sidelines' is a column by CGTN's Social Media Desk

You'd be surprised to learn how close some antique Chinese poems come to mirroring idle life in lockdown.

"To clothe yet my arms slack to lift,

to dine yet my lips slow to drift,

my face stays unwashed until dirt blankets it,

my hair uncombed until wind does it." (By Ma Yu, Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1368)

The poem was penned several centuries ago yet the picture it paints fits quite well with our new everyday reality, when the world froze for the first time due to the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. The difference is that the Taoist monk who authored the poem messed up his daily routine by preoccupying himself with a search for the truth of the universe, whereas we were simply hit by a grinding inertia imposed by an actively spreading virus.

Teleconferences lifted us from this state of disorientation every now and then. Where the camera could bare, we took the trouble to care. Upon the edge of the dialog box falls the interface between our dignity and laxity. An accidental move of the camera could quickly and irrevocably expose the latter to our colleagues who were probably at the same risk.

Simplicity reveals what excess conceals. This concept is no stranger to antique Chinese literature. "My clothes are shabby but my soul blithe, let the courtiers worry in their dress," a Tang Dynasty poet wrote in search for spiritual freedom. Yet every now and then the concept still poked out of the pages of Chinese literature I read during lockdown, probably imbuing my lonely and occasionally hopeless patch with a tinge sense of self-transcendence.

Laying low at home with a dangerous virus preying on your mind is really not a conduit to freeing your thinking, the way a lean style of dress might be to the poet. But on the rare occasions our minds could be free of coronavirus for a moment, we did start the process by playing with the idea of releasing our bodies from the grip of style, re-prioritizing comfort over vanity when life was slowed down and reduced to its essentials.

The point is to wear things that best relax our bodies, not necessarily flatter them. At the heart of this new ideology is that everything became a little oversized, hanging loose on the shoulders or catching casually by waist so that the flesh beneath doesn't feel being squeezed or pressed. If you still care about your image in the mirror or the lockdown selfies you post on your Instagram account, let colors, tailoring and juxtaposition speak for your style. The simplified pandemic dress code might not drive us much closer to the enlightenment Chinese gurus derived from their frugal lifestyle, but at least it can save us some energy in an already taxing time.

Will the fashion and apparel industry shift to answer to this call more proactively? The answer is likely to be negative. The trend may be more pronounced during the pandemic but has existed for a while. And people can simply buy their clothes one size bigger instead of eyeing new designs. Most importantly, we all believe that one day we will walk out our doors and into public spaces again where we have to serve the best of ourselves to the judging eyes of the others. If our body can survive the pandemic, so can our ego.

For the moment, however, the fashion industry is faced with more pressing issues. The looser the clothes are on our body, the tighter the grip the pandemic has on retailers. People had to worry about whether they'd still have a job as the crisis continued, rather than what style would best suit their place of work.

Bricks and mortar shops being closed and logistics slowing down are also contributing to the pinch. The retailers that have already been struggling with digitizing their business felt the pain even more strongly. Topshop in the UK and Brooks Brothers of the U.S, for example, have had to change hands after filing for bankruptcy last year.

On top of the debris of those that have fallen, a new supremacy has quickly been established. The value of Fast Retailing, the Japanese group that owns the casual clothing chain Uniqlo, reached $103 billion this week, sitting atop the global apparel industry in terms of market capitalization, overtaking Zara's parent Inditex.

The fact that the Japanese brand features plain, loose and smooth designs, coincidentally measuring up to lockdown fashion, may have something to do with its success. But market analysts prefer to attribute its victory over Zara mostly to the Asian brand's foresight of focusing on the Chinese market and online retailing.

China is Uniqlo's second biggest market, after only Japan. The strategy has paid off handsomely for the firm. While other countries are still struggling to balance the containment of COVID-19 alongside boosting their economic situations, the world's second largest economy has managed both, boosting Uniqlo's sales. Zara, on the other hand, is only halfway through recovering from the blow the pandemic dealt to its pillar European market as the continent is caught up in one lockdown after another.

The antique Taoist thinker Zhuangzi is a supporter of casting off the material yoke for spiritual freedom. In the book that bears his name there is an interesting story about a failed hat enterprise. A northerner tries to sell hats to a kingdom in the south only to find out in frustration that the locals are in the habit of cutting their hair short to ward off the scorching heat, and have no use for headgear at all.

Some brands may now be eating their hats.