CNN  — 

The topic of masculinity – and perceived threats to it – appears to be increasingly sensitive in today’s China. The country’s state broadcaster has moved to ban shows portraying “effeminate styles,” education officials have proposed ways to combat “feminization” in schools and state media has decried the “sickly aesthetics” that propel young “gender-ambiguous” men to stardom.

For the co-founders of menswear label Pronounce, whose androgynous collections defy categorization, the headlines belie an emerging reality among the country’s youth. In fact, Chinese-born Yushan Li and Jun Zhou see a “disconnect” between official attitudes and what’s happening at ground level.

“The atmosphere on the internet has become more and more conservative,” Li said over the phone from Shenzhen. “But we’ve been back living in China since (the start of) Covid-19, connecting with a lot of young people, and it’s just a really gender-fluid generation. People are going to accept it eventually.”

“When I was young, similar discussions were also happening,” he added. “Masculinity and the idea that boys need to be men – these topics have always existed in our Asian culture.”

Though considered a menswear label, Pronounce often shows its gender-neutral designs on female models.

Pronounce may be widely considered a men’s brand – even becoming, in 2019, the first Chinese label to stage a runway show at Italy’s most prestigious menswear event, Pitti Uomo – but the pair doesn’t design with a specific demographic in mind. Instead both male and female models are used to showcase their loose-fitting yet structural creations, which were made to be worn by anyone “who is curious, who loves new and desirable stuff, who wants to be confident,” Li said.

Bridging worlds

As well as its progressive attitude to gender, Pronounce’s appeal in Europe draws from its founders’ ability to bridge the aesthetic divide between East and West.

Having both studied in London before launching Pronounce in 2016, Zhou and Li headquartered their label between Shanghai and – before the pandemic struck – Milan. With Zhou drawn to Italian tailoring heritage and Li more focused on Asian crafting (“that’s why we have a lot of arguments,” the latter joked, “but we find a balance at the end of the day”), the pair have established a reputation for incorporating Chinese influences into their work.

The famous Terracotta Warriors are among the Chinese themes that Li and Zhou have incorporated into their designs.

Their Spring-Summer 2020 collection, for instance, saw images of the country’s iconic Terracotta Warriors printed on outsized turtlenecks and wide-legged jeans. But nods to their homeland are often subtler and expressed through shapes, patterns or materials, from woven bamboo vests to modern iterations of the “Mao suits” widely worn in China after the country’s communist revolution in the late 1940s.

In their designs, the duo has played with the proportions, lines and sleeve lengths of Mao suits for successive collections. Versions have come in pink with enlarged collars or embroidered with delicate gold thread. Other interpretations of the tunic saw Li and Zhou use fishnet fabric to reveal models’ skin, or cinch the garments at the waist before buttoning them up with butterfly-shaped fasteners.

“We’re really obsessed with Mao suits,” Li said. “We think people who wear them look really handsome, really charming – the silhouette, the feeling when they’re worn, the really positive energy.”

A contemporary take on the "Mao suits" widely worn in China after the communist revolution.

Pronounce’s latest collection, unveiled digitally at London Fashion Week in February, epitomizes this approach. In a blur of weighty woolen overcoats, shaggy knee-high boots and animal-horn accessories, looks inspired by Mongolian and Tibetan cultures flashed on screen against a backdrop of colorful patterned rugs.

Dubbed “Modern Nomads,” the project was informed by the robes and outerwear found on the Tibetan plateau, and the pair’s trip to Inner Mongolia, where most of China’s ethnic Mongol minority live (visiting Mongolia itself, or Tibet, was ruled out due to pandemic-era travel restrictions, Li said). After spending time with the region’s nomadic communities and acquiring local textiles for reference, the designers put their own spin on rugged, textured garments made to weather tough conditions.

An overcoat from the label's new collection, "Modern Nomads."

By reinterpreting what they found in a gender-neutral style, the label’s founders hoped to play on Chinese stereotypes that link nomadic cultures with typically masculine traits.

“The men are super strong, super tough,” Li said. “But we found that the Mongolian woman are really tough as well. Even playing with the little children, we saw they had started (raising animals) and building houses. It’s beyond gender, beyond generation – it’s part of their DNA. For those of us who live in cities, it’s so different, and they had such a big impact on us.”

Avoiding cliche

In spanning visual languages, Pronounce’s challenge is, partly, finding Asian motifs that are familiar enough to resonate with global audiences without veering into stereotypes.

“This is a topic we discussed from the beginning of our brand,” Li said. “How to get rid of cliche, or to have our own (take) on those really famous styles.”

For this reason, he added, the brand has steered clear of classic garments like the qipao, the form-fitting dress widely associated with China in the Western imagination. “We couldn’t find a solution and don’t have (a unique interpretation) of that style yet,” Li said, “so we haven’t touched it.”

Pronounce's recent collaboration with Puma was inspired by the ancient Pumapunku temple complex in Bolivia.

Nor does the brand want to pigeonhole itself, as Li and Zhou look beyond China for inspiration. Pronounce’s Spring-Summer 2019 collection, for instance, was based on the pair’s trip to flower markets in India, while a recent collaboration with Puma looked to the ancient Pumapunku temple complex in Bolivia.

“It’s not like, ‘We are Chinese designers, so we have to do this kind of style,’” Li said. “It’s more that we have really strong feelings about something, and then we have that come out.”