"Communist cool" shakes up China's fashion scene

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BEIJING/HONG KONG, Oct 17 (Reuters) The Cultural Revolution is long over and Mao Zedong dead and preserved for posterity, but a new generation is putting a modern design spin on clothes and accessories inspired by China's Communist heyday.

Funky, colourful T-shirts celebrate heroic women and the march towards socialism, handbags show soldiers stealing kisses and track suits put a rock-and-roll spin on the model worker ideal.

It is Communist cool, and it is making waves beyond China.

Party members at a key Congress which opened on Monday may not be known for their own fashion sense -- dowdy suits, oddly permed hair and oversized eyeglasses are more their scene -- yet the man on the street is starting to buck this trend.

One of the entrepreneurs leading the pack in the style revolution is Beijing-based Englishman Dominic Johnson-Hill and his Plastered range of T-shirts.

Since opening his Beijing store less than two years ago, his T-shirts, which often lean on Communist imagery like propaganda posters for inspiration as well as ''retro'' aspects of Beijing life like the city's clunky buses, have flown off the shelves.

''The world's eyes are on China, and everybody's looking for the new China cool. And that's essentially what we wanted to capture,'' Johnson-Hill told Reuters.

''You can be in a city like Shanghai, which is incredibly cosmopolitan and with modern buildings right from the future, and then you've got the government-erected statues absolutely from the 1970s. It's a hilarious mix of kitsch and modern wonder.'' COMMUNIST INFUSION Designers in the free-wheeling former British colony of Hong Kong have taken to Communist-infused fashion with gusto.

G.O.D. -- which stands for Goods of Desire -- is a kind of high-end, boutique version of popular Swedish home furnishings store Ikea, but with clothes, some of which use designs and slogans from the frantic, at times violent, Cultural Revolution.

But is it tasteless to do things like stitch the characters for ''Red Guard'' on to the back of a vermilion, felt sports top, riffing on the name of the Mao-crazed youth mobs that terrorised China during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution? No, just stylish, insists G O D founder and chief executive Douglas Young.

''It's probably one of the rare periods in recent Chinese aesthetic history where the style is very strong and very kind of polemic,'' he told Reuters. ''It's instantly recognisable because the Communist government basically is an icon-generating machine.

And these are not just clothes aimed at curious - or clueless - foreigners. They can also be expensive, priced well out of the range of the average man on the street in Beijing, Guangzhou or even relatively wealthy Shanghai.

Shanghai Tang, owned by Swiss luxury goods group Richemont, zeroed in on that top end of the market and was one of the first to sell a sumptuous reworking of the proletarian, four-pocket Mao jacket once favoured by late leader Mao Zedong.

''We've tried to extract those images of the Communist era and re-translate them into a more pop art colourful approach,'' executive chairman Raphael le Masne de Chermont told Reuters.

''We are trying to bring a new aesthetic to the modern Chinese man of tomorrow and telling them: Reinvent your own aesthetic.

You're a great nation. You are fast growing. Why on earth would you copy the aesthetic of the West? Reinvent your own cultural revolution in terms of the way you dress.'' MISCHIEF Not to be left out, mainland China's commercial hub and most cosmopolitan city of Shanghai has also been getting in the act, in the shape of Shirtflag.

Their designs -- on T-shirts, bags, trousers and other accessories -- tend to subvert the traditional Communist images.

On one T-shirt, a solider kisses an idealised figure of a female farmer, while another man -- her husband? -- looks the other way, all next to a mischievous slogan in English saying ''Worker, peasant and soldier''.

Yet founder and designer Ji Ji, 35, rejects the ''Communist cool'' notion. For him, it's more of a homage to a shared past.

''The 1970s and 1980s were an important part of history for China. By using those images of the past, they represent my background and how I have walked through my life,'' Ji said.

So to coincide with the Party Congress, designers offered a bit of style advice to sartorially challenged Communists.

''If I had any say in the matter I would absolutely design for all the Party members a light brown khaki gabardine or light-weight cotton Sun Yat-sen jacket, with concealed pockets,'' said David Tang, a Hong Kong style luminary and founder of the uber-chic China Club.

''It's got to be a suit. Turned up, of course ... And depending on their rank, I think a star or five stars along their lapel. One likes to see where people rank,'' he told Reuters.

Reuters RN DB0914

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