fashion

Fashion's Chinese New Year quandary: Can rats ever be luxury?

Updated 23rd January 2020
Credit: Marc Jacobs / Stray Rats
Fashion's Chinese New Year quandary: Can rats ever be luxury?
Written by Oscar Holland, CNN
As the Lunar New Year approaches, so too does another annual phenomenon: The fashion industry's shameless pursuit of disposable Chinese income via zodiac-themed capsule collections.
In a New Year's custom almost as entrenched as eating dumplings or lighting fireworks, Western brands pay tribute to the zodiac's 12 animals by pasting their cartoon forms over bags, clothes and accessories.
Most recently, they have honored the years of the pig, dog and rooster, faithfully replicating the order in which the creatures finished the Jade Emperor's mythical Great Race.
With Chinese consumers spending more than a trillion yuan ($150 billion) across the holiday week last year, there's ample motivation to indulge the novelty once more. But 2020 poses a new quandary for Europe's great fashion houses: The Year of the Rat.
Can rats -- spreaders of bubonic plague, sources of widespread phobias and synonyms for untrustworthiness -- ever appeal to the luxury market? And even if they can, should designers so overtly contribute to disposable fashion that is guaranteed to date by the end of the lunar year?
Moschino has adopted cartoonist Robert Armstrong's Mickey Rat for its New Year collection.
Moschino has adopted cartoonist Robert Armstrong's Mickey Rat for its New Year collection. Credit: Moschino
But first, let's address the obvious shortcomings of this year's zodiac beast.
Rodents are a tough sell. And in China, where cases of the plague continue to this day, they have an especially troublesome reputation (though marmots must take some blame for the disease's persistence).
Rats were even officially condemned in 1958, alongside flies, mosquitoes and sparrows, in Mao Zedong's "Four Pests Campaign," which called on the people to eliminate them entirely. Spoiler: It didn't work.
So, come 2020, would brands attempt to distance themselves from the decidedly unglamorous legacy of the Black Death? Or would they attempt to rebrand the rat as a lovable critter who, according to legend, won the Great Race by riding on the ox's back before jumping across the finish line? After all, in China, those born in the Year of the Rat are expected to be intelligent, quick-witted and outgoing, if a little stubborn.
Burberry's rat character, Ratberry, hidden in a monogrammed leather card case.
Burberry's rat character, Ratberry, hidden in a monogrammed leather card case. Credit: Burberry
Naturally, some fashion houses have attempted to cartoon-ify -- and thus make cute -- the widely reviled rodent. Burberry, for instance, has created "Ratberry," a curiously doe-eyed rat in a pearl necklace and branded cap. The character appears in a special online game and a series of New Year stickers on the omnipresent messaging platform WeChat.
Burberry's accompanying clothes and accessories are either ostensibly rat-free, or rather obscure poor Ratberry's face, hiding her away in the brand's now pervasive monogram. But at least they didn't try to pass her off as a mouse -- the character's long tail makes a proud appearance though it's adorned with a star, adding a touch of glamour.
A Year of the Rat T-shirt from the Brooks Brothers' festive collection.
A Year of the Rat T-shirt from the Brooks Brothers' festive collection. Credit: Brooks Brothers
Elsewhere, Brooks Brothers has created a dapper looking gentleman rat, while Moschino adopted cartoonist Robert Armstrong's Mickey Rat, a not-so-subtle parody of Mickey Mouse.
Other labels have been altogether more figurative. Fendi's limited-edition men's wallet and bag ($450 and $1,290 respectively) feature a rat comprised of triangles and abstract shapes. Even more cerebral are Givenchy's '70s-inspired designs that supposedly depict rats, though plenty of squinting is required.
Men's mini bag from Fendi's Chinese new year 2020 collection.
Men's mini bag from Fendi's Chinese new year 2020 collection. Credit: Fendi
Conversely, a number of brands have embraced the rat in all its disease-spreading, long-tailed glory. For instance, Coach's $145 "rat bag charm" (now there's a combination of words you never thought you'd read) has an unmistakably rat-like tail. French label Chloé, meanwhile, has produced a series of disconcertingly lifelike illustrations of unkempt rodents printed on bags and T-shirts in near-fluorescent shades of pink, yellow and blue.
And in a synergy of realism and the online zeitgeist, Rag & Bone has immortalized Pizza Rat, the industrious rodent that enjoyed viral fame in 2015 after it was filmed dragging a slice of pizza through the New York subway.
Rag & Bone's range draws inspiration from viral sensation, Pizza Rat.
Rag & Bone's range draws inspiration from viral sensation, Pizza Rat. Credit: Rag & Bone
Top marks, however, are reserved for Marc Jacobs, who didn't just embrace rats -- he invited them over for a photo shoot. His label's collaboration with Miami-based skate brand, Stray Rats, comes with images of models keeping straight faces as rodents explore their upper bodies. And before anyone accuses Jacobs of jumping on the bandwagon, note his track record: The capsule collection is "an homage to Marc Jacobs' line 'Stinky Rat' from the early 2000s," we're told.
A campaign shot from a collaboration between Marc Jacobs and the Miami skate brand Stray Rats.
A campaign shot from a collaboration between Marc Jacobs and the Miami skate brand Stray Rats. Credit: Marc Jacobs / Stray Rats
There are ways around the predicament, though. Benefiting from the fact that the Chinese word for "rat" can also be translated as "mouse," Gucci has plastered Mickey Mouse's smiling face across sweatshirts, luggage and much else besides. Miu Miu has turned to long-time girlfriend Minnie Mouse, while both Kate Spade and Italian label Etro feature Jerry (of "Tom and Jerry" fame).
But though these companies could be accused of dodging the dilemma, others have sidestepped the issue entirely. Dior opted for phoenix motifs (because why not?), while Celine released a series of understated accessories featuring just occasional flashes of the auspicious red color worn at Chinese New Year. Diane von Furstenberg, meanwhile, has launched a series of red floral print dresses that one could reasonably wear during any zodiac year.
In creating something a little less fleeting, perhaps these are the brands we should applaud. Because there's an unavoidable truth lurking in the seemingly frivolous world of zodiac-themed luxury goods -- fashion's role in the climate crisis, in creating resource-intensive products dependent on passing trends.
There's nothing wrong, per se, about brands marking the Lunar New Year (just look at Nike's heartwarming ad about a girl going to great lengths to refuse cash-stuffed red envelopes from a doting relative). But why must their campaigns be propped up with items so transient in purpose and design?
As well as laying bare labels' pandering to the Chinese market, it sends a tone-deaf signal from an industry already among the world's most polluting. These are clothes and accessories that will, by definition, be useless for at least the next 11 years -- items so brazen about their planned obsolescence, that they're actually stamped with expiration dates in cartoon form. Nothing says "so two seasons ago" like a Bottega Veneta poodle wallet from the Year of the Dog. What could be more embarrassing than to sport a Michael Kors monkey charm in 2020?
If the fashion industry is to achieve anything resembling sustainability in the coming decades, it must temper the rapid cycle of consumption. And if Chinese consumers are later blamed for its failure to do so, then Western brands should take as much -- if not more -- responsibility for flogging them the idea that fashion is disposable.
Surely a $1,300 rat bag should be for life, not just for the New Year.