This dispatch appeared in S01 Episode 7, along with Bee Mystery [Citation Needed] by Joshua Dummer. All images used with creator’s permission. Cover illustration by Jen Rao.

Xuandi: I was killing time on Xiaohongshu (小红书, also known as RED) when a photo caught me off guard.

A silver-haired man in an outsized blazer jacket and garish ripped jeans, nonchalantly walking down a street with a pink grocery bag in his hands. It stood out among all the filtered and edited photos on this influencer-heavy platform. There was an effortless charm to it—a perfect balance between humble wardrobe staple and ostentatious swagger.

The photo was on an account called Senior Fashion Hub (老年时装俱乐部), operated by Qin Xiao (秦霄), a fashion photographer based in Shanghai. Originally from Shanxi, Qin launched his career as a wedding photographer, but later switched to work in commercials. Being immersed in the fashion industry, he was tired of how, as he told me, “the youth often relentlessly chase the latest fashion trends.” So instead, he turned his lens to capture seniors on the streets.

Entranced by the way seniors dress in Shanghai, Qin began to snap their photos in 2019, a hobby that later developed into a long-term project. The subjects of Senior Fashion Hub are mostly in their 60s and 70s. It has garnered an impressive following online, attracting more than 26,000 fans on RED and even surprising coverage from the state-affiliated Global Times.

A buzzy lifestyle-focused social media platform with over 300 million registered users, Xiaohongshu marries Instagram-like feeds with online storefronts. Catering to mostly fashion-forward young women, influencers on the platform often post highly edited outfit photos and direct them to purchase the products they back.

Krish: A VC-backed “Steal Her Look.”

Xuandi: But Senior Fashion Hub doesn’t have any commercial bent. The account has no purchase links and is backed by no endorsement deals.

Qin divides his work into two categories. The first is seniors who take their outfits seriously, and those efforts are often clearly visible. “I’ve sometimes spotted hand-made leather boots, or well-ironed pants, without any creases. Sometimes, the color palette is very harmonious. Even though there is nothing expensive, you can tell these seniors put some thought into their outfits.”

The second category, Qin’s favorite, is what he calls 野生, or the “wild” type—bedazzling mix-and-match, chaotic, without obeying any rules.

For instance, to add more color to her patchwork jacket, a lady in her 60s or 70s puts on a pair of SpongeBob slippers. A guy wears a meme-cat hoodie while dancing with his female friend at a park.

These combinations both puzzled and delighted me. I genuinely could not figure out if these seniors bought their clothes themselves or were just recycling whatever their family members threw away. Under one photo on Xiaohongshu, someone commented, “maybe this uncle just couldn’t find anything to wear offhand, so he put on the mink overcoat from his wife, sweatpants from his grandson, and hiking boots from his son.”

Some even went further and did some forensic analysis of these items of clothing. “The hat is given for free if you buy nutritional supplements. I often see seniors wearing it,” reads one comment. “When I was little, fashionable women in my hometown would wear this kind of vest. I was born in Zhejiang,” goes another.

In addition to the nostalgia those photos evoke, some followers genuinely appreciate these outfits and use them as daily inspiration. As fashion brands recycle bygone aesthetics, why not just borrow the look directly from the older generation? “This photo looks like it's directly from a Saint Laurent Paris walky,” reads one comment, under that first photo that caught my attention.

I am dazzled by these photos because they are so counter to a platform infiltrated by advertisements. On Xiaohongshu, influencers carefully develop their personas through staging and outfit choices on their photos. Get a college hoodie or a varsity jacket if you want to look like an Ivy-League student. Before going to a punk concert, remember to order some chains and necklaces on Taobao.

Their photos put forward cookie-cutter narratives about lifestyles and subcultures. As advertisements, they’re meant to replicate. They invite consumers to copy their looks, making them derivative and banal.

But the “wild” fashion of Senior Fashion Hub feels different. Instead of neat templates, they function more like assemblages. A “bricolage” of fashion rooted in the real world rather than in easy archetypes.

That auntie could be wearing a free hat scoured from a promotional event, a plastic bag used for grocery shopping, and a hoodie borrowed from her grandson. The lack of organization, or an underlying organizing principle, sparks something almost magical-realist. The messiness defies any efforts to name or categorize. It mesmerizes people like me with a tactility and sensation that cannot be easily summarized online.

“After 20 or 30 years,” Qin said. “These photos would be the best ones to encapsulate our time.”

Yan: This reminds me of “Fairy Tales,” a documentary by director Guo Rongfei. The film’s main character, Wang Shouying, is a woman from rural Shandong province with no professional background in fashion. Her designs, mostly using materials easily found in her village, are a mix and match of high fashion and “wild” fashion. When she posted photos of her work on Weibo, many of them shot in a messy, backlit storage space, people were quick to judge and mock her design. As she gained traction and exhibited her work in a gallery in Shanghai, the audience, while wearing luxury brands and sipping champagne, were fascinated by its rawness. It says a lot about what fashion is and who gets to define it nowadays. And the joke is on us if we submit ourselves to brand names or approvals from fashion gatekeepers, and are unable to recognize the wild and effortless creativity among us.  

Henry: As someone who’s told he dresses like a Chinese septuagenarian, I’d say that if there’s a horseshoe theory for Chinese fashion, its two metal tips are the country’s hip young clothing designers and its cheerfully slapdash seniors, who are united by this bricoler’s sensibility—the latter “innocently,” the former with a blend of homage and parody. Take the relatively new boutique design studio Marrkknull, whose clothes appear in runways in London. (The model, in case you couldn’t tell, is the one on the left.)

I, too, marvel at how these old folks manage so effortlessly to achieve the stylistic dissonance that a PBR-drinking Wesleyan student might strive for—but then I remember that their fake Kumamon totes and Kenzo caps likely come from the same production line, where the sole operative similarity—a foreign logo—overshadows supposed differences in “branding,” which mean nothing to either the factory or the consumers. In which case, the clothes don’t clash at all—I’m the one who’s aesthetically unmoored.

Jaime: The fact that we don't accuse fashionable seniors of "selling out" "personal style" or "branding" for "wanghong" makes me wonder what rules apply to senior "street style" fashion—i.e. how aware are they of Qin's photography? Do they care? While it's really good content, does it become ethically blurry in any way in how these images get produced or in how we consume cute senior content that we enjoy partly because of the distance from our own "modernity?" And to Henry's point about the fashion horseshoe, it also becomes a kind of litmus test for people who either "get it" or don't.

Ting: Continuing Henry’s point - I feel like what puts the “cool” in “too-cool” (土酷) fashion is just ironic detachment, i.e. “you have to know the rules to break them”. But I’m also curious to know what these seniors actually think, not just about the consumption of their images, as Jaime noted, but their actual intention and process - what logic might we be imposing on them when we brand them as original, creative and unaware, especially as a counterpoint to modern consumerism that plagues “the public/the youth” but supposedly leaves them untouched? Where are we placing ourselves on this spectrum?

Yi-Ling: I’m reminded, by Jaime and Ting’s point, of Tumblr blogs that emerged a few years back called “Accidental Chinese Hipsters” that mostly featured the elderly, and their mish-mash, sponge-bob, unintentional bricolage fashion. In fact, a quick search on Google will yield a whole genre of that form of online content, like HuffPost’s “14 Chinatown Seniors with More Swag Than Anyone You Know.” The tone teeters on a delicate balance of admiration and paternalism towards the elderly, earnest fashion blog and irony-laden comedy. To me, the Xiaohongshu blog still lies on the former side of the balance, and the HuffPo article on the latter. But it’s a thin line.

Xuandi Wang is a writer who grew up in Zhejiang. His spiritual animal is Sufjan Stevens.

Jen Rao, aka drift & dune, is an illustrator and artist based in Beijing, and the co-founder and creative director of nugget records, a DIY cassette label and venue.

Yan Cong is a Beijing-based photographer, and one of the founders of Far & Near, a Substack about visual storytelling in China. You should subscribe!

Krish Raghav is a comic-book artist in Beijing. His Wikipedia bio would contain the section “Power Station Incident.”  

Jaime (bot) is a critic and translator in Beijing who works in Chaoyang and has moved to Chaoyang. She is also a contributing editor at Spike.    

Henry Zhang is 30-going-on-75.

Ting Lin is a writer in Beijing. She has very vivid nightmares about goldfish.

Yi-Ling Liu is a writer in Beijing. She paused climbing for a while b/c spinal health.