Can Rats Be Chic? Fashion Labels Are Trying For Lunar New Year


(Bloomberg) -- Each year, fashion labels seeking to cash in on the coming Lunar New Year turn to the corresponding zodiac animal for cutesy designs. They’ve made doggy denim jackets, itty-bitty pig charms, monkey necklaces and rooster handbags. But this time, designers don’t have an adorable rabbit to work with. Nor do they have a majestic horse or a fiery dragon. 

No, 2020 is the Year of the Rat.

Of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs — which also include goats, tigers, oxen and snakes  — the rat is perhaps the least appealing. That’s a problem for apparel and luxury retailers that have increasingly latched onto the holiday and turned it into a global shopping event. In Paris, New York and beyond, stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s splash their shops in vivid red and hang the paper lanterns that symbolize wishes for a bright future.

Can Rats Be Chic? Fashion Labels Are Trying For Lunar New Year

There’s a lot at stake:  Chinese consumers are expected to contribute almost two-thirds of global growth in luxury spending heading into 2025, according to McKinsey. And the impact extends well beyond China itself. This year, the Lunar New Year falls on January 25. It will be celebrated all over the world, especially in countries with large Chinese populations like Singapore and Indonesia. In the U.S., the party kicks off this week with parades in Los Angeles and New York.

These overseas shoppers are so crucial to companies that a lull in Chinese tourism over the past year sent ripples across the industry and caused stock declines at companies like Tiffany & Co. and Coach parent Tapestry Inc. Both companies responded by making plans to expand in China in order to reach shoppers on their home turf.

Companies are taking differing approaches to tackling the rat issue. Some brands, like Longchamp, didn’t even put an actual rat on their merchandise, opting for a more abstract rodent-adjacent alternative: cheese. Disney, for obvious reasons, prefers to call it the Year of the Mouse.

Whatever the strategy, the products have to look chic. Rat-chic. But the rat might not be as difficult to work with as it seems.

Can Rats Be Chic? Fashion Labels Are Trying For Lunar New Year

Fashion trends grounded in spirituality, ancestral wisdom and mythology have been on the rise, said Francesca Muston,  fashion director at consultancy and trend forecaster WGSN. Shoppers, stressed out by politics, climate change and any number of other issues, are now seeking “meaningful connections” with the items they buy. That’s particularly true with younger consumers, and this could outweigh any of the rat’s distasteful elements. 

“The zodiac animals are quite a literal aspect of this trend,” Muston said. “The rat may seem like a hard sell by comparison to some of the other mythical creatures we’ve seen recently, such as the unicorn, but don’t underestimate Gen Z’s ability to really own a trend which feels ironic, unexpected, or even controversial.”

Indeed, rats have gotten the full couture treatment at the high fashion houses. There was a 76% increase in New Year’s products hitting the luxury market this year, compared to the year prior, according to data from research firm Edited.  Almost half the new items are red, representing good fortune. 

Fendi is selling leather goods with its logo print and a little polygonal rat with a yellow face and red body. The silk scarves and bandeau’s in Salvatore Ferragamo’s New Year’s collection sneak mice ever so delicately into their floral prints. Burberry integrated a rat wearing a pearl necklace onto its monogram. Mansur Gavriel released a line of bucket bags with a red rat motif. Coach designed a little rat charm that looks like an animal skeleton puzzle, while Marc Jacobs teamed with fashion label Stray Rats on a set of hoodies, tees and knitwear with rat silhouettes emblazoned across the chest.

Can Rats Be Chic? Fashion Labels Are Trying For Lunar New Year

Rag & Bone chose to reference a 2015 viral video of an intrepid rat carrying a slice of pizza down the stairs at a New York City subway station. It appears to have paid off: Most sizes of the Pizza Rat shirts and shoes have sold out. Tory Burch has a $498 rodent-shaped handbag named “Rita the Rat” that also comes in sweater form. Longchamp decided on the cheese route, releasing a collection of bags in collaboration with Tao Ling, also known as Mr. Bags, a Chinese fashion blogger. They’re covered in hole-filled wedges of Swiss. 

Watchmakers and jewelers are on board too. A bright red Harry Winston watch in rose gold sets the silhouette of a rat against a mother-of-pearl dial. Vacheron Constantin, Panerai and Blancpain made rat watches too. Faberge is even selling a $9,500 red enamel egg locket with 17 round white diamonds set in yellow gold. There’s a gold rat with diamond eyes hiding inside. They’re calling it a “rat surprise.”

Can Rats Be Chic? Fashion Labels Are Trying For Lunar New Year

For Disney, the Year of the Rat is particularly welcome, since it’s the closest Mickey Mouse comes to getting his own year, and the company has several collaborations featuring its 91-year-old cartoon star. Watchmaker Citizen created a limited-edition timepiece with a golden Mickey on the dial. Aldo put both Mickey and Minnie on a selection of bags, watches and shoes. 

At the Gucci flagship on New York’s Fifth Avenue, shoppers who walk in past the doorman are greeted with an entire New Year’s section. The items range from $900 slippers and $1,700 pajama pants to $3,200 suitcases. Each one features some version of the rodent.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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