If you stroll through the quiet boulevards of Shanghai’s former foreign concession, right under the rows of famous plane trees, you can come across a crowd with very peculiar features. It’s a mass of people dressed up and posing. Most of them are young, surrounded by a platoon of photographers. Some carry a duffel bag with different outfits to try. Others speak alone in front of a tripod staring at the screen as if they were playing a part. It is, above all, at the intersection between Anfu Road (安福路) and Wukang Road (武康路), where the largest number of fashion bloggers, lifestyle gurus, and, more in general digital content creators from all over the city gather.
In this article, I will continue the analysis of the shopping environments and social rituals of contemporary China. In the first episode, the journey through the megacities and phantasmagorias of today’s country began with a stop in Beijing’s Parkview Green. Designed by Integrated Design Associates, completed in 2012 and winner of several architecture awards, Parkview Green was actually the perfect starting point. Then a second piece was written as an expedition inside The Roof lifestyle hub in Xintiandi, designed by Jean Nouvel. The third episode kept up with that tour by exploring Beijing’s fashion centre Taikoo Li Sanlitun to show how to make a retail space a trendy core.
Anfu road is one of the main spots for people to take street style pictures in Shanghai
Now the time has come to show how social media can give life to a new, banalised form of dandyism and attribute symbolic meaning to a public space building a new “urban scene.”
From online cosmetics brand Harmay’s first brick-and-mortar store to the Italian clothing boutique Brandy Melville: How Shanghai’s trendiest shops transformed a normal crossroad into the “Internet Celebrities’ Street”
The process of transforming a quiet corner of old Shanghai into the “Internet Celebrities’ Street” began a few years ago. Undoubtedly, this street is representative of Shanghai’s artistic tune that some literary and cinematographic works have celebrated: think, for example, of the film Myth of Love (爱情神话) of 2021.
Everyday life on Anfu road
However, the first ingredient of Anfu Road’s transformation is the settlement of some of the trendiest food and beverage shops in town. Harmay, where customers have a coffee sitting on deck chairs in the sun and facing the street as if they were on the beach. Or, Alimentari, which has established itself as an emblem of a pleasure-loving, albeit relaxed, lifestyle.
Then there are the clothes shops, which in Anfu Road have acted in synchrony, creating a microcosm that attracts especially the youngest. The sequence is opened at the western end by In the Park and closed at the east by the new Looknow flagship: two of the most popular buyer shops in Shanghai. In the middle are some chains and pop-up stores, destinations in vogue because they are connected to successful online profiles. The most famous store is probably Brandy Melville: established in Italy, it is well-known for its tight-fitting and mono-size fast fashion garments. With an intentionally Spartan interior, it has been criticised on Chinese social networks for imposing a controversial ideal of female beauty: that of the “white, young, thin” girl (白瘦幼).
Anfu Road is emblematic of the relationship between real and virtual retail space in China
The resonance that Anfu Road has enjoyed in social media is certainly the main reason that magnetises visitors to this location, especially during the weekends. I refer, in particular, to Douyin, the Chinese version of Tiktok, an influential fashion sales platform, and the “Little Red Book” (小红书), the most widespread lifestyle social media of the moment. These platforms host short videos, daily life suggestions, and street snaps that show a thousand shades of “cuteness” and can have a high commercial value.
Brandy Melville's entrance in Anfu road
In short, with its shops, picture opportunities, and beautiful crowd, Anfu Road provides a scenario transfiguring everyday life in an aesthetic sense through social media. This mechanism works not only for the innumerable people who have tried, with more or less success, to figure out a job as an “influencer” or fashion marketer but also for everyone else.
Being actors or spectators in the Anfu Road arena makes little difference. The characteristics and atmosphere of the street help “move” the place away from daily life, bringing it closer to the “ideal” and Platonic world of web idols.
For the new cyber dandy, the life show replaces life itself
The nineteenth-century dandy – think Beau Brummel and Oscar Wilde – was an extravagant character who stood out from the crowd to show off his sophisticated elegance. A dandy had to live and sleep in front of a mirror, making himself exceptional and impeccable.
The Look Now store in Anfu road
This aristocratic ideal, summed up by the slogan of “a life as a work of art” forged by the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, has spread and been trivialised in consumer society. Fashion today is a global phenomenon, and it is no longer reserved for the lucky few, as it was in the nineteenth century.
Furthermore, with social media, we can all exhibit the signs of “distinction” to the point of transfiguring our daily life in an aesthetic sense. We can continually reinvent our image, shape it to our liking or even crystallise it, immortalising the best “moments” of our life.
The intersection between Anfu road and Wukang road
There is, however, an insidious danger in this process, evident to anyone coming for a Sunday afternoon stroll on Anfu Road. The risk that the imperative to leave a testimony on social networks prevails over and ultimately supplants life itself. The motto of “a life as a work of art” is overturned here. Real life disappears, and only its online phantom remains.