A fan of the sensational, Temper Magazine turns to Shanghainese designer Xin Zhao of independent accessories brand REBYXINZHAO to escort us on a walk down one highly scented memory lane. It's scensational.
When it comes to the narrative of fashion or for that matter creative work, in our digitally led world the experience relies heavily, dare I say a little bit too much, on the sense of sight. It has been sensorially done to death. But what about scent?
Cultural quirks in terms of scent can offer a fascinating peek at the underlying conceptual differences of the country’s national identity.
For fashion the next consideration is often touch, the tactile interaction found in clothing — from the thrill of silk to the divinely cosy feel of cashmere — can help make or break an individual’s ‘qizhi’, the je ne sais quoi element of presence that serves as a key element of China’s beauty ideals. Yet the question beckons… What about scent?
While creators intuitively rely on their deep connection with themselves to sniff out their creative direction so to speak, olfactory abilities are too often left untouched and unexplored.
From the sweet autumnal fragrance of osmanthus to the seasonal memory of the powdery scent of Six Gods toilet water meets mosquito repellent, China is rife with smells that can both delight and shock in the humid raw heat of its many mega cities.
Could these shared smells be integrated in to the country’s creative scene to add another layer of depth for fashion or art? After all a whiff of this or a note of that can beautifully transport us to a nearly forgotten melody from the past.
As a passer-through, Temper Magazine turned to Shanghainese designer Xin Zhao (IG: @rebyxinzhao) of independent accessories brand REBYXINZHAO to escort us on a walk down memory lane.
“The characteristic piney licorice aroma always brings me back to the memories of my art school days, doing oil painting. It makes me realize how much I love art and to create with no purpose, but with joy.” Designer Xin Zhao
Temper: What are some scents or smells you associate with Shanghai?
Xin Zhao: I think this would be the scent of narcissi. Maybe because I’ve started to smell them again recently as they only blossom during Chinese New Year. You won’t see or smell them during any other time of year.
You will see how one very skilled florist can carefully and nicely carve out the bulb of a narcissus and let it grow like multiple cloves of garlic. It allows for the bulb come out with more flowers or even feature a rather artistic shape.
I feel like Shanghai is a pot of carefully carved out narcissi, so to speak. As elegant and delicate as it looks; yet also very strong and fearless because it grows during wintertime. At the height of its “fame”, it will burst into a passionate flower giving off a significant scent.
While each individual’s olfactory references may differ, what has always fascinated me is the culture’s universal sensitivity to smell.
Temper: Are any smells nostalgic for the city?
Xin Zhao: When I was a kid, our family lived in an old lane house with no piped gas. My grandma (and all my neighbors) would get up early everyday and light the coal stove to boil water for the whole family to use. That was the only way to save up gas from the tank for the cooking of that evening’s dinner. The smell of coal smoke in the morning is my most deeply rooted childhood memory. It holds within a high level of nostalgia.
Temper: What are your favorite smells here? What kind of mood do they bring to you and how has this related to you work or creative ethos?
Xin Zhao: I love the smell of turpentine. The characteristic piney licorice aroma always brings me back to the memories of my art school days, doing oil painting. It makes me realize how much I love art and to create with no purpose, but with joy. This is also a very precious feeling that I carry with me these days as I develop and explore new design concepts.
Offering an alternative narrative to think through scent is as much about memory as is an indicator of identity. And while each individual’s olfactory references may differ, what has always fascinated me is the culture’s universal sensitivity to smell.
Notably the judgmental exclamation “hao xiang!” meaning “so fragrant!” indicating disdain for any scent that is overpowering, cultural quirks offer a fascinating peek at the underlying conceptual differences of the country’s national identity that could and should be further explored to facilitate greater understanding of China and even ourselves, albeit deeply personal.
Written by Sandy Chu for Temper Magazine 2018. All rights reserved
An American with more than a decade of work experience in Shanghai, Sandy is a China specialist with experience in writing, research scouting, marketing, event management and translation. Holding a B.A. degree in Advertising, Sandy is a cum laude graduate of Michigan State University.
Currently working full-time at WGSN, Chu writes gated B2B content covering Asia product trends, Chinese consumer insights and Chinese digital marketing trends. In this role she has been quoted as an industry expert by BoF.
While her regular work remits focus on identifying and analyzing commercial trends, on a personal level she retains a passion for creative merit and cultural insights around China. Sandy previously ran her own fashion blog and creative events which have been featured in Time Out Shanghai, Femina China, Lonely Planet’s Shanghai city guide and the U.S. edition of Travel & Leisure.
She is currently working on developing her new blog Selective Attention.