Brandstorm is a monthly series featuring the most notable brands in the worlds of fashion, beauty, and retail in China. From edgy jewelry designers to the country’s most coveted influencers, these are some of the industry’s most talked-about names.
If you’re lingerie brand Neiwai, you’ll know that lightning can strike the same place twice.
The company, whose name in Chinese translates to “inside, outside,” went viral on Chinese social media last year with its “No Body is Nobody” campaign released before International Women’s Day. The 14-minute mini-doc and photo series, which coincided with Neiwai’s expansion to more inclusive sizing, seemed to celebrate women’s bodies of all shapes and sizes.
Directed by photographer Luo Yang, who is best known for her ongoing Girls series featuring portraits of diverse women, the project featured a handful of real Neiwai wearers that had shared their stories with the brand over social media. The women were given nicknames such as “Muffin Top” and “Scars” as a critique of the restrictive body standards and labels used to pigeonhole them, and their photos were paired with honest quotes that projected confidence and body positivity. “Less is more,” reads one tagline for a model who talked about her smaller-sized breasts. “I’ve loved this body for 58 years, and still do,” read another.
The campaign went viral on social media — the video quickly garnered 262,000 views on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, and Neiwai’s two official posts on social messaging app WeChat received almost 100,000 views within the first 48 hours of their release.
Then on March 1 this year, Neiwai revisited the project featuring a new cast of women. Once again, it went viral — the related hashtag peaked at 16.5 million views at the time of writing.
Known by its customers for soft fabrics, wireless bras, and muted color palettes, the brand had built a reputation as a standout voice for body positivity as early as 2018, but in 2020 “No Body is Nobody” cemented it as one of the most talked about brands of the year.
“This gave me goosebumps,” one user wrote on Neiwai’s official WeChat post in 2020. “Although I know this is an advertisement for March 8 [Women’s Day], I’m still touched by this concept,” wrote another. “Society may put a lot of pressure on women, telling us what kind of body is beautiful, but these ads let us feel the power of real women’s bodies.”
“The reason [the campaign has] been so well-received isn’t only because local women are open-minded and self-aware,” Neiwai co-founder Liu Xiaolu told Jing Daily in 2020. “[It’s] also because we aren’t dogmatic or pedagogical when we communicate with our customers, but prefer to be inspiring and encouraging.”
Before founding Neiwai, Liu worked as a strategic analyst helping multinational corporations tap the Chinese market. After having her first child however, she decided to pivot and founded her own online-only lingerie brand in 2012. (That same year, Liu also set up a charity called Her Voice Forum 她说, which indicates her commitment to dialogue around women’s issues). In a 2016 interview with China Daily, she said she chose lingerie partly because she felt other brands on the market were designed to please others, as she once had been doing with her own career.
“It would be a little exaggerated to call it feminist,” Liu said at the time, “but I wanted to create a brand that doesn’t twist, suppress, or objectify women’s bodies. Instead, it makes them comfortable and happy, which I think is a higher form of sexiness.”
Neiwai’s 2020 campaign surfaced at a time when, as viral social media discussions and female-centric television shows put women’s issues front and center, female netizens were reevaluating their status in Chinese society.
What’s more, the brand’s message and imagery was likely a sight for sore eyes against a largely unforgiving social media landscape particularly when it comes to thinness. Viral weight loss challenges are a regular occurrence on the Chinese internet. The most recent of these has been “BM style,” after an unverified sizing chart began circulating on the Chinese internet that alleged the ideal weight for wearers of Brandy Melville clothing was underweight.
“In Asian culture especially, the definition of women’s beauty is rather narrow,” Luo Yang tells RADII. “The idea that girls should be pale and thin in order to be beautiful — it puts women under a lot of pressure and results in many of them lacking confidence. I think it’s time for women to define their own beauty.”
Valen Li, a 26-year-old government worker and Neiwai buyer, said of the campaigns: “I think brands can have a say in women’s empowerment, and I do think Neiwai are promoting a healthier and broader definition of beauty.
“On the one hand, women’s bodies are judged by society, and this makes women anxious. On the other hand, they are also starting to appreciate their own bodies and refusing to be judged and objectified.”
What’s more, in China many women are embracing comfort as a source of confidence rather than overt sexiness.
This was echoed in netizens’ reception to Victoria’s Secret’s newly-appointed brand ambassador for China, actress Zhou Dongyu — interpreted by some as a well-timed response to Neiwai’s “No Body” campaign. Zhou, whose protagonist in the 2016 film Soulmate deemed bras “unnecessary” due to her flat chest, is a far cry from the Angels that typically strut down the catwalks of their annual runway shows.
“The best lingerie ads don’t treat women as objects of desire or to be gazed at,” reads one highly upvoted comment on Neiwai’s Weibo post on March 1, 2021. “Love the concept behind Neiwai’s campaigns.”
With a captive audience in China, Neiwai now has its eyes set on international expansion. After setting up their first English-language ecommerce site in August 2020, the brand plans to open its first store internationally in San Francisco after the pandemic subsides.
Neiwai positioned itself from its advent as a brand making lingerie for Chinese body types, and seemingly intends to expand on that. “We actually help a lot of females with small breasts in China feel more confident and comfortable,” Liu told WWD in 2018, “and that is very important because in China around 60 percent are A cup or B cup. They were not that confident about their bodies before as they couldn’t find any comfortable bras that fit them.” Liu similarly told Jing Daily in 2020 that there was a market for Asian body types that the lingerie brand was hoping to fill in countries such as the US.
Vickie Wang, a 35-year-old copywriter based in Shanghai, has been a Neiwai buyer since 2020. “I was intrigued by a new Chinese lingerie brand that isn’t so focused on traditionally ‘sexy’ features like padding and lace,” she says, “and they had a color palette that looked great on Asian skin tones.”
But she adds that among her friends, particularly those from abroad, Neiwai may still have sizing limitations for them. “Everything I’ve ever purchased from them has been comfortable, but I have friends who are bigger-chested than me that struggle with the sizing and fit,” says Wang, “which I guess is counter to [Neiwai’s] mission to be ‘body positive,’ and I would assume along with that, body type-inclusive.”
It’s impossible to write off what Neiwai has done, however, in creating what is essentially the first “body positive” campaign in China. “It’s been very exciting to watch a domestic brand take on this mission and do it well,” says Wang.
“With these campaigns especially, Neiwai showed us that Chinese people are diverse. We come in all shapes, sizes, and styles.”
Header image: Mayura Jain (based on Neiwai campaign)
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