Madness: Is The End Near?

Hong Kong star Shawn Yue’s streetwear label Madness will close its Beijing store this week. The future of the brand isn’t looking bright

Madness store in Beijing’s Sanlitun. Photo: Liu Zhuolan

At the height of its popularity in 2017, the sole free-standing Madness store in Beijing’s Sanlitun (renamed in 2013 as Sanlitun Taikoo Li) shopping district often attracted such a snaking crowd that the queue time to get in was typically an hour and a half. Opened in 2016 to considerable fanfare, the lavishly appointed store was considered by retail observers to be the height of Madness. The streetwear brand was started by Hong Kong actor/singer/model Shawn Yue (余文乐) in 2014. This week, on Chinese social media, the phrase 倒闭了 (dao bi le or close down) was shared like wild fire after Madness announced on Weibo (微博) that they will shut their one and only store in the world on 25 February, their last day of operation. It added, “我们稍后将以另外一种形式于北京和大家再次见面!敬请留意 (we will meet you and Beijing again in another form later. Please take note).” The only thing Chinese Netizens took notice was that Madness is scheduled to “close down”.

Signs of the brand’s retail failure had, in fact, emerged last month when Madness closed its Tmall (天猫 or tianmao, a B2C e-commerce platform) store on 29 January, confirming rumours circulating at the start of the New Year that the brand will shutter around the Spring Festival. The closure had upset fans, who took to social media to complain of how sudden the shutting down was. Apparently, the store left no notice of its impending closure. Mr Yue did not say anything on his social media pages either. The Madness Weibo page made one last post on 11 Jan, with no mention of the Tmall store’s fate. Shoppers were not directed elsewhere. When we visited the brand’s Tmall “旗舰店” (qijiandian or flagship), we were greeted with a notice “店铺终止经营公告 (shop termination announcement)” and the date of its closure. The brand’s official Instagram account, with 358K followers, curiosly has only 7 posts. The Madness online store is still operating (its opening page shows a pensive Shawn Yue behind a pair of impenetrable shades), but much of its merchandise is marked “sold out”.

Inside the Madness Beijing store. Photo: Madness

It is not yet known why Madness has chosen to shutter their Beijing store. The brand has not responded to Chinese media’s request for comments. Unsurprisingly, speculation has been rife. The protracted COVID shutdowns and restrictions are probable causes. Some say that the lease of the space is expiring and negotiation with the landlord amounted to nought. According to local news reports, interest in Chinese celebrity-conceived brands during the pre-COVID years of 国潮 (guo chao or the trend of consuming home-born brands) has waned. There is also the possibly that the shopping destination itself is no longer the shopper magnet that it was. When it opened in 2008, the Kengo Kuma-designed Sanlitun was touted as the capital’s most luxurious and the hippest shopping destination. Last year, Dover Street Market Beijing, with its own glassed, box-like building, moved out of Sanlitun after 12 years there for the newer WF Central in 王府井 (wangfujing) a commercial hub within walking distance from the Forbidden City. DSMB’s exit hinted at Sanlitun’s fading hipster, even avant-garde edge.

Closer observation has been made on Madness itself. Conceived in 2014, the brand rode on the popularity of the street style of the time that leaned heavily on the workwear and military fatigues favoured by Japanese brands such as Neighborhood and WTAPS, as opposed to the more skateboarding-centric or sporty styles of the Americans, as seen in brands such as Palace and Kith. It was thought that Madness embodied Shawn Yue’s personal style, which has remained largely unchanged: baggy tees, just-as-large Oxford shirts, military-style jackets, and roomy shorts or trousers. Or, what an SOTD reader from Hong Kong called “dads-who-think-they’re-cool look”. While Madness has a relatable vibe, it has not distinguished itself from those that are aesthetically similar, and have been around much longer. Mainland Netizens—as well as those from Hong Kong—pointed out that the brand has “copied” the labels they have modelled themselves after, including those they have collaborated with. They went as far as to say that even the Sanlitun store is evocative of the old Neighbourhood outpost on Hong Kong’s Ice House Street. One Hong Kong retail communications head told us that Madness was never targeted at the “true fashion consumer”, but “the Sham Shui Po kids who hang out in Mongkok”. The Chinese news portal 搜狐 (Sohu) was perhaps spot on when they described Shawn Yue’s style, “与其说潮,倒不如说他的穿衣风格易于模仿,适合大部分男生学习.” Simply put, rather then say he is trendy, why not just say his style is easy to immitate, suitable for most young men to learn from.

Mainland Netizens—as well as those from Hong Kong—pointed out that the brand has “copied” the labels they have modelled themselves after

Madness themselves had been embroiled in controversy too, weakening the brand’s cachet. In 2018, two years after the Salitun store opened, Shawn Yue was impelled to issue a public apology after the Madness online store stated that all orders could be shipped to countries that curiously (or carelessly?) included Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. It requires little effort to imagine the rabid outburst on social media, especially Weibo and Xiaohongshu (小红书). Mr Yue swiftly reacted on Weibo: “As the owner of Madness,” he wrote, “I am so sorry for such a big mistake and [causing] misunderstanding. I will take responsibility for failing to monitor the company well. We will conduct a comprehensive review and will not allow such mistakes to happen again.” Strangely, the brand did not appear to be more careful in how they tread thereafter. The “review”, it seemed, did not include merchandise. In 2020, the actor had to aplogise again for a red sweater sold that sported an image in the rear of a pair of raised lower arms, with one hand showing five fingers and another with a stretched-out index finger. The optics were at odds with the sentiments in the mainland. Netizens read that as the 2019/2020 Hong Kong protesters’ angry slogan “5 demands, not 1 less”. To them, Mr Yue “踩雷 (cailei or stepped on thunder, a stock market term that generally denotes making yet another supposedly sound investment that crashed)”, again.

Aware of the potentially irreversible fallout, Madness quickly withdrew the offensive product (and others akin to it) and explained that the illustration was a visual take on 42-year-old Shawn Yue’s long-time nickname 老六 (lao liu or literally old six, ascribed to the number he was assigned to when he played basketball in secondary school) and also 六叔 (liu shu or sixth uncle) among his younger fans who cannot see him as the 小鲜肉 (xiaoxianrou or little fresh meat) that he was described as when he starred in his first film 忧忧愁愁的走了 (Leaving in Sorrow) 22 years ago. Few thought that a term of endearment that isn’t particularly cute could easily take such an unfortunate turn. After the corporate statement, Mr Yue wrote on Weibo, “The design was completed originally in March 2019. As the owner of the brand, my team and I have to express our apologies for not handling it well throughout the whole process.” Process issues or not, to followers of the brand, the missteps were sheer madness.

Madness merchandise still available online. Product photos: Madness. Collage: Just So

Madness isn’t Mr Yue’s first fashion venture. In 2010, he started Common Sense, a start-up, if you will, that was very much a vehicle to help him get into collaborations with his favourite clothiers, primarily the Japanese. Mr Yue distinguished Common Sense as “a creative unit” while Madness is “a clothing brand”. It would be difficult to find a Hong Kong fashion professional to say that Common Sense is key in the history of the city’s fashion, but the brand did quickly get him noticed as a streetwear aficionado, to the extent that he became a serial collaborator with the popular Cantonese infotainment weekly 東Touch (East Touch), who has put him on their covers more times than readers can remember. In return, Mr Yue would support the magazine’s promotional activities by availing the collaborative output of his brands to East Touch, such as last year’s 1,017th issue of the title, which came with a camouflage scarf by A Bathing Ape X Common Sense. His ability in attracting Japanese labels to co-brand with his, we suspect, is likely due to his celebrity reach than him being the Special Administrative Region’s own Nigo. Japanese labels, such as Neighborhood had a head start in the Fragrant Harbour after their successfully pairing with Hong Kong brand Izzue, established in 1999 by the I.T Group. Interestingly, Izzue’s own take on work and military wear predates that zealously adopted by Madness.

Shawn Yue and Madness have often been compared to the other Hong Kong celeb fashion entrepreneur Edison Chen and his label Clot. Both men loathe the comparison. Yet, there are some similarities in their brands and their creative trajectories. Clot was founded a decade earlier—in 2003, the year of the SARS outbreak. It is available through the multi-label store Juice, also owned by Mr Chen. Born in Vancouver, but found fame in Hong Kong, he actively pushes modernised Chinese motifs for Clot, even using Chinese typography and graphics rather freely. For many Hong Kong consumers, Clot is the OG celebrity-birthed HK streetwear brand. So credible and “authentic”, and sophisticated it is considered to be that Dover Street Market happily stocks the label (you can find Clot at DSMS), upping Mr Chen’s business clout. Whether by fate or design, both labels opened in Sanlitun and, notably, both have left (or, Madness soon will). Outside China, Clot is also available online and in their own Juice stores, including the newly opened outpost in Los Angeles. Madness had brief selling seasons with Asia-Pacific stockists such as Studious in Japan and Supply Store in Australia. But, it is best no parallels are drawn between them—men and brands. In one online spat from 2019, when a Netizen commented that he hoped to see a collaboration between Clot and Madness, Edison Chen replied, “We [are] many levels above that wack shit.” Shawn Yue may have been prescient when he chose his brand’s moto: “madness breeds madness”.