Last Year, COVID Racism Came for Wet Markets. Now, Prada Is Trying to Make Them Cool.

After Asian wet markets and food were bullied by COVID racism, a Shanghai marketplace gets a haute couture treatment.
October 7, 2021, 9:54am
Prada's 2021 campaign, Feels Like Prada, sees the Italian brand taking over Wuzhong Market, a Shanghai wet market.
People visit Wuzhong wet market in Shanghai, China, decorated with Prada’s patterns and logos as Prada takes over the entire market to launch its fall 2021 campaign ‘Feels Like Prada.’ Photo: Chen Yuyu/VCG via Getty Images

Wet markets—the type of marketplace at the center of a debate on how the COVID-19 pandemic started—are now the subject of a high fashion takeover, in a campaign that challenges stereotypes of such markets as dirty alleyways and breeding ground for pathogens.

Since last Monday, the aisles of Wuzhong Market in downtown Shanghai—from vegetable racks to flower stands and meat display cases—have been lined with designer print. Here, shoppers can score the most ordinary of Chinese groceries—a fresh bunch of leeks, a fat bitter gourd, and a box of jujubes—all wrapped and bagged in Prada packaging.

The revamped Wuzhong Market is part of the Italian fashion house’s Fall/Winter 2021 campaign, “Feels Like Prada,” which features a series of pop-ups around the world with local themes.

While Prada did not set out to make an explicit political statement, the depiction of the wet market as something of an ordinary farmer’s market refutes the notion that wet markets are unhygienic by design. In fact, the term simply refers to a marketplace that sells fresh meat and other perishable goods, and there are dirty wet markets as well as clean and posh ones.

Now, influencers are swarming to Wuzhong Market for photo ops, posing with produce and doing whatever influencers do. 

But before Prada partnered with the market, wet markets were “viral” for another reason.

After the outbreak of COVID-19, several wet markets in the central Chinese city Wuhan that sold a variety of wild animals were suspected to be a culprit in the transmission of the virus. Those markets were later found, in fact, to have poor hygiene conditions and traded potential animal hosts of SARS-CoV-2, such as raccoon dogs, civets, and minks.

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Around the world, Asian wet markets and Asian cuisine were indiscriminately shunned and made the butt of racist jokes—a trend that still continues today.

The Prada campaign shows how wet markets have evolved over time and, in the case of China, adapted to rising living standards while still remaining an important local landmark.

But as the Prada-branded Wuzhong Market continues to draw photo-takers to its aisles, not everyone is happy about the new crowd magnet. Some decried the pervasive influencer culture as young people flooded the local market for the Chinese equivalent of the ‘gram.

Even before the Prada takeover, Wuzhong Market was already somewhat of a local influencer haven. Since it was renovated in 2019 to boast a photogenic retro interior, the two-story wet market has been a hotspot for influencers striving to get the perfect grocery-chic shot.

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