Mention China in any fashion circle and the desire to expand or do business in the country quickly emerges as the hot topic of conversation. Despite reports of economic slowdown, China is currently seen as the leading frontier for fashion business and the market to crack among all the BRIC countries. The sheer number of inhabitants and the rapidly growing middle class signals greater opportunity than anywhere else on the planet. But as the world sees (name your currency) signs, in China—specifically Beijing, from where we report—a new, slow-brewing movement is looking inward for talent and design.
From all accounts, fashion is in its infancy in Beijing. The luxury brands are already present, and new boutiques are opening weekly for an expanding audience. The anecdotal feedback from store attendants is that a small, high-spending number of shoppers are responsible for most of the sales, but they provide little evidence to support that claim. Due to import tax, international products are on average 30% more expensive in mainland China, which begs the question: why would shoppers buy locally when they can instead relish the price savings and prestige of shopping overseas?
There are many questions surrounding Chinese consumption and buying habits, but the answer to many such questions is that international brands are taking the long-term approach. That said, local brands are not waiting for this strategy to play out. They are jumping in the mix with less money, little strategy and even less local support, but it’s a trend that cannot be ignored since the meaning of “Made in China” will continue to develop a new prestige over time.
To understand how these local brands size it, one must first understand the average consumer and industry mindset to locally grown fashion products. Firstly, customers generally look to the West for brands. These brand names come with credibility, aspiration and status. By contrast, various factors have been impediments for a thriving China-brewed market so far.
The local view presumably is that homegrown talents do not size up yet. A Beijing-based brand like Guo Pei, for example—who’s outlandish runway creations and celebrity red carpet dresses are a source of national pride—still has little brand recognition outside a small, elite audience. And you won’t find Chinese designers on the racks of venerable multi-brand boutiques such as Lane Crawford or Joyce. On the brand side, meanwhile, many Chinese labels are not always schooled in the ways of doing business, from concept to design to sales and marketing.
Several factors are converging to change this Chinese fashion identity, however. Brands such as Ochirly, Meters/bonwe and NE-TIGER compete with the Zaras and H&Ms of the world on a contemporary level, and have started to do so abroad as well. The country itself is also more visible in the press with China issues of magazines, such as last year’s notable American Vogue, also emerging as a hot trend.
Key figures and international players are also helping to fuel Chinese fashion exposure on the global stage. Chinese models such as Sun Feifei and Liu Wen have remained staples on the international catwalks, while cultural ambassadors such as Angelica Cheung (Vogue China’s editor in chief) and Hung Huang (a WWD contributor, entrepreneur of the highly influential Brand New China Boutique in Beijing and the publisher behind ILook magazine) have emerged as powerful international voices. And then there’s Yue-Sai Kan, the vision behind Miss Universe China and link to all things China.
It’s only so long before this newly important market transitions from a point of discussion to its own epicenter of local talent and influence. And that time is starting now. Over the next few months, we will spotlight Beijing and China as a whole, profiling the need to know talents, the stores that matter, e-commerce and the luxury market. Stay tuned.