The above photo, taken of a group of beautiful Chinese women, was at the front row of a recent Dior show in Paris. This photo is symbolic of the power welded by the Chinese market, and their place in international fashion. As is widely known, the market is very mature and all the high end luxury brands have had a strong presence in China for many years. In recent visits to China, I studied many of the most important high end shopping malls and western designers like Dior, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Rolex, Valentino et all are there, in the best locations, usually on the ground floor of shopping cities, or on the first floor. In my experience, it goes something like this: ground and first floor, all high end luxury labels, second floor is reserved for Chinese labels and western affordable labels like Vera Moda. Top floors usually house the restaurants, sports and niche labels.
I found the Chinese women to be beautiful, well dressed and well researched in all things which declare their newly found status of wealth and prestige in a booming economy. ‘Face’ is vital in Chinese society, and the show of wealth is of highest importance to all tiers of society, from how big your TV screen is, how many floors you can build, to how many labelled bags you own.
But what is next for fashion in China? What will be the behaviour of Chinese women and also men? And what of the emerging middle classes who are also keen to have their faces in the sun, and enjoy all the privileges which come with financial prosperity and reasonable stability?
A new time is coming, and least within the first and second tier cities. There is a new mood creeping into the Chinese psychology. After a woman has bought up all the named logos she can, and she has a wardrobe full of all the designers she could possibly want, she arrives at a moment when she really does not wish to look or dress or even think like her contemporary. At this point, she starts to seek out lesser known, more individual labels. Stores like Lane Crawford are starting to stock and promote lesser know, more quirky labels along side the giants of the fashion world. Stores like Waterstone Store in Beijing stock over 65 brands including our own home grown talent like Christopher Shannon, Sophie Hulme, Emma Cook and Jonathan Saunders alongside Balmain, Raf Simons, Maison Martin Margiela, John Galliano and Chalayan. 798 and Opening Ceremony are both Chinese boutiques which stock avant garde and art minded designers. There are many passionate people beating the drum for home grown talent like Hung Huang, the media mogul who really can put a young designer on the map. Known as “the Oprah of China,” outspoken media mogul Hung Huang wears many hats, from television host and blogger to publisher and retailer. Huang pens a weekly column for trade newspaper WWD called ChinaFile, providing insight into the workings of China’s fashion industry. But most importantly, Huang is a tireless promoter of emerging Chinese designers who she supports through Brand New China (BNC), her multi-label boutique in Beijing. She also offers an iLook/BNCscholarship for young designers in partnership with ESMOD Beijing.
Chinese home grown talent, educated and exposed to colleges like Parsons in the US and Central St Martins and The London College of Fashion here in the UK, is coming home, full of the creative experiences and influences of western fashion from the streets, through to music and art. Fashion designer Uma Wang is the first of a new generation of cutting-edge Chinese designers to receive global acclaim. Wang studied at China Textile University and London’s Central Saint Martins, launching her own label in 2005. Since then she has won several fashion awards, caught the eye of influential magazines such as Italian Vogue and become a regular at Shanghai Fashion Week. Thanks to her breakthrough success, Wang has become both an inspiration and a symbol for a new generation of young designers across China. Qiu Hao, a Shanghai native, Central St Martins trained, designed for label Neither Nor, and now designs his own line under his name Qiu Hao, which has a strong Celine / Alexander Wang vibe. Haizhen Wang and Huishan Zhang are also both excellent dedicated designers trained in the west. Zhang showed at London Fashion Week and his collection was one of the most beautiful I saw. I think that designers like Wang and Zhang will florish on their home ground, given the new drive for individualism
Haizhen Wang’s Autumn Winter 2012 Collection
On the streets of first and second tier cities you can find ever increasing numbers of brilliantly dressed, quirky individuals who lead and do not slavishly follow logos. In third and fourth tier cities I found that the standard look on the streets is leggings, pretty but over fussy tops or T shirts, lace dresses, flat shoes. But the over fussy, Korean type styling, enamoured of young Chinese women, although still in strong evidence, is starting to grow up. It is here in the middle market that I think the most exciting things will happen, with the introduction of western brands, preferably with some heritage and prestige, possessing quirky, individual styling which will chime with the new desire for individualism, but not separate consumers from their contempories. There is not a great deal of difference in the way young women dress here in the equivalent smaller western town away from large cities and the stronger fashion influences, although you will not see overtly sexualised girls showing out. I find them to be more modest than their counterparts in the west as the society in China is still traditional and the opinions of parents and elders count, and in general they follow family expectations and want to be the girl taken home to meet prospective in laws.
Smart mall owners will need to give their malls character, individuality, and a touch of theatre. After all, shoppers can stay at home and have things delivered and the Chinese do this online in huge numbers. Shopping thus needs to be an experience they can enjoy with three generations of their family, something so few malls understand. In all the time I spent in Chinese shopping malls, precious few stand out and none of them have any character. They were for the most part beautifully put together but sterile and lacking in any warmth or personality. They felt corporate and hard, not a pleasant shopping experience although there were several lovely gardens which did not seem well used or positioned. Mall owners must understand that shopper want bread, but also roses. Men in particular are ignored. The 28 plus affluent male shopper is also not being catered for in this aspect, not in the west nor in any part of China I have visited. All my experience personal and business wise, tells me that when an affluent man finds something he likes and trusts, he will buy it in four colour ways. Men do not hate shopping, they hate the experience of shopping and are all too often treated like bag carriers. Foolish, foolish mistake and missed opportunity on the part of architects, designers and mall owners, and something I am currently working on.
All Chinese do a tremendous amount of research online about what they are buying, micro blogging is massively popular and a way of expressing what users think, and price is king at all times. Magazines like China Vogue have gone a long way to educate and encourage all Chinese women and not just the elite, about taste and style. Clearly, there exists a need to develop a strong sense of creativity, individuality and confidence as opposed to copying, which in their culture is not wrong and an accepted norm, something we in the west struggle with. The communist system, combined with a Confucian sense of an ordered society, does not promote the cult of the individual so prized and often overrated in the west, and anyone wishing to do business in China is well advised to educate themselves on this vast topic of cultural differences as much as possible. But make no mistake, creativity is moving at a fast pace in all arenas from art to music and fashion, as collective confidence in themselves as active passionate creators and not simply passive consumers, grows and blossoms.
My predictions are that individualism will be gradually embraced, giving rise to more niche, cult labels. The luxury market will look for even more exclusivity and lifestyle products, with a growth of craft and ‘slow’ hand made goods like individually made shoes and couture clothing which must be ordered in advance, organic foods, niche everything from wines to fashion, interior design and an expensive private western education for their one child. Lifestyle will be the new buzz word, and we will see the continued rise of niche services from English speaking nannies to customised clothing and eco lifestyle products. This will chime well with the self belief which is gradually growing where women can pull together their own look as opposed to relying on labels to loan this to them. These products will not scream, but whisper. The emerging middle classes will have a voracious appetite for fashion and status, and initially seek labels which confirm their status, but with the overall education of China moving forward at a great pace, they too will eventually find the self confidence to take the road less travelled. Smart and savvy labels, designers, lifestyle specialists and anyone interested in doing business with the Chinese should be there at the crossroads where new found individuality, curiosity and creativity merge with prosperity.
Personally, I have found the Chinese to be polite, endlessly curious, incredibly hospitable and possessing a fierce intelligence. Combine this with an indominable work ethic and you have the next super power, right there in the front row, immaculately groomed, smart, educated, wealthy, and in their millions.