Why The Future Of Fashion May Be Chinese


International brands are courting Chinese millennials, but there's a growing appetite in the country for homegrown luxury


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Why The Future Of Fashion May Be Chinese
Fashion March 18th, 2019

If you hadn’t noticed, Chinese fashion design has arrived. The country has been creeping up — and fast — in our collective fashion consciousness. 

You may have felt the shift in power for the first time when Rhianna wore Guo Pei to the Met Gala Ball in 2015 as part of the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition. It wasn’t the first time the couturier had been featured on the international stage — it was just the first time the world really took notice. 

Rihanna wore this opulent gown from Chinese designer Guo Pei when she attended the Met Gala in 2015. Photo by Getty Images

And since then, international luxury brands have been scrambling to include Chinese celebrities in their campaigns. Rapper Kris Wu was an ambassador for British staple Burberry in 2016. Zhou Dongyu followed in 2018, becoming the brand’s first female brand ambassador in Asia.

Yang Yang held court for Montblanc in 2017. That same year, Tiffany Tang (aka Tang Yan) lent her face to Coach and Bally, while Guli Nazha became Fendi’s first Chinese brand ambassador. The list goes on.

The Yuan tips the scales

We’ve long been aware of the power of the Yuan in the world of luxury fashion. Just last year, Chinese consumers spent over 926 billion yuan (US$146 billion) shopping during the Spring Festival. They were splashing out largely on luxury brands.

According to Agility, in 2007, Americans were buying 34% of the global luxury goods, while the Chinese were only making 3% of the purchases. Now, the Chinese make up around 30% of the global luxury market when it comes to sales; Americans have dropped to around 23%. They’re still buying, but at a lower rate and reduced speed, as compared to shoppers from China.

A 2017 McKinsey & Co. report has more on the topic — it stated that about US$71.9 billion annually is spent by Chinese consumers on luxury goods, which accounts for around 34% of the global total spend. That share is also expected to increase to at least 40% by 2024.

By now, brands are clearly relying China’s millennials to boost their sales. According to a McKinsey report in 2018, revenue growth in the luxury segment was around 15 to 20% for the first half of the year. All those shoppers were also under 30. 

When it comes to expansion, brands like Prada and LVMH also look to the smaller “second tier” Chinese cities. That’s where the growth is, after all.

Fashion by Chinese designers, for Chinese consumers

Global brands like Cartier, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry, Montblanc and Valentino are still among the preferred luxury brands for Chinese consumers. But that’s set to change, since a growing appetite for homegrown luxury brands is eating into the market share.

According to Christophe Caïs, who sits on the Forbes Agency Council“the big names of Western luxury might no longer carry the same weight only a few years from now”. He added that the Chinese “are starting to turn to local designers or foreign-based ones of Chinese descent whose work mirrors their roots and exudes a sense of national and cultural pride”.

There’s an appetite for China-born designers like Fashion Institute of Technology graduate Grace Chen, whose designs have been worn by Hollywood stars. Photo by Getty Images

The designers you need to know

Brands like Snow Xue Gao are often seen in American fashion bibles, and Shanghai’s Grace Chen (who shows regularly at Fashion Weeks around the world and who has been called the “ambassador for Chinese design”) is fighting for a chance to become part of the rarefied Haute Couture list. In the last five or so years, emerging Chinese designers have been invited to show at Paris Fashion Week.

Snow Xue Gao, an LVMH Prize nominee, has shown collections in New York’s famous Cantonese dim sum house, Jing Fong. There, models sat at mahjong tables, while attendees could eat dim sum. Photo by Getty Images

One of my favourite designers from the Chinese contingent is Yang Li. Strong, powerful and beautifully tailored, there’s a nod to a Chinese background in the punches of colour. The overall feel of the brand is future-forward.

In the designer menswear market, Brandon Sun, Angus Chiang, Shangguan Zhe and Sean Suen all showed extremely strong collections at Paris Men’s Fashion Week 2018.

Chinese fast fashion brands have not been slack either – it’s just that you may not know their names. Those like Ochirly, Metersbonwe (美特斯邦威), Youngor (雅戈尔) and Urban Revivo make way more money than H&M or Zara in the Asian markets.

Wendy Yu is backing the new Business of Fashion China Prize. She’s a regular at the major runway shows, and her company, Yu Holdings, helps western fashion brands break into China. Photo by Getty Images

Eye on the prize

Now, industry bible Business of Fashion is acknowledging the increasing importance of the creative talent in China. It’s calling for candidates for it first China Prize. On the jury are Victoria Beckham, Pierre-Yves Roussel, Edison Chen, Tim Blanks, and Uma Wang.

The prize itself is a partnership with heiress and investor Wendy Yu. Her Yu Holdings helps western fashion brands navigate the labyrinthine Chinese market.

According to BoF, the prize is the “first global fashion award dedicated to emerging Chinese design talent in ready-to-wear”. The winner will receive a cash prize of US$100,000, a slot on the official fashion calendars of Shanghai Fashion Week and London Fashion Week, and a mentorship from industry leaders.

It looks like the future of fashion is Chinese. Consider yourself told.

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