By Jiaqi Luo
In terms of business intelligence, articles and reports on China, we often read and hear that ‘niche’ is what young Chinese consumers want. It is the case that non-mainstream, bold and distinct fashion is capturing their interest – but what do we find when we delve deeper? In just the last 12 months, there have been successful market entrants and big winners – yet 2019 also marks a difficult year for some big names in fashion. What can be learnt as we swing into 2020?
In November, high-end e-commerce Yoox announced its China exit plan, following the path of Old Navy and Forever 21. These brands are only the beginning of a long list of brands that have tried and failed in China, such as fashion retailers New Look, Topshop, ASOS, Marks & Spencer, and Macy’s. While China fuels the world’s fashion growth, its fashion market remains hard to penetrate for international players. Why?
Local competition is fierce. Having grown up in an era of relentless prosperity in China, the young Chinese fashionistas are spoiled by the country’s unique and hyper-efficient e-commerce system. For a spontaneous fashion splurge, they could either head to Taobao, Tmall, JD, Netease’s Yanxuan, Little Red Book, or one of the countless influencer-run WeChat marketplaces for a good deal and get it delivered to their door the next day. While a D2C (direct to consumer) brand that sells trendy clothes at an affordable price point might be lauded as “innovative” or “rule-breaking” (or worse, disruptive) in the West, it has been a reality in China for many years. As well as having countless international brands vying for their attention and spend, the un-branded copycat market can duplicate a generic look rapidly.
Bargains from domestic players that make their profits from a massive quantity of orders are readily available. On Taobao, an “Insta-inspired” summer dress made with 100% viscose, thus in decent quality, costs around RMB 120-130 (GBP 13-15) at full price with one-day shipping and free return included. It’s no wonder that Chinese fashionistas, long acquainted with similar deals that push a business’ margin to the minimum, were unimpressed with ASOS and the like.
In short, players that strip apparel down to its use-value are doomed to fail in China. No sales pitch about a brand’s quality, price, or good look is going to impress the Chinese consumers who have grown up style-hunting on Taobao. Brands that stand out in this over-crowded marketplace are those that have gone beyond the use-value and represent a form of cultural and social currency. In this analysis, we break down the main categories impacting the aesthetic choices and cultural tastes of China’s trend-forward youth.
Contemporary brands with “woke” values
Leading influencer brands: Everlane, Allbirds, Lululemon, Veja
A wave of eco-friendly, direct-to-consumer brands that represent international millennials in global capitals is now hitting urban China. Brands like Everlane, Allbirds and Lululemon that champion an eco-friendly and healthy lifestyle are increasingly trending among the country’s fashion early-adopters. On a cultural level, they also embody what Chinese millennials fantasise about an international lifestyle: one that is not necessarily rich or glamorous, but wholesome and living your best life. (which, according to influencer photos, involves continuously crossing roads and looking sideways)
Everlane, an American clothing brand known for its basic styles, pricing transparency and sustainable practices, is seen by Chinese fashionistas as a premium alternative to Uniqlo and Zara. On the lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu (AKA Red Book), posts about Everlane are often published by bloggers living overseas, thus making the brand somehow synonymous with a tag “those who have been abroad.” The same myth has been around the eco-friendly wool runner brand Allbirds. In Chinese social media, the Allbirds sneakers are marketed as “a standard style for Silicon Valley elites,” something worn by America’s tech billionaires and startup superstars. Lululemon, the millennial athleisure brand par excellence, has also become a local symbol for the buyer’s global lifestyle. Wearing a Lululemon yoga pant, attending its offsite workshop and absolutely posting about it on social media, is a sign of someone familiar with the modern health mindstyle.
Despite their stylistic differences, these three brands have shared a “woke” message in common: it is fashionable to care for the planet and one’s well-being. To this segment of Chinese fashionistas, in addition to the environmentally-friendly, feel-good aspect of these woke brands, there’s a special thrill that comes from appearing as someone informed and aligned with the global elite’s values. It is belonging to this global class that makes these contemporary brands irreplaceable.
(The woke, contemporary style clan on Xiaohongshu. Photo: screenshots)
Instagram goddess brands
Leading influencer brands: Reformation, Rouje, Self-portrait, & Other Stories, Keepsake
In recent years, brands like Reformation, Self-portrait, Rouje, and & Other Stories have won the hearts of many Chinese fashionistas with their feminine, vintage-inspired style. Referred as “goddess niche brands as seen on Instagram” among Chinese fashion hunters, they are seen as a gateway to the international world of glam (as worn by Margaret Zhang, above). Despite China’s Instagram ban, trending looks on the app, typified by vintage-inspired minidresses and minimal makeup with a red lip, have managed to penetrate China’s fashion info-filters.
This group of brands fits close to China’s convention of female attractiveness. Think tweed skirts, lace blouses, polka dot shirt à la française, high-waist jeans, and lots of floral prints. Such classic, feminine wardrobe staples are perfect for the Chinese women who want to look cute but not cheap, and who want to show their romantic personality but not overt girliness.
Design aside, it is also the aura of the French influencer crew on Instagram who tagged these brands in their feed, namely @Jeanne Damas and @Sabina Socol, that contributed to the popularity of this “Insta goddess” style. Seen as icons of the modern “Parisienne” muse, the French influencer looks often appear on Chinese fashion content as the textbook examples of effortless chic and good qizhi, the Chinese concept for a woman’s exterior temperament.
(The Insta-inspired goddess clan on Xiaohongshu. Photo: screenshots)
Modern Work Wear
Leading influencer brands: The Row, Vince, Alexander Wang, Theory, Jil Sander
Never has career ambition feel so inspirational and urgent for Chinese women as now. Enticed by the “girl boss” ideal that abounds in urban China, fashionistas increasingly advocate for a dress-for-success wardrobe of minimalist, work-appropriate pieces. Understated elegance and urban sophistication are the keywords for this mood-board: think architectural and simple pieces like the classic white button-down, beige cashmere coat, draped palazzo pants, and many dark layers. Sleek fabrics and impeccable cut give these pieces a polished, upscale-yet-office-appropriate quality.
On Weibo and Xiaohongshu, fashion watchers laud minimalist brands like The Row, Vince, and Theory as the staples for those who work (or who want to work) in Shanghai’s Lujiazui district, reputed as the “Wall Street of China” and one of the nation’s most prestigious work neighbourhoods. For millennial women riddled with ambition from both their own career-ladder and peer-pressure to succeed, this cohort of brands offers some immediate style empowerment in the workplace. Besides, they are thought to fill a black hole created by the post-Phoebe-Philo Céline, whose modern feminine clothes made women feel quietly powerful. Designer brands Gabriela Hearst, Jil Sander, and Alexander Wang are also part of this list of old-Céline-esque alternatives.
(The modern workwomen clan on Xiaohongshu. Photo: screenshots)
Sharp-eyed, style-conscious, and spoiled by choice
Today’s Chinese fashionistas are driven by the identity promise instead of the product’s attributes. It’s the contemporary values and the curated persona of a brand they are going after. Of course, tastes vary in such a highly fragmented market. From the goddess-bound feminine silhouettes to the urban cool to the eco-friendly “plain” look, every identity is someone’s ideal self.
To capture an audience, brands have to clearly embody an identity that belongs to somewhere inspiring: be it eclectic New York, romantic Paris, winning London, or easy-like-Sunday-morning Sydney. Yes, a proud Chinese identity will be naturally infused by the wearers themselves; it’s not a mere following of overseas styles but stems from international awareness, and being bang-on trend with one scroll through their social platform of choice.
It’s about seeking an identity – beyond ‘dress for the job you want’, and more dress for the lifestyle that you aspire to.