China’s appetite for luxury goods has shaped and sustained the international fashion industry for two decades. Pioneer brands such as Armani, Zegna, Prada and Versace first tested the mainland market in the early 1990s. Since then almost every famous name in Western fashion has profitably prospected for a piece of China’s great “fashion rush”. Now, though, they are facing some serious competition – from inside China itself.
That’s partly because of what’s happened to China’s manufacturing capabilities. These days, the best of Chinese production is as good as anything in Europe. It’s also because of what’s happened to China’s consumers. Foreign brands are no longer exclusively fetishised. Rich Chinese people who once looked automatically to the grand old houses of Europe as badges of status and style are keen to explore Chinese fashion. And progressive international fashion buyers are also taking a close interest in the scene.
So where have these designers suddenly come from? The freedoms that allowed Chinese consumers to start buying Burberry and Chanel also gave rise to a generation who were at liberty to study abroad. Many of China’s most successful new designers learned their craft at the West’s greatest fashion schools, in New York, Milan and particularly London.
Last year Gemma Williams, a fashion curator, compiled the first English study of contemporary Chinese fashion. She found that over a third of the 41 designers she identified as China’s most influential had been educated in Britain. “London is known for its spirit of individualism – for producing designers with a strong, quirky aesthetic,” she says. “This is to the advantage of Chinese students who study here and then apply their own unique design strengths.”
Many young designers are now choosing to remain outside China after graduation to establish their own labels. The ready-to-wear fashion weeks of Milan, Paris and London all include Chinese designers. Last December, for the first time in its history, fashion’s highest church, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in Paris, admitted a Chinese-born designer – Yiqing Yin – to its ranks.
Back home, retailers report that the steady maturation of Chinese consumers’ approach to fashion is sustaining a burgeoning domestic market. Indigenous luxury is in. Dong Liang, a fashion retailer, started off in 2009 as a small shop in Beijing specialising in independent Chinese designers. “At first people were buying out of curiosity and they often preferred the more outré designs. In small part, they also felt that domestic talent should be supported,” explains co-founder Charles Wang. “Now the more sophisticated consumers are much more rational in their approach: they pay attention to quality, how wearable and price-friendly it is.”
Seven years later, Dong Liang’s business has expanded to two new stores in Beijing and Shanghai. Its success is mirrored by a wave of multi-brand boutiques carrying Chinese designers that are opening up throughout major Chinese cities. At the latest Chinese fashion weeks – there is one in Beijing and another in Shanghai – a combined total of around 70 independent designers and domestic brands showcased catwalk collections, while several hundred more held presentations and showroom appointments.
In just a few years Chinese fashion has progressed from niche curiosity to a need-to-know market. Who says that the next Christian Dior might not rise from these shores?
Masha Ma – it started in Paris
Beijing-born Ma graduated from Central Saint Martins in London in 2008 and immediately moved to Paris to establish her label, MASHAMA. Her designs combine sharp tailoring and an avant-garde aesthetic – two factors which led Lady Gaga to wear one of her suits to meet President Barack Obama at the White House. Ma has been showing her collections at Paris Fashion Week since 2012. The following year, she established her second label, Ma By Ma Studio – vibrant colours, punchy graphics and cheaper prices – targeted at younger buyers. Her premium line sells in international department stores, and she’ll soon have a shop of her own in Paris. The second line has ten stores in China, some in second-tier cities such as Harbin and Dalian. She plans to open 80 more. She divides her time between Europe and China. “Europe has a legacy of avant-garde creativity,” she says, “but there is something to be said about a creative tabula rasa, which is what China has right now…so we’ll see what happens.”
Daniel Chen – the hot tip
While still at fashion school 23-year-old Daniel Chen founded his label Xu Zhi. His first collection, which features beautiful fabrications of braided yarns embroidered on a cotton base, was shown in Paris last September and snapped up by two of the most influential fashion retailers in the world, Dover Street Market in London and Opening Ceremony in Tokyo. He took that collection on to Shanghai Fashion Week where Chinese retailers including Dong Liang and Lane Crawford placed orders. Chen can cope with fast-rising demand. His clothes are produced in Shenzhen, his home town and China’s manufacturing hub, where he spends two to three weeks every other month. “Being Chinese is undeniably an advantage when it comes to sourcing.”
Huishan Zhang – made in China, sold in Bergdorf Goodman
Extremely pretty and ultra-feminine designs are Zhang’s speciality. His megawatt dresses have won him an influential client base that includes Keira Knightley and Gwyneth Paltrow. After graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2010, he spent a year working at Christian Dior’s atelier before returning to London to start his label. He likes the city’s “open-minded culture and the freedom to express yourself creatively”. In China, he sells through Joyce, an influential department store, where his designs are embraced by celebrities and socialites. “Individuality and personal taste have never been stronger,” he says. “Nowadays I feel there is a true desire in China to try new designers, and not just stick with what you know.” Zhang is, to date, the only Chinese designer to be sold by Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman in America. “His designs have the perfect balance of modernity and femininity. I knew it would be something our core clients would respond to,” says Elizabeth van der Goltz, senior vice-president at Bergdorf Goodman. Retailing from $1,000, Zhang’s clothes are positioned alongside those by the best-known designers in Paris and Milan. All of his pieces, however, are made in his atelier in Qingdao.