China’s luxury fashion boom promises to create new opportunities for its designers in the coming years as spending growth by the country’s consumers makes bigger waves than ever across the global marketplace, according to one of the country’s top luxury researchers.
China’s impact will be particularly deep because its consumers are big spenders in so many industry segments and price points, said Pierre Lu, a marketing professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University and author of several books on the business. “That is the beauty of the Chinese market: It demands everything.”
“With improvement in IT technology and infrastructure, China’s economy is integrating very deeply into the world economy and contributing to any brand that wants to do business in China,” he said. The trend underscores how “the fashion industry is now a global industry that is increasingly diversified and multicultural.”
Chinese designers are poised to do well in part because of their relatively close knowledge of local culture and consumers. They will be sought out by multinationals looking to add Chinese feel to their products; they will also find opportunities to develop their own brands or work for domestic brand owners.
The widening room in the world for Chinese designers, Lu said, is apparent at top fashion shows in cities such as Milan and London where Chinese design elements are increasingly visible on catwalks, as well as from the growing numbers of mainland and overseas Chinese working in the industry.
“That is a natural evolution and a logical reflection of the Chinese market’s contribution to the luxury and fashion industry,” he said.
Ethnic Chinese designers tend to fall into three categories, Lu said. First: those born into overseas Chinese families, such as Vera Wong and Alexander Wang. Typically, few elements in their work readily identify them as from China, Lu said.
“They work with the same approach as international designers from other countries,” he said. “There is a logic to having an international approach.”
The second group is designers born in mainland China that go on to study at design schools abroad. There, they master current design techniques, combine those with their design ideas, and start to produce finished items.
“The numbers of this group will increase,” and they will actively join overseas fashion shows in the future, said Lu. Members of the second group include Masha Ma, he said.
The third group is designers that don’t have international study experience and work at home in the mainland. Their relatively successful members, he said, have more Chinese elements in their designs than the other two groups, though a perquisite for success is picking up international-standard techniques.
“This group more obviously expresses Chinese culture and Chinese elements through their work,” he said. An example of its members is Ma Ke and her brand “Wuyong,” Lu said.
Although the influence of each group in the future will ultimately depend on individuals’ own creativity and innovativeness, Lu believes domestic-based designers should have the upper hand in the market over time.
Mainland “designers will like to be Chinese and develop themselves based on local culture, but with modernization and internationalization,” Lu said.
“China is a country with a long history, the culture is rich and the design elements are unlimited, and so it will be easier for Chinese designers to make innovations that reflect the current path in China,” he said. “This is something that Chinese designers can deliver, instead of copying or following international designers. It is possible. Though very few are working on that today, I think it will be an important trend in the future.”
A big factor in the long-term success of local designer brands will also be the degree that larger multinationals are able to compete in China and snatch local design talent to boost their own sales. Multinationals that find success with their own foreign-flavored designs are likely to try to expand their business with items that fuse their own brand’s character with Chinese elements, he said.
“If the Chinese market contributes significantly to a company’s global business — for example if more than 20% of business is from the Chinese market, they will need to find an appropriate Chinese designer as a lever and use a style that has a logical association with their original brands and design style,” Lu said.
As an example, LV teamed up with a Japanese artist in the 1990s to product items that succeeded not only in Japan and worldwide; Lu sees a number of multinationals already trying to move in that direction in China today.
“We see some Chinese contemporary artists working some with international brands,” he said. If multinationals as a group make a bigger effort than at present to work with local designers and elements, domestic designers battling foreign brands would face “a big challenge to really do something innovative and at a level of fashion of the luxury brands,” he said.
Chinese designers at multinationals may, however, also settle for a more limited effort in launching Chinese-style designs, such as items tied to the Chinese “Year of the Dog,” Lu noted.
“They are not part of a fundamental thought of the brand. These are international brands that have their own headquarters and their own style, and their own concept from the founders. They don’t really need to put out a lot of Chinese elements.”
Limited effort and recognition may be good enough, however, if the goal is only intended to be symbolic.
“From the Chinese consumer side, they are glad to see an international company that has been operating in China for many, many years with successful visibility and awareness celebrate Chinese culture. It’s a good point for the multinational to be associated with the Chinese market.”
Regardless of who ultimately comes out ahead — designers at multinational or local businesses, competition will expand the market and pressure designers to upgrade.
“Everyone needs to work together to create something new,” Lu said.
Besides designers, all types of Chinese models should also benefit from increased global spending on fashion. (Click here for a related story.) Chinese models are an increasing presence at fashion shows around the world, as both local and foreign designers expand their efforts to project Chinese elements and woo consumers.
“It demonstrates that the fashion industry is really global,” Lu said.
The growing scale of the fashion market in China is also putting pressure on another group: Chinese design schools that are relatively traditional in their approach to teaching.
“Designers first of all need to have thoughts,” Lu said. “The reason for being a designer is innovation. What are the new things you can bring? Chinese fashion schools need to upgrade their model and encourage people to be more imaginative.”