BEIJING, China — When Angelica Cheung first became editor-in-chief of Vogue China in 2005, more than 100 issues ago, the Chinese luxury market was just beginning to flex its muscle. A taste for luxury and fashion was starting to gather steam and real awareness of major international luxury brands was still largely limited to those Chinese who had studied or worked abroad.
But soon, the market caught fire, growing at astonishing double-digit percentage rates for several years. At launch, Vogue China stepped into a media landscape already crowded with fashion magazines. But since then, it has taken a leadership role in educating and informing consumers and expanding demand for luxury goods through close collaborations with international brands clamouring for the attention of an ascendant Chinese luxury consumer.
“China is big. We need to do a magazine that would reflect this big market, its significance in the world, and win the kind of respect that it deserves.”
Today, growth in the Chinese luxury market has slowed significantly, impacted by decelerating economic growth, a government anti-corruption drive and shoppers choosing to buy their luxury goods abroad. Sales growth of luxury goods in China dropped from 7 percent in 2012 to 2 percent in 2013, according to Bain & Company, but the Chinese remain the largest consumers of luxury goods worldwide, making up 29 percent of the global market and representing about $80 billion in annual sales.
This is all a far cry from the China of 50 years ago, when the Cultural revolution had taken hold and a young Angelica Cheung observed the rise of conformity and group think. But today, as Chinese consumers have developed a taste for luxury goods, they are also increasingly seeking to express their individuality.
BoF sat down with Ms Cheung to look through her lens at the dramatic shifts that have radically reshaped China’s socio-economic reality and how she carved out a unique voice and important role for Vogue China in the development of the Chinese luxury market.
BoF: What was it like here for you, growing up in China?
AC: I have a little bit of a fashion connection because my grandma on my mother’s side was quite a renowned tailor. I was one of the privileged kids who had a grandma who could actually make some dresses for me.
One day, I went to primary school [wearing] black and white striped trousers. I thought they looked really smart, but people were wearing uniforms: blue trousers, white shirt, with this red scarf, like a little pioneer scarf. All of my friends were telling me off, [saying] “That’s so bourgeoisie.” At the time, being labeled bourgeoisie was like the worst thing. At home I was like, “[I’m] never going to wear them again.” That was it.
So that was a lesson you gradually learned when you were seven. You knew you had to look like everybody else. Otherwise you would get into trouble.
This is in some ways why we explain why, in China today, there is a lack of creativity in general. Because the children were taught in that way:
you had to look like everyone else and you had to think like everyone else. Everybody would dress the same and earn the same money. There was no notion of dressing yourself to show a bit of yourself and your own personality; you didn’t have the money, the environment, [and] you certainly didn’t have that kind of culture.
My mother said during the Cultural Revolution, when they were ransacking [houses] and all these things were going on in the neighbourhood, my grandma out of panic flushed all her jewellery down the toilet. Just because [she] just didn’t know where to put them. She was so terrified, as if she was holding some poison or drugs. It was like a drug raid.
BoF: So what would happen?
AC: This was in the Sixties. I was just born so I don’t remember that myself, but nobody wanted to be related to anybody who had anything. We were supposed to be proletariat. They would go around looking for and identifying people who were not of the right class. The wrong class would be the people with a bit of — I don’t think we were super rich or anything, but affluent enough. And they looked for signs to show that you weren’t one of the people who had nothing. And then you’d be regarded as the enemy of the people. Seeing people get killed because they were regarded as the enemy of the people — that was China’s crazy period, I’m sure you’ve read about it.
BoF: How did you first end up at Vogue China?
AC: It took me almost six months to decide to take on this job. At the time, I was at Elle as the editor but I was thinking about leaving already. Nothing to do with the job itself but I thought that I had had enough with fashion magazines. I was trained as a lawyer, I had an MBA — I always thought I was not meant to be a creative chief. It just happened. At the time I really thought the fun was over, that I had done enough.
I thought I would go back to becoming a lawyer. That’s what I was trying to do when Condé Nast came and asked me to launch Vogue. It took me awhile because at first I was like, “I’ve had enough of fashion magazines!” I was actually [planning on] quitting the business.
And they said, “But it’s Vogue.” And I said, yeah but it’s still another fashion magazine. And then it was something they said — “You are going to regret it if you don’t.”
So I started thinking about it more seriously. And that’s when I started to read some more books about Vogue and Condé Nast and I realised that it was different.
BoF: What made it different?
AC: Just the amazing talents involved. The quality, the creative ideas. It was just a different world. An idea started forming in my mind that China was probably ready for something different. Because until then I thought there was only one formula of doing a magazine, which was to lift secondhand content from other editions and produce very cheaply locally.
I realised that the resources [of the] Vogue brand and Condé Nast could introduce Chinese readers to something different.
American, French Vogue — they were all different. So I started thinking of the Vogue class of readers in China. And, once my mind started to think that way, I started to have ideas and I looked at all these photographers, “Maybe they can do this for us, maybe they can do that.”
That was when it became actually something interesting. Just the idea of launching Vogue in itself was not. That’s the good thing about Condé Nast and Jonathan [Newhouse]. Basically, he’s just like, “Don’t disgrace me. Do the Vogue thing. As long as it’s the best magazine in China, that’s why we hired you.’’
BoF: What were your major objectives or concerns with each of your constituencies?
AC: Well the Condé Nast business, when we started off, we started thinking, we need to approach China in a different light. All these
years, people were thinking that we are an inferior, secondary market. If you were looking at these publications, they were all very happy to accept that they were second-class citizens, really. Who tells you that you can only be that second class? The market was big enough and it would be great to introduce that Condé Nast spirit, driving excellence and really being the best. I also wanted to show our Condé Nast family that in China, we could do it too.
I read a book called Condé Nast at the time from a flea market and that was quite telling. Then I read about the Newhouses — some books were probably endorsed by the family, some not — but you got the idea. Under different leadership, they really tried to be the best and were very inventive. They invented so many things and really moved with the times. When you know the history and all these things the company went through, there was a bit of spirit behind it and that was what actually made me feel that I wanted to be part of this legacy.
Then, I thought, “China is big. We need to do a magazine that would reflect this big market, its significance in the world, and win the kind of respect that it deserves.” So that was my main incentive, to prove to the world that the Chinese could do something.
BoF: And, the market responded very favourably to Vogue China, right from the first issue, which sold out right away!
AC: Yeah! I was shocked myself on that day. I was thinking [there would be] piles of magazines on the newsstands. I was thinking, maybe I should hand in my notice if it happened, you know.
Then I got the phone call saying it was all sold out, and I was like, “What are you talking about? Sold out? How is it possible?”
BoF: What do you think was resonating with your readers?
AC: On one hand, it’s great to give them a vision, the ultra-glamorous quality. On the other hand, if they feel this is something that you can only look at from a distance and they can’t touch, you lose them too. So how do you bridge this? The biggest challenge would be balancing these two things.
A major part of the magazine was education. Just basically deconstructing everything. Telling the story from the very beginning. That was something really nobody had seen.
BoF: Can you give me an example?
AC: Like the Swinging Sixties: the look, the silhouettes and whatnot. And I just thought, well what is the Sixties? And the fashion editors just said, “Yeah, look it’s the Sixties look.”’ But why would any Chinese care about the Sixties?
So we started telling the story from the Beatles, how they changed the whole industry, why peoples’ minds changed and started to become liberated. So we told people in 10, 20, 30 pages, explained this to people, and went all around the world to all these different sources and dug out all these kinds of pictures. Movies, cultural phenomena, Mary Quant, Twiggy… everything!
It’s like a textbook, yes, but in a more fun way.
BoF: But, in an environment used to conformity, how do you engender the kind of creativity that you need to create a world class fashion magazine?
AC: I have a theory about these things. I think it’s the Chinese language that makes us not that creative. In English, once you’ve mastered the basics, you can figure things out for yourself. Whereas with Chinese, you just have to memorise the characters. Each character is its own thing. Because if you’re 2, 3, 4 [years old], just starting your life, the first thing you usually learn is your own language. And if the first thing you learn tells you that you have to memorise everything, then you think that’s how you have to learn everything.
It’s nobody’s fault. Children will think that way. So they will memorise everything – that’s the typical Chinese student. When they go overseas, they get full marks but they can’t even speak a word of French, because they can memorise a whole dictionary. I feel that it’s probably part of our upbringing that made us think in a certain fixed way.
BoF: So, you have worked with a lot of big-time international fashion creatives, and a place like Vogue enables you to do that. What was that like?
AC: At first, it was quite shocking that we were spending a lot of money on shoots. You’d send a brief and they will turn around and give you something totally different! And coming from my background, I found that quite shocking. But, I realised that these people were successful because they had their own point of view.
But that kind of persistence can be taken a little bit too far sometimes. It was like, “You don’t know, I’ll tell you, this is better taste.” I felt a lack of respect. And then I decided that you have to win these peoples’ respect. You have to treat it seriously. On the one hand, we tried to make the magazine look good to get respect, so they know that we are not just a bunch of peasants trying to bring out a picture book.
On the other hand, you also need to educate them. Make them see today’s young girls in China, what they consider beautiful and the cultural reasons behind it. And why it’s arrogant to feel that the aesthetic of Western photographers is superior.
I want the magazine to be modern, to be international, yes. But at the same time it’s my job to meet that with the Chinese culture. Five thousand years of culture, you cannot change, just by taking a picture.
BoF: What about the models you use in the magazine?
AC: We did not have Chinese supermodels. We had models who looked like beauty pageant girls. And I realised that to be convincing to Chinese readers, I needed to show them that they can wear these fashions beautifully and also they could be active. It went hand in hand. That was when we spotted Du Juan and really started to feature her, promote her, got the top photographers to shoot her. The Chinese could see that a Chinese girl could become big – and ultimately [our readers] want to see that a certain look would look good on a Chinese.
They can dream of those things on a blonde, but when they actually buy, they’ll think, “Will I look good?”
BoF: And, how has your strategy evolved over time?
AC: You monitor reactions, you talk to people, it’s never 100 percent sure. It’s always moving forward. Because the thing is, you do get bored. I set certain things up, then after a year or six months or whatever, I get bored. I look at our old magazines and I get bored and think, “We must change this.” I guess that’s part of my nature, to try something different.
When I had my daughter, seven years ago, I was thinking how to be a good mother because she wouldn’t have any other siblings. If we were all gone, how could I prepare her to face the world without family? Only mothers think that way. You worry for your little baby, she has to be strong. So I thought, okay, she has to be a positive person. She has to have many friends. In order to win friends, she needs to be a loving person herself, to have the right people around her. And I need her to have a little bit of courage, so if she fancies a change, or tries to do something, she can have the courage to do something. And most importantly, she needs to be happy, she needs to have a certain value to the world. Big or small, she needs to have some contribution.
You cannot sit at home and just be nothing. She needs to have certain values in her life so that she contributes and becomes happier because there are so many people who are not. Basically these are the few qualities and I wanted to raise her along those lines. And on top of that, she has to be pretty and knows how to dress and all that. So I thought, okay, that’s how I will guide her.
Then I thought, if I want my daughter to be that kind of person, I want my readers to be too – they’re girls, young girls reading the magazine, and also shaping their lives.
Suddenly I became more motivated again. Because in a career you always have this down time, when you feel fed up and you want to do something else. This is one of those things. I suddenly felt that I had such a big responsibility, to tell all of my readers, all those girls out there, [that] this is the kind of woman you should become.
So basically, any story that will help the reader a step further towards that direction is a good story. The pictures need to encourage people to embrace life better because you want them to be more positive.
It’s about attitude. The Vogue woman, apart from looking good, you need a certain attitude, what I would label as attitude, being positive, being courageous, being brave sometimes… all that.
BoF: What other things are you trying to teach these young women?
AC: I always try to teach the readers that it’s great that you can show people that you are successful, that you have the money to buy these symbols, that you have earned it. But at some stage, you need to also convince, impress, your fellow people who know that you actually know better and more beyond that.
China has become more multi-layered. We’re talking about the top layer people. Then there’s the middle class, [who] have some, not a lot, so they still go for the obvious. Then there’s the new people still coming up – second-, third-, fourth-tier, still people waking up to this new world of luxury, suddenly having some money. And they’re still buying their first wallets. There are people still buying their first Louis Vuitton wallet!
Europeans talk about ‘new money’ because they had this prosperity for decades and decades now – it’s all easy for them to say, “Ugh, new money.” The Americans [say], “Ugh, peasants.” But there’s a lot of reasons to respect these Chinese. They went through so much hardship. We talked about the Cultural revolution, and suddenly the market opened up. They worked hard and spotted an opportunity, became entrepreneurs. [These] people actually made their own fortunes.
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