SHENZHEN, China — Fairy Fair is a mid-range womenswear brand that targets China’s 110 million female consumers between the ages of 20 and 30 years old. In their showroom in Shenzhen, Cindy Chen the head of merchandising briskly leads an inspection tour and comments on past sales performance. First, she holds up a big panda-eyes T-shirt and announces: “This was our bestseller last spring.” Then she points to the bunnies that swarm all over the brand’s summer miniskirts, another bestseller. Finally, she presents a whole menagerie of cats, swans, lions and mice that proudly parade on a successful series of tops. In the winter, she said, faux-fur hoodies with small ears have been doing well, helping this writer to understand why chilly Chinese girls sometimes look like bear cubs.
Until recently, these kinds of "childish" products have driven strong results. Launched in 2001, Fairy Fair grew quickly and deployed a network of over 800 stores in China. It makes a profit of about €10 million ($13.3 million) per year. But Ms Chen admitted the magic has faded in 2013 and, recently, Fairy Fair’s IPO filing was denied by China’s Securities Regulatory Commission because the brand’s growth predictions were deemed to be over confident.
Ageing little rich girls
At Fairy Fair, there is growing awareness that the “cute” style on which the brand is built is losing its appeal in the eyes of consumers born after 1990. But the penchant for “sweet” fashion remains strong among women over 25 years old (often called the Post-80s generation) and many Chinese, Korean and Japanese brands such as Olive des Olive, Only, One Page Bright and A02 continue to flatter the innocence of their not-so-young clients.
The fact is that marketing to women between 25 and 35 years old is attractive. Three decades of steady economic growth, public spending on education and the one-child policy radically improved the lot of Chinese girls born in the 1980s, a groundbreaking shift after centuries of discrimination. Financially independent and educated, these girls are more materialistic and egocentric than previous generations — some have pictures of themselves on their desks — and are, unsurprisingly, more avid fashion shoppers. A typical young urban woman lives with her parents and earns about €700 ($936) per month. She typically gives half to her mother and spends the rest of it on clothes (30 percent), followed by consumer electronic (11 percent) and travel (10 percent). According to a recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group, urban working women aged 26 to 35 are the biggest spenders on clothing in China. The survey also indicates that urban female consumers aged 14 to 45 account for 54 percent of total consumption of clothing in China.
But what pushes a 25-year-old Chinese woman to buy a teddy bear sweatshirt? From a Western point of view, cuteness is the reserve of children. At an age when their Western counterparts have mastered with ease the codes of négligé étudié, why are Chinese adults still playing with dolls?
A short history of Chinese looks
The historical and sociological background of modern China provides some explanation. On the one hand, until China opened up to capitalism in the early 1990s, the standard uniform for both men and women was a strict Mao suit in blue, gray or black. A scarf, of course red, would sometimes cheer women’s outfits. But overall, an austere Communist simplicity reigned supreme. In the summer, "Blazy” dresses, simple cotton shirt-dresses inspired by the Soviets, brought a bit of lightness. (They were introduced in the late 1950s after the visit of a Russian politician who claimed that the severity of the Chinese clothes did not quite reflect the cheerful prosperity of Socialist countries.) To some extent, the tastes of young women born after the 1980s were forged in response to the colourless, gender-neutral fashion heritage of their mothers. This probably goes some distance towards explaining their fascination for colourful, bright and childish clothes.
On the other hand, though more women are becoming career-oriented and prefer to marry later than before, Chinese mentalities remain traditional. Single women in China are driven by intense societal pressure to find a mate. In a survey of 32,000 people in 2010 by the All China Women’s Federation, 90 percent of men said that a woman should get married before the age of 27. Those that don’t risk being called sheng nu, or “leftover ladies.” To increase their chances, women are generally taught to be quiet and sweet and look young. Thus, for the post-1980s generation of women, adopting a “cute” and “sweet” style is often perceived as a way to defer the marriage deadline.
A fresh generation
But things change. Young women born after 1990 are breaking with the "cute" style that pleased previous generations. While the women born in the 1980s lived in an environment of fast economic growth, combined with rigorous education standards, post-90s women are no longer guinea pigs in a new socioeconomic experiment. They still suffer from the pressures of schoolwork and market competition, but they have adopted more liberal and individualistic values, which can translate into more selective and anti-mainstream shopping habits.
An important youth movement reflects this evolution of tastes. It’s called the Xiao Qing Xin (XQX) style, which literally means “small and fresh.” Coming originally from indie-pop music, the XQX wave has now engulfed other cultural domains, such as cinema, art and, now, fashion, presenting major challenges for Chinese brands like Fairy Fair, most of whom are ill-equipped to respond and paralysed by a backwards-looking mentality.
Genevieve Flaven is CEO of Style-Vision Asia, a trend agency based in Shanghai.