BEIJING, China — Concept store Ink opened earlier this year in a “hutong,” or alleyway, in the Dongcheng district of Beijing. When this reporter visited the shop, at dusk, the matte black door was barely visible in the dimly lit passage. Nearby, workers were fixing a pipe; residents were returning from work on foot and bicycle; and between the electric scooters and the caged birds, Lilliputian grandmothers in black twill pants and flowered gowns prepared dinner while shaking their woks in a merry crackle of boiling oil. Was this Beijing’s answer to the hip boutiques of Paris’ Rue de Sévigné, home to L'Eclaireur? The answer lay behind the black door.
Hutongs are not a traditional location for fashion stores. Quite the opposite. China is very much a land of gargantuan commercial centres which can often house millions of square feet of shopping space. Last month, the New Century Global Center, a development with roughly 18,000,000 square feet of floor space and an artificial sun that crossed the digital sky of a gigantic LED screen, was inaugurated in Chengdu, a city of 14 million inhabitants in the province of Sichuan. But many of these great retail ventures seem destined to decay before they have even come to life. And traveling across China one notices, everywhere, the proliferation of so-called "ghost malls" — grandiose real estate projects now deserted due to rampant speculation and dubious market research. The New South China Mall is the most famous of these doomed malls. Built in the city of Dongguan in Guangdong Province, in 2005, it remains almost completely unoccupied eight years after its opening; its flashy decor, roller coaster and palm trees awaiting a future that may never happen.
Indeed, over the past three decades, the landscape of Chinese fashion retail has evolved dramatically. After the reign of department stores, which lasted from 1985 to 1995, shopping malls colonised city centers and suburbs. But it’s likely that the coming years will see rising demand for more highly curated, human-scale multi-brand stores. At least, that’s what the owners of the store with the black door are betting on.
Away from the grandeur of marquee projects, Ink — which stocks menswear labels like Boris Bidjan Saberi, Damir Doma, Rick Owens and Song for the Mute — embraces a radical minimalism. The interior design evokes a dark crypt; designer clothes hanging on steel wires stand out from the shadows like precious relics.
The store is run by co-owner Han Ying, a young Chinese woman who studied at the Beijing Institute of Clothing Technology and completed her training in Paris with internships at Damir Doma and Yves Saint Laurent. Ying, who has explored several sides of the fashion business — as a model, a fashion journalist and a store manager — is targeting the growing number of wealthy consumers who are keen to differentiate themselves from the ambient conformism radiating from the country’s luxury malls and are increasingly dropping established labels in favour of deliberately anti-commercial brands.
In China, this consumer segment is still very much in its infancy. But Ink joins a number of other concept stores in Beijing and Shanghai whose influence is growing. Hung Huang, a popular media figure, publisher and blogger who has been called “the Oprah of China,” was an early pioneer. In 2010, she opened Brand New China (BNC), a multi-brand boutique focused on avant garde Chinese labels, in Beijing’s Sanlitun neighbourhood. The same year, Rebecca Feng, Alicia Liu and David Hu founded the concept store Cachet, which not only carries young Chinese designers, but also works with them on their branding and marketing efforts.
Perhaps more than anywhere else, in China, affluent fashion consumers need patient curators who can provide advice and help acquaint them with new designers. But make no mistake. A wave of multi-brand boutiques are offering China’s savvier shoppers an alternative to overexposed luxury brands and their numbers are growing.
Genevieve Flaven is CEO of Style-Vision Asia, a trend agency based in Shanghai.