SHANGHAI, China — It is the question on everyone’s lips: how do you drive bigger sales on social media? Who better to ask than the person Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Bergdorf Goodman chose as their handbag emissary for one of the world’s most lucrative luxury markets. Tao Liang, better known to China’s fashion cognoscenti as Mr.Bags, has become something of a style sage for the legions of affluent women who follow his blog. He certainly has his finger on the market’s ever quickening pulse.
In just 12 minutes, the 24-year-old Beijing-based blogger says he recently helped brands sell 1.2 million RMB ($173,652) worth of designer handbags. With over 2.7 million readers on China’s biggest social media platform Weibo and more than 600,000 followers on WeChat, a microblogging messaging app, Liang uses his encyclopaedic fashion knowledge not only to keep his enormous following informed about luxury brands and the latest handbag trends, but also to help mega brands to understand what Chinese consumers are looking for in the latest “it” accessory.
For Valentine’s Day, Liang teamed up with Givenchy to promote limited edition pink Horizon handbags, available exclusively on WeChat to his followers, who he refers to as “bagfans.” All 80 pieces, each priced at 14,900 RMB ($2,170), sold out almost instantaneously. The blogger saw similar success in January when he partnered with Edinburgh-based label Strathberry to produce two limited edition bag styles on WeChat, both of which sold out in under a minute.
How did Liang become so influential? A graduate of New York’s Columbia University, Liang’s first foray into the digital space was in 2011 when he built a vast following on the once-popular social network Ren Ren, then referred to as the “Facebook of China.” “The first post that got reposted thousands of times was a photo series of nice and inexpensive bags, [ones] that I thought were nice and under 10,000 RMB or less,” he tells BoF.
I’m interested in the history of handbags and their investment prospects, which gives readers a new perspective.
It was then Liang realised there was demand for content focused on luxury handbags. “Sometimes I would research all day, from morning to night, just to research the release date for a particular bag,” he says, noting that his academic background has helped balance his fanatic enthusiasm with rational thinking. “I think I appreciate handbags a different way than girls do. I’m interested in the history of handbags and their investment prospects, which gives readers a new perspective.”
“My readers are everything. I’m a reader myself, so I know what they want and need. Frankly, there are hundreds and thousands of shopping maniacs who love to buy handbags, but they need to work and raise children [and] they don’t have time to research and decide which bag is worth buying, what are the latest designs and where best to purchase them. I provide them with such advice,” he says.
Highly curated handbag blogs like the Dallas-based Bag Snob, founded by Kelly Cook and Tina Craig, have set international benchmarks. Their magic seems to lie in no-holds-barred reviews that often spark lively conversations among their loyal readership. But in China, most accessory blogs simply reproduced the endless press releases blasted to bloggers and editors by PRs looking to push product. This is where Mr. Bags stepped in, offering meticulous research and a more clever, independent voice.
Ranked #3 on Exane BNP Paribas’ 2017 list of China's most influential fashion bloggers, Liang's reach and engagement levels are impressive, scoring hundreds of thousands of readers for many of his WeChat articles. Liang’s growth comes at a time when mobile is the preeminent shopping channel in China — and when one third of the time Chinese mobile users spend online is via the WeChat platform, according to Bloomberg.
Known as Weixin on the mainland, WeChat is fundamentally a mobile-messaging service, but it also serves many of the functions of ApplePay, Facebook, Yelp, Uber, Amazon, Expedia, Spotify, Tinder and more. People use WeChat to pay rent, make a doctor’s appointment, conduct business meetings, find a one-night stand, donate to charity and more. In the most recently reported quarter, WeChat had 846 million monthly active users, so it’s no surprise brands are latching onto this opportunity.
Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Gucci and Stella McCartney are now part of Liang’s client list, as he finds more unique ways to connect them with his bagfans — sometimes by doling out frank advice to brands, or in others cases, by partnering with them to create capsule collections to mark major shopping events like Chinese New Year.
“The big brands are smart and don’t constrain you. I can be very free to recommend my favourite latest design from the brand. They also pursue new and fresh ways of working together, such as bag showings and fan meetings,” he says.
Indeed, Liang has already teamed up with Bergdorf Goodman twice, meeting New York-based bagfans for breakfast. Affluent overseas Chinese are one of his important markets. The first theme was “Chanel” and readers were tasked with bringing in their Chanel handbags for show and tell while discovering the latest styles in store. The second event, which coincided with the launch of the new Mansur Gavriel bucket bag, saw readers buy several bags each. “Sometimes [the department stores] give me an exclusive discount code to share with my readers,” he says.
“Bagfans always asked me where they can purchase the bags I recommend through private messages or comments. So by partnering with e-commerce and department stores, they can now quickly buy the most fashionable bag for a really good price,” Liang asserts.
Data from RewardStyle, an invitation-only fashion blog affiliate marketing network, shows that during a peak period, Liang can bring sales of about $1 million a month.
Although he declines to share annual financial figures, it is not difficult to envisage the scale of the Mr. Bags business when you consider that this one lucrative revenue stream accounts for just 35 percent of his blog’s total revenue. The business model of Mr. Bags is evolving fast. In addition to affiliate marketing, he has long-term and increasingly lucrative collaborations with selected luxury e-tailers who pay him a flat fee. Department stores like Galeries Lafayette have collaborated with Liang to have him host “bagfan gatherings.”
However, Liang says he does not want his collaborations to become advertorials, spending a lot of time thinking how to interact with his readers in more meaningful ways. On Valentine’s Day, he asked his readers to show their handbags and share stories related to their personal love lives. Liang receives thousands of comments with each post, from which he selects about 100 to spotlight so that readers end up engaging with each other’s stories. “I always say that buying a bag is about happiness. It’s that feeling that has created a connection between my fans and me,” he says.
Looking ahead, Liang’s next ambition is to offer a professional service that allows him to advise luxury brands on the features, colour and fabric of new handbags they develop. During Milan Fashion Week, for instance, Liang travelled to Italy to meet with Tod’s to work on an exclusive bagfan collection launching later this year, marking the first time a Chinese fashion blogger will be directly involved in the design process with a luxury mega brand. Styles that are preferable to a Western audience are not necessarily suitable for Chinese consumers, he says. “I know my bagfans well… I think I can be a good bridge between the two [the brands and customers].”
Footwear is another product segment Liang is also interested in: his recently launched shoe-themed blog “Mr Heels” has already reached over 320,000 Weibo readers. “Maybe one day I will have the opportunity to design my own label and establish a successful leather-goods brand made in China,” he says wistfully. “I am always drawing.”