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Beach-Phobic No More: Bikini Envy Hits China

As China dares to go bare, can international retailers such as Zara and H&M compete with domestic manufacturers and reap the rewards?
Chinese actress Xin Zhilei in Balneaire for Harper's Bazaar China | Source: Balneaire
  • Sam Gaskin,
  • Casey Hall

BEIJING, China — Fashion Week Miami Beach Swim, the world's marquee swimwear showcase, came to a close on July 15. Over 1,000 brands exhibited their swimsuits to an audience of some 7,500 potential buyers at the Swim Show trade fair. That same week, manufacturers in the Chinese coastal city of Xingcheng produced around four million swimsuits without fanfare.

Located six hours north of Beijing in Liaoning province, Xingcheng — a city of roughly 500,000 — has little of Miami’s glitz. Lonely Planet describes it as “a bit dusty and rough around the edges” with “OK sands and calm waters.” Nevertheless, the city has become one of the global capitals of swimwear manufacturing. Embracing its new identity, a bikini-shaped shade is suspended over two ample outdoor amphitheatres in Xingcheng’s Bikini Square.

Xingcheng was little more than a fishing village 30 years ago, when 20 family workshops began producing swimwear. It was designated “China’s Swimwear Town” by the China National Textile and Apparel Council and the China Garment Association in 2010, but it’s only in recent years that it has come to dominate global swimsuit production.

A campaign by Chinese brand Sanqi Swimwear | Source: Sanqi,

“It took us three decades to reach the sales target of 5 billion yuan [$725 million],” Li Haifeng, president of the Xingcheng Swimwear Industry Association, told China Daily. “But via e-commerce, we tripled that figure in three years.”

“The local government launched a series of policies to support e-commerce,” said Daxue Consulting’s Bokuan Chen. “Nowadays, there are more than 36,000 online swimwear stores [operated from] Xingcheng, and the swimsuits have been sold to 140 different countries and regions around the world by cross-border e-commerce platforms.”

Xingcheng’s more than 1,200 swimwear manufacturers, which have over 100,000 employees between them, sell predominantly on sites such as Taobao, Tmall, and Amazon. Xingcheng brands sold over 200 million swimsuits in 2018, raising revenues of 15 billion yuan ($2.24 billion). Li said the city “contributed 80 percent of China's online swimsuit sales and 25 percent of the global swimwear market.”

Xingcheng manufacturers have been especially dominant in the domestic market. According to Liu Xiaojun, vice-mayor of Xingcheng, only $80 million (4.27 percent) of the $1.87 billion Xingcheng’s swimwear industry raised in 2015 came from exports.

The brand that sold the most swimwear during China's recent 6.18 online shopping festival — beating out other local players such as YouYou, Yuke and Li Ning, which together sold over 1.45 million swimwear items on Taobao and Tmall last month — is Balneaire (French for "seaside"). While Balneaire's Amazon store "About" page boasts Italian-inspired styles and stores in America, Spain, Dubai and Australia, its swimsuits are produced in Xingcheng, 20 times closer to Pyongyang than Saint Tropez.

A Place in the Sun

Balneaire’s success can be attributed to its marriage of foreign design — it has two design teams in Milan — with its understanding of the domestic market, where swimwear tastes are remarkably different, especially at the volume end of the market.

Tourists visit a beach in Qingdao | Source: Shutterstock

China doesn’t have a huge beach culture, with a majority of the population — between 80 to 90 percent of Chinese people, but the figures vary from province to province — unable to swim. Until a generation ago, swimming pools and beach holidays were a rarity for all but the most privileged Chinese, meaning that today’s young consumers, especially those in the post-'90s and '00s generations, are the first in their families to learn the skill.

China certainly boasts a number of famously overcrowded beaches, particularly in the north-eastern cities of Dalian and Qingdao (Fujiazhuang beach in Dalian alone sees crowds of 40,000 people per day in high season). However, it’s the growth of outbound travellers who are driving more of a trend for swimwear in the market.

Even so, relaxing, “fly and flop”-style beach holidays are not on the agenda for most Chinese travellers, even those heading to tropical destinations.

Instead, according to market research from Nielson, Chinese tourists prioritise shopping (probably the reason they outspend travellers from other nations by a ratio of 3:1), natural landmarks, history and theme parks when travelling, pushing beach-going far down the list of priorities.

The most common search word used by female Chinese shoppers looking for swimsuits is 'conservative.'

This is a fact reflected in both men’s and women’s swimsuit styles. During June this year, sales of close-fitting performance swim trunks (908,306 items) more than quadrupled the sales of men's board shorts more associated with surf culture (203,641 items) on Taobao and Tmall. And while bikinis account for 68 percent of women’s swimsuits globally according to retail data platform Edited, only 147,660 were purchased on Taobao and Tmall, barely a tenth of the 1,384,307 one-piece swimsuits sold in the same period.

“Due to China's conservative culture and the preference to keep skin pale, one-piece swimsuits are far more popular than bikinis,” said Daxue’s Chen. “Also, skirt designs are popular as Chinese women believe they have a slimming effect.” Indeed, according to data from, the most common search word used by female Chinese shoppers looking for swimsuits is “conservative.”

Offshore Opportunities

Despite the potential design disconnect, mass market foreign brands are stepping up their efforts in China.

"Brands such as Zara and H&M have been pulling back on their swimwear assortments in the US and UK over the past three months when compared to a year prior," said Edited's Kayla Marci. In China, however, "H&M launched 120 products in 2018 [compared to] 233 this year, equalling a 94.2 percent increase."

These retailers are aiming for a new generation of young, middle-class Chinese consumers who spend money on international travel, as well as investing in themselves and their own quality of life, driving a nationwide trend for health and wellness and a change in beauty ideals from the traditional “bai, shou, mei” (white skin, thin body, beautiful) to something that better reflects an active and international lifestyle.

Marysia's Spring 2019 collection | Source: Marysia

Helen Tang, 27, is indicative of this new breed of consumer in China. Muscular and tanned (Tang makes a living as a fitness trainer in Shanghai), she regularly travels to tropical destinations such as Thailand, and is keen to show off the body she has worked so hard for.

"I'm definitely a bikini lover," Tang said. "I shop for most of my bikinis on Taobao and like the tiny ones that show off my body. The classic ones for Chinese girls have too much fabric," she added with a laugh.

Though they are still in the minority, it’s consumers like Tang who present an opportunity for high end swimsuit brands, both domestic and international, targeting Chinese travellers, who tend to be wealthier and have more international tastes.

For the right foreign brands, China’s particular swimwear preferences offer an outsized opportunity. Los Angeles-based swimwear brand Marysia, one of the labels that showed in Miami, is one example. Marysia Dobrzanska Reeves, a surfer and former ballerina who founded the brand in 2009, said “[China’s] preferences align with our brand DNA as evidenced by the popularity of our maillot silhouettes globally, where one-piece swimsuits drive a significant portion of our sales. We expect these styles to perform well in China.”

In addition to Lane Crawford, a chain of high-end department stores headquartered in Hong Kong, Marysia’s swimsuits are now available in China via a WeChat store the brand launched on July 15.

“Except for summer, some consumers also buy swimsuits during holidays such as Chinese New Year and Golden Week for traveling,” agreed Chen. “Based on my observations, the most popular destinations among Chinese tourists are islands and coastal areas where, obviously, you cannot do without a swimsuit.”

Swimwear and resort sell a lifestyle, one that is increasingly attractive to young Chinese consumers with international attitudes and money to spend.

Chinese citizens made nearly 150 million outbound trips in 2018, spending $120 billion. According to Chinese travel provider Ctrip, nearly half of outbound tourist destinations head to beaches or islands, with Australia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore all seeing more than 10 million Chinese tourists per year. Twenty percent of visitors contributed to 80 percent of total outbound spending, indicative of China’s wealthy class with money to burn.

Of course, many Chinese consumers will be glad to purchase swimwear made by Chinese brands, often at extremely competitive prices, before heading to the beach.

Reeves says she isn’t worried about those brands.

“Marysia is a luxury swimwear brand. We do not compete with locally produced low-priced swimwear,” she said.

But in Xingcheng, Balneaire, for one, isn’t limiting itself to cheap swimsuits. Its women’s swimsuits range from 108 yuan ($16) to 2,688 yuan ($390) on Tmall, almost as expensive as Marysia’s, which top out on Lane Crawford’s website at $440.

The key for global players looking to capture market share is less about price, or even style, and more about storytelling. More than other categories, swimwear and resort sell a lifestyle, one that is increasingly attractive to young Chinese consumers with international attitudes and money to spend on looking and feeling fantastic.


Backstage at Chloé's Shanghai Show | Source: Courtesy

Chloé Chief Executive Opens up About China Strategy 

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Australian Fashion Brands Investigate Suppliers in China over Forced Labour Claims 

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Xiaohongshu's user interface | Source: Xiaohongshu

Xiaohongshu Risks KOL Wrath with New Regulations 

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Vipshop debut on the New York Stock Exchange in 2012 | Source: NYSE

Online Retailer Buys Offline Outlets

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The so-called Beijing bikini | Source: Wikimedia Commons

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