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Caution Prevails at Shanghai Fashion Week

At the latest edition of China’s top fashion week, brands adapted their designs for a more value-minded shopper as retail buyers prepared for a softer local market.
Comme Moi, founded by former model Lu Yan, lured actors Zhong Chuxi, Hu Bing, Ma Yili, and Deng Chao to the front row for its 10th anniversary.
Chinese brand Comme Moi lured actors (L-R) Zhong Chuxi, Li Xiaofeng and Hu Bing to its 10th anniversary show during Shanghai Fashion Week in Oct. 2023. (Getty Images)

Key insights

  • The Spring/Summer 2024 season saw a return of some pre-pandemic norms, but the mood was more conservative among both designers and retailers.
  • Younger designers are navigating a softer multi-brand retail market, adapting some products and ranges for a more value-minded shopper.
  • At major events industry leaders promoted sustainably sourced materials and the move to regenerative ecosystems in supply chains.

There was a palpable sense of relief in the air at the latest edition of Shanghai Fashion Week. After a timid return in March following the lifting of Covid-19 lockdowns, the event’s Spring/Summer 2024 season saw a return to pre-pandemic levels of activity, as measured by the number of runway presentations, showrooms and events on the calendar.

“It’s true that there was an undercurrent of caution due to the economic outlook but the overall mood this fashion week felt a lot closer to ‘business as usual’ than before,” said Shaway Yeh, a Shanghai-based fashion media veteran and founder of sustainable innovation consultancy Yehyehyeh.

China’s fashion industry is grappling with an economy that is facing numerous headwinds amid slower-than-expected growth. While some see fashion week activity as a barometer for the health of the broader fashion market, Yeh believes it is still too early to draw any firm conclusions from this edition — especially when brands’ order books have yet to be tallied.

“Even if the macro picture were more upbeat, it would be totally natural for some companies to be tentative instead of making a big, bold comeback so soon after the country reopened. This season was always going to be a bit of an anomaly,” she added.

But the improved atmosphere gave some industry leaders a boost, nonetheless. Shanghai Fashion Week’s secretary general Lv Xiaolei, also known as ‘Madame Lu,’ appeared reassured by the latest line-up of local designers, describing it as “extremely rich,” and said she “welcomed the participation of more international buyers and media again.”

Kicking off on Oct. 8 with a runway show from Icicle, the Chinese minimalist eco-conscious brand that shares a parent company with Carven, the event concluded on Oct. 16 with a guest show from Stella McCartney. A vibrant mix of young talent peppered the schedule throughout the week, such as Mark Gong, Xu Zhi, Jacques Wei, and Louis Shengtao Chen. And a few established brands managed to draw out large celebrity crowds.

Comme Moi, founded by former model Lu Yan, lured actors Zhong Chuxi, Hu Bing, Ma Yili, and Deng Chao to the front row for its 10th anniversary. The show itself was equally star-studded as a group of China’s most prominent models from the past few decades — Qiqi, Anna Wang, Joie Qu Ying, Chun Xiao, and Linda Li Jing among them — returned to the runway.

Mass market heavyweights like Semir and Balabala held shows that were livestreamed for consumers on Douyin. Off schedule, events like the launch of the new Louis Vuitton Shanghai City Guide at the soon-to-open Fotografiska museum added to the excitement. Crucially, international buyers from the likes of H Lorenzo in the US, Printemps in France, Machine-A in the UK, and GlobalLink, one of Vietnam’s key luxury retail players, were also in town.

Yet some Chinese designers looking to maximise their exposure opted earlier to decamp for international runways. Windowsen, which had become one of the most anticipated Shanghai shows due to its highly dramatic sporty-couture creations, began showing in Paris this season, joining labels Ruohan Wang, Dawei, and Didu. Shuting Qiu chose Milan, while others like 8on8 and Pronounce showed in London. Marrknull and Susan Fang kept one foot in Europe and another in China this season.

For designers just starting out, it was a tough season to debut.

“After 2019 [Chinese multi-brand] buyers couldn’t go [overseas to buy] European or Japanese brands [so their] budgets were all in the Chinese market but, now that China is open again, they’re more willing to take foreign brands,” said designer Chen Sifan. “[This means] they have really low budgets for Chinese designers and especially for new brands. It’s a challenge but we have to face it.”

Chen, a Xian native who studied at FIT in New York and Central Saint Martins in London before returning to China, presented his first collection in Shanghai this season, featuring gender-neutral pieces that are subtly infused with classical Chinese design techniques like a Hanfu drop shoulder sleeve.

Showroom owner Meimei Ding suggested that while young local brands will find the current climate particularly challenging, they are not alone.

“Buyers are just a little bit stressed out, they’re less experimental [across the board],” said Ding, chief executive of Shanghai-based DFO Showroom, which represents brands like Vivienne Tam, French menswear label Etudes, and Japanese footwear brand Grounds.

“A couple years ago, you could show a bunch of new brands and [buyers] were super excited, ‘let’s try this, let’s try that.’ Now, they stay on the safe side… and are more conservative. They just want to buy what they know they will sell or what will get delivered... It’s just a trickier market in general.”

Multi-brand fashion retailers in China are clearly feeling more cautious, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily scaling back, she explained.

“The strong retailers that we work with are still [easily] breaking easily 10 million yuan [$1.37 million] a year [in annual buying budgets]… Maybe we’re not seeing exponential numbers but it’s still okay.”

To explain recent shifts in buyer behaviour, Ding revealed that the showroom represented one brand she initially thought wouldn’t perform that well because it looked quite “everyday-ish” but it turned out to be very popular. She chalked it up to the fabrics being high quality with many SKUs and good pricing.

“[The consumer mindset] used to be [about] wearing however much [you] can spend. Now it’s more about taste. The fit is good [and even if customers] don’t know where the brand is from [and] might not see a logo, it’s cool [so they buy it],” said Ding, who has been recommending brands to anchor their pricing to a sweet spot of around 2,000 to 5,000 yuan ($274 to $686) at retail.

Ding has noticed that local buyers are prioritising some clothing categories that their overseas counterparts are not. “I don’t see the loungewear trend [persisting here like overseas] but I do see people dressing more casually,” she said, referring to the fact that traditional office wear codes are more intact in China as most Chinese companies haven’t embraced remote working post-pandemic.

Even at Mark Gong, a brand established in 2015 and known for its sexy denim and leather pieces, which sometimes retail as high as 8,000 yuan, the designer focused on a versatile day-to-night styling. For its 10th season, the designer imagined a muse who had been up partying all night but had to still run to the office in the morning. He sent models down the runway in workwear pieces remixed with corsetry elements, holding garment bags and with slightly dishevelled hair.

“People still shop but they shop more carefully and they think about it more,” said Gong, sitting in the Tube showroom the day after his show. “They might have had the budget for 10,000 yuan for one jacket before. Now they want five jackets for that price or they want a jacket that can work for 10 years. We still want to give a little drama, but most of the pieces we make are more daily wear but with added details.”

Some consumers in China remain as adventurous as ever. Stavros Karelis, founder and buying director of avant-garde London retailer Machine-A, which opened a store in Shanghai in September last year, said that although the consumer is now a bit more price conscious than before, he isn’t pulling back on the style factor. “[Our customers still] love to invest into good pieces… [with] designer workmanship and craftsmanship,” he explained, adding that a third of the brands in the Shanghai store are Chinese at the unveil of the store’s collaboration with the Chinese brand Markknull and DaphneLab.

Still, if the overriding aesthetic this season was led by caution, then there were signs that designers could be bolder with other areas of their business in the seasons ahead.

Although Shanghai Fashion Week has had a component dedicated to sustainability for many years, this season it felt front and centre. Local sustainable fashion pioneer Shaway Yeh’s Shan Future Forum was a highlight alongside the K Generation Award from Kering Group, which awards green innovation in the Chinese fashion sector. Harrods returned with The Hive, an event featuring multiple panels to discuss sustainability across a diverse set of topics, and Stella McCartney, an early adopter of ethical business principles, was chosen for the week’s closing show.

“We’re long past the ‘sustainability 101′ stage now,” said Yeh, who led talks with the likes of Louis Vuitton’s Christelle Capdupuy, RGE Group’s Sharon Chong, Diesel’s Andrea Rosso, Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall Group’s Yang Liu and Erdos’ Tana Dai at the forum.

“There’s still work to be done around educating designers more about the circular economy, decarbonising, and biodiversity but at this season’s forum we examined deep-rooted issues like regenerative agriculture and rewilding efforts. Preserving and restoring grasslands, forests, and oceans are all key to building sustainable fashion supply chains,” she added.

This season’s uptick in sustainability-focused initiatives is reflected in the growing emphasis placed on environmentally responsible business practices by some Chinese designers, suggested Zemira Xu, co-founder of the showroom Tube.

“More than the consumer, it’s the designers who are [driving] efforts to be more green; most were born in or after the 1990s so they’re very aware [of the industry’s environmental impacts],” she said.

“PH5 is one brand that is completely vertical but most brands here aren’t. So sometimes [their efforts are] capped as they don’t typically own the supply chain [but more designers are now] incorporating less impactful materials into their collections when possible.”

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