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China’s New Generation of Fashion Media Powerbrokers

What can brands expect from former deputies who rose through the ranks of the industry and have taken the reins from predecessors with bigger personalities and more power?
Duscher Tang, Xue Jian and Sha Xiaoli
Modern Weekly's Duscher Tang, Elle China's Xue Jian and Harper Bazaar China's Sha Xiaoli. BoF.

A new editor-in-chief at Vogue China, expected to be announced any day now, is just the latest in a string of new editors appointed to China’s most important fashion titles in recent years.

They take the reins from a powerful cohort of long-standing editors: women like Su Mang, Shaway Yeh and Xiao Xue, who are credited with building China’s fashion media culture from the ground up over a period of several decades.

News of Angelica Cheung’s departure from Vogue China late last year after almost 16 years in the top job marked the end of that era. Her successor will not only inherit the highest-profile fashion media job in the world’s largest fashion market, but they will also do so at a time when the role of traditional media seems to have reached a tipping point in China.

“Angelica was the queen and I don’t think there will be another queen who has the same power. That doesn’t exist anymore,” said Lily Chou, who herself is the editor-in-chief of Shanghai-based independent fashion and art bi-annual Rouge Fashion Book and part of a dynamic young generation contributing niche points of view to China’s modern fashion publishing conversation.

Chou is one of many who see this as the end of a golden age of powerful fashion editors. Three years ago, the concentration of power the three editors had consolidated was viewed as a potential threat. Publishing companies had to consider whether the personal brands of chief editors outshined the titles they represented. Today, they are gone and many in China would struggle to name-check their successors.

“[Cheung and Elle China founding editor] Xiao Xue created something; they created it, the next generation are just inheriting it, so their job is to keep that well-oiled machine running and deal with the challenges that will come along the way,” Chou said.

This shift seems a natural part of the evolution of China’s fashion media, which rose with astronomical speed in its early years, only to correct course just as quickly to face up to the digital revolution that threatens its existence. Indeed, staying afloat is a tough enough job for any fashion magazine today.

Though China’s fashion magazine market has remained somewhat resilient when compared with its counterparts in other countries, it is subject to the same broader social and technological factors that have disrupted the traditional media industry elsewhere. In some ways, these changes have been even more dramatic in China, where digitisation has been so enthusiastically embraced.

Reflecting on the “drastic” disruptions to China’s media industry over the past decade, Tommy Tse, assistant professor in media and culture at The University of Hong Kong’s Department of Sociology, explained that there has been a discernible effect on brands. “The impact of not only digitisation but also platformisation, [means] we [are witnessing] key changes in Chinese fashion and luxury consumption practices,” he explained.

The entire fashion journey, in other words, from inspiration to consumer purchase, is now performed online in China, with advertising budgets for print campaigns shrinking as brands need to spend more and more money converting readers online via expensive marketing investments on Chinese social media platforms, such as WeChat and Xiaohongshu, as well as e-commerce platforms, such as Tmall.

So, who are the editors now charged with fending off competition from increasingly influential KOLs (key opinion leaders) and other digital-first content publishers, now seeing the industry through this period of disruption?

The Ultimate Insiders

An oft-told story claims that founding editor, Su Mang, and long-time fashion director, Sha Xiaoli, pulled together the first editorial team of Harper’s Bazaar China in under ten days.

The first issue of the magazine was released in November 2001, and from that time, up until Su’s departure from the title in 2018, Sha Xiaoli was a loyal lieutenant and the logical choice to succeed Su.

Following Su’s decision to leave the magazine, Sha stepped into the joint roles of editor-in-chief and general manager, where she has cut a noticeably lower-profile figure than Su, formerly a regular feature of television interviews and red carpet appearances, known for being outspoken and occasionally controversial.

Sha may be less outspoken than her predecessor, and she is quick to acknowledge the challenges digital competition presents legacy fashion media brands rooted in print. But she maintains that this also presents an opportunity.

“We can use this bigger [digital] platform to reach more readers and educate them from zero about trends in fashion, culture, art and design,” she told BoF, adding that the size of China’s market means there are still opportunities that remain untapped, with many consumers working their way into the middle class requiring the kind of mass-market fashion and luxury lifestyle education provided by major fashion titles.

“I believe we will always have a print version of Harper’s Bazaar. It has value as something you can own or keep, but the magazine of the future needs to be more inspiring than a useful shopping guide,” she said.

Like Sha, Xue Jian, who is also known by the English name Nicole Xue, was a long-time deputy before nabbing the top job at Elle China in 2019. Xue succeeded Xiao Xue, whom she had worked with since Xiao Xue first joined the publication in 2006 (Xue Jian joined the title a year earlier, in 2005).

The newly minted deputy chief editor at Modern Weekly Style, Duscher Tang, also spent years working his way up the ranks of the Modern Media publishing group in the years Shaway Yeh, group style editorial director and editorial director for Modern Weekly, built the latter into a unique and acclaimed Chinese fashion and lifestyle publication with a progressive, edgy lens. The title remains without a chief editor since the departure of Karchun Leung in 2020.

Tang left Modern Media for stints at local editions of T Magazine and WSJ Magazine before returning to Modern Weekly and taking over as chief editor in 2020.

The appointments of long-time fashion media insiders to top roles have established a path to the top of the masthead, one that makes Condé Nast China’s search for a new editor (one that has reportedly focused outside the beltway of Chinese fashion publishing, and even perhaps outside Mainland China itself) so interesting, if conjecture regarding candidates for the job, such as Australian-born influencer Margaret Zhang and Malaysian national Wish Teoh (a former employee of both Vogue China and Numero China), is to be believed.

New Era, New Skill Set

China’s original generation of powerhouse fashion editors didn’t work their way up the ladder to their top jobs — largely because there was no ladder to speak of when they were starting out in fashion magazine publishing. Angelica Cheung, for example, initially embarked on a business career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before pivoting to publishing.

What these editors did share was an intimate understanding of Mainland China and its potential to become the preeminent market for luxury and fashion.

Tommy Tse says the importance of this local experience and deep level of familiarity with the local industry should not be underestimated.

“Knowing the mainland culture and lifestyle, having a good level of social, cultural and symbolic capital, and understanding what the political boundaries are, are all, of course, important for a mainland fashion media leader to survive and thrive,” Tse explained.

However, Tse added a caveat. Local knowledge is not the only asset important for editors stepping into the shoes of China’s iconic first generation. In fact, Tse says, a legacy mindset is likely to be as much of a hindrance in today’s environment as a lack of familiarity with the local market.

“Being too familiar with and ingrained in how the fashion system worked in the past sometimes may hinder one to change and embrace new challenges too,” he said.

Just as important will be skills such as understanding algorithms, machine learning and consumer data, “a sharp eye for interpreting the new generation’s cultural and aesthetic preferences without simply imposing irrelevant, unrelatable styles and not just uncreatively following the mass trends,” Tse explained.

Indeed, this new generation of editors, including whoever takes over from Cheung at Vogue China, will need an armoury of weapons to overcome the challenges facing the fashion media at this time of great upheaval.

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