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Some Wealthy Chinese Are Shifting Away from European Couture Houses

It’s no secret that Chinese A-listers are fans of Europe’s top couture houses, but some of the biggest names in the game are beginning to lose would-be clients to Chinese couturiers.
Tang Wei in Valentino Haute Couture, Zhou Xun and Liu Wen in Chanel Haute Couture, Ni Ni in Zuhair Murad Haute Couture and He Sui in Grace Chen Couture | Collage by BoF
  • Zoe Suen

BEIJING, China — As the daughter of socialite and couture devotée Lisa Xia, Natasha Lau was exposed to the craft from a young age thanks to summer holidays spent in Paris. The same goes for her younger sister Eugenia, who made her couture week front row debut aged five.

“Couture is an investment for sure,” says Lau, an influencer who is taking a gap year from Parson’s to complete an acting course in Beijing and has worked on social media campaigns for the likes of Fendi and Hermès. “[Couture] is an art piece and you’re the only one in the world who has it.”

Couture shows have become an important gathering ground for wealthy Chinese scions and celebrities. At the shows, Lau rubs shoulders with the likes of actress Tian Hairong, socialite Min Lu and Yu Holdings Chief Executive Wendy Yu.

Chinese celebrities have also become mainstays at couture shows and continue to spotlight European luxury for their fans at home. Earlier this week at Christian Dior, super model He Sui, Hong Kong actress Carina Lau and mainland actress Vivien Li were spotted at the house's atelier in Paris, while actress and Chanel ambassador Zhou Xun was photographed at the brand's library show set in the Grand Palais the day after.

Natasha Lau and Giorgio Armani | Source: Courtesy

But 10,000 kilometres from Paris’ esteemed ateliers, China’s own couturiers are serving a different group of exacting and elusive couture clients — a revenue source that European houses have been neglecting.

For jet-setting clients like Xia and Lau — whose acting programme is breaking a three-year couture week streak — couture is inseparable from its French roots. To qualify as an haute couture house, designers must comply with the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode's rules, which include designing made-to-order clothes for private clients with more than one fitting, to hiring at least 15 fulltime staff.

“Haute Couture is first and foremost the ultimate luxury, the ultimate service,” a spokesperson from Chanel tells BoF. “It expresses the best of fashion since it’s made personally for the client and is all about perfection.” Aside from showing in Paris, Chanel and other luxury houses hold presentations and fittings around the world to cater to their increasingly global clientele – including China.

No price is too high when it comes to having the chance to own something nobody else has.

Chanel’s couture consumers are getting younger and younger, says the brand’s spokesperson. “They want a garment that is made only for them, that they won’t see on other women.”

Take Lau, who at twenty-one, has already amassed an impressive collection, from a purple floor-skimming Valentino cape, to a body-hugging Giorgio Armani number dripping in Swarovski diamonds. Such pieces were purchased for upwards 100,000 euros (around $112,700), "but that's a low average," she says. Lau and Xia are partial to Dior, Armani, Schiaparelli and (pre-China boycott) Dolce & Gabbana, and would often place one order each per five to six brands during past mother-daughter couture week jaunts.

“Whether it’s a tailored Saville Row suit or a special-order Birkin, no price is too high when it comes to having the chance to own something nobody else has,” says Hong Kong Tatler’s Society Editor Christian Barlow.

Levelling Up in Luxury

The rise of social media, increasingly deceptive counterfeits and a desire to stand out from the crowd means that exclusive, made-to-measure is a way to trade up for a growing number of Chinese clients who have become bored of ‘ordinary’ luxury brand goods. “Many are recognising the appeal in buying couture or bespoke products,” says Barlow.

However, not all customers trade up from ready-to-wear luxury to couture in a single leap. Instead, some Chinese customers have turned to homegrown couturiers after they have become disillusioned with European houses' ready-to-wear offerings. And who better to serve them than China's couture trifecta: Yang Fang of Atelier by Fang, Grace Chen and Guo Pei, who designed Rihanna's famed 2015 Met Gala "omelette" gown.

Grace Chen's Shanghai atelier | Source: Courtesy

Yang Fang has operated both ready-to-wear and couture lines in Shanghai since 2013, but the latter — named Atelier by Fang — has grown into a reliable source of revenue, leading to the opening of a three-story couture atelier and salon in the city’s former French concession last year. “I always find clients very excited to discover a new proposition outside the established luxury labels which already take [up] a large place in their wardrobes,” Fang tells BoF.

"We've really captured the post-luxury market," says Chen, who graduated from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, having established her atelier a decade ago and dressed the likes of Oprah and China's First Lady Peng Liyuan. Over 90 percent of Chen's clients are Chinese, and though the designer has noticed an increase in local millennial clients, most of them are between ages of 35 and 45.

“Most of my customers were the first luxury customers in China and started buying Chanel and Dior 20 years ago. They need something more than that now, because [luxury] ready-to-wear is too accessible and isn’t personal anymore,” she adds, adding that Chinese customers who are increasingly veering away from overtly-branded luxury goods find couture to be a subtler alternative. Chen’s couture gowns are priced upwards of $12,600, while trousers sell for $2,500 or more.

The clients of China's own couturiers are a more elusive bunch than those of European fashion houses. High profile players have sported Chen's designs — from Trends Media Group's former Chief Executive Su Mang to the wife of China's Premier Li Keqiang, allegedly — but Chen notes that most of her clients are successful female entrepreneurs and businesswomen. While some Chinese clients do of course flutter in high society circles, many others desire couture for other occasions – often more professional or leisurely in nature.

Though it is unclear just how many would-be Chinese couture clients are foregoing European houses, the growing cohort of wealthy local women turning to local couturiers for their made-to-measure needs speaks volumes.

Most of my customers were the first luxury customers in China and started buying Chanel and Dior 20 years ago. They need something more than that now.

Take Jun Wei, a lawyer and chair of Hogan Lovells' Greater China practice, or Lyn Huang, a spa consultant and investor living between London and Shanghai. “I used to buy a lot of European brands such as Dior and Chanel and felt beautiful and fashionable, but I didn’t feel that was me,” Jun tells BoF. “It’s been a long journey to find a brand in which I feel so comfortable.”

It’s also a matter of accessibility. Thirty-nine-year-old Huang has also purchased couture from European brands but prefers Chen’s approach. “Grace’s [services] are more personalised and she will spend time to talk to me about what I need…she’s also more efficient on delivery.” What's more is that older clients and businesswomen aren't always able to fly to Paris and Milan for couture shows, and the language barrier can be an obstacle for those looking for a one-on-one with a designer.

Paris-based Alexis Mabille is seeing his haute couture purchased by an increasingly global audience. And while couture now accounts for 35 percent of his business overall, Chinese shoppers make up a mere 3-5 percent of his couture clientele. Compared to the 10 percent for his ready-to-wear business in the region, this is small.

Celebrities Zhou Dongyu, Crystal Zhang, Deng Jiajia and Ali Lee are but a few Chinese starlets who have sported Mabille’s “Kurkova” gown. Red carpet styling and front row appearances can help brands raise awareness but attracting the ultra-wealthy to buy one-of-a-kind couture is another matter.

Zhou Dongyu in Alexis Mabille | Source: Courtesy

The designer notes that compared to customers from other regions, Chinese clients are often more impatient with the waiting time which can be up to three months for a gown. “Sometimes they don’t want to wait for the whole process. They like the idea of haute couture and the feeling, but they’re fast consumers.” As such, he has on occasion rejected requests as his team can’t complete the garments within the desired timeframe.

Local Appeal

Huang reckons that Chen’s atelier has become popular with women like herself because her clients “have a network of ‘she power’ in Shanghai” — meaning word of mouth recommendations and patronage from established working women.

“These women are very picky, and they already have the best things in the world, so you have to be better. You have to be better than the Chanel suit or McQueen jacket they already own,” says Chen.

The designer reckons that an acute understanding of Asian sizing and body types is her main advantage over European couture houses, and she recalls many instances of helping a long-time client “fix” Armani couture suits and dresses. However, she sees the chasm as cultural. “Westerners don’t have the same aesthetic ideals as Asian people, and it’s not something they can understand or fix.” says Chen.

Leanne Lam, a Hong Kong-based founder of an events management company, concurs. Though Lam has placed orders with European couture brands in the past, she reckons that European and Chinese couturiers can have different approaches, aesthetics and cater to different audiences. “If there is an occasion where I need a classic tweed jacket, I’ll visit [Chanel],” she says.

You have to be better than the Chanel suit or McQueen jacket they already own.

“[But] perhaps because of my background, I can relate more to Grace’s creations…they bring out the best features in Asian women.”

Fang also reckons that her Chinese clientele returns to her studio for cultural reasons. “They enjoy being around Chinese speaking craftsmanship teams who are available in the house and definitely feel more genuinely understood in their personality and their tastes when connecting with me.”

Personal Preference

Yet, Chinese demand for couture extends far beyond the consumers sitting front row at Armani and Dior. And as the country’s consumers opt for increasingly personalised luxury experiences, Yang, Peng and Guo’s couture ateliers are really just the tip of the iceberg.

Though not all of them boast the couture moniker, designers providing bespoke and made-to-order services with traditional Chinese craftsmanship are supplying local demand for one-of-a-kind fashion. Beijing-based Guo, for one, operates both a couture line and her Rose Studio, which focuses on realising bespoke pieces for local clients.

A look by Atelier by Fang | Source: Courtesy

“Customisation isn’t just for couture luxury consumers anymore,” says Liz Flora, editor of APAC research at Gartner L2. Flora has noticed an uptick in brands offering personalisation options for ready-to-wear in China, with the percentage of brands posting about product customisation on social media platform Weibo almost doubling from 24 percent in last year’s first quarter to 44 percent this year.

According to McKinsey & Co's latest report on Chinese luxury consumption, personalised experiences and products are driving China's luxury consumption both online and offline. Even for brands that fall outside of couture or bespoke brackets, tapping into this growing desire to feel unique and valued is key to standing out in the increasingly crowded market.

And like the wider luxury sector, Chen believes that China is shaping up to be a couture consumption driver beyond the society pages. “Paris will still be the industry centre, but China is going to be a main driving force for consumption, though maybe not as much as ready-to-wear,” she says. “The Chinese aspire to own the best things in the world. Couture is definitely part of that equation.”

And yet, something’s missing. “There is certainly a feeling that [Chinese clients] are less exclusively and genuinely taken care of,” says Yang, who reckons such clients ultimately just want to be respected as trend-defining stakeholders.

“I still believe that the key European couture brands deserve an infinite respect,” Fang tells BoF. “[But] being aware of the true identity of their clientele and perhaps giving an impression of being more open-minded is an evolution which may be more and more needed.”


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