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Why H&M Is Using Kung Fu to Boost Its Business

With its latest martial arts-inspired collaboration, the brand joins the ranks of Converse, Swarovski and Levi’s as more global players partner with Chinese designers in the hopes of boosting profits. Will it work?
Angel Chen and pieces from her H&M collaboration | Collage by BoF
By
  • Zoe Suen,
  • Casey Hall

SHANGHAI, China — An upcoming release by H&M will include sweatshirts embroidered with dragons and cranes, and a boiler suit emblazoned with the Chinese characters for "Kung Fu." But don't be fooled into thinking this is just the latest example of a big brand dabbling in cultural appropriation. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Earlier this week, the Swedish fast fashion giant announced its 45-piece collection with Angel Chen, marking its first collaboration with a Chinese designer. The 24 womenswear pieces, 12 menswear items and nine accessories, ranging between 159 and 1490 yuan (around $23-216), will hit selected stores in September.

For global brands hoping to get ahead — or in some cases stay afloat — in China’s cutthroat retail market, collaborating with local talent has become an important way to tap into the region’s big spenders. When brands consider the broader marketing menu of limited-edition items released during Chinese holidays and other tried-and-tested activations, collaborations are an increasingly popular option.

But what exactly do global brands aim to achieve with co-branded collections, and do their efforts really pay off in China?

Building Bridges

Selecting the right designer can make or break a collaboration. While this deal marks the first time a Western fast fashion giant has linked arms with a homegrown Chinese designer, it came as no big surprise to industry leaders in Beijing and Shanghai. H&M’s bid on Chen highlights its commitment to targeting a very coveted audience.

Designer Angel Chen and her collaboration with H&M | Source: Courtesy

"It makes perfect sense," said creative consultant Dan Cui, formerly the fashion director of GQ China and editor in chief of GQ Style China. "If I had to choose a current, commercial and symbolic Chinese designer to work with H&M, Angel is one of the first who comes to mind."

For H&M, the Angel Chen collection marks a turning point in how the world’s second-largest clothing retailer looks to engage with its Chinese audience.

China has become H&M's fourth largest market — according to the group's financial results announced in April, sales in the mainland rose 16 percent for the quarter ended February 28. However, Forever 21's recent exit from the mainland was yet another wake-up call for remaining foreign players, clamouring for relevance among cheaper and savvier local rivals.

“Since we entered the Chinese market, the brand has been looking forward to working with Chinese designers to bring elements of local fashion and design to our shoppers and engage with shoppers who are from or admire the local culture,” said Magnus Olsson, H&M’s country manager for Greater China.

It’s clear that the brand is looking to supercharge its China strategy: after seeing success with H&M’s presence on Alibaba-owned e-commerce site Tmall, sister brand & Other Stories is launching on the platform this fall.

Chen’s collaboration has been configured to target Chinese millennials, known locally as post-‘80s and post-‘90s generations. In addition to online and offline stores in mainland China (including H&M’s Tmall flagship), the collection will only be available in countries with large Chinese populations: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Canada, in addition to e-commerce channels in the Philippines and Macau.

Chinese musician Lay Zhang and supermodel Liu Wen — global stars with a staggering combined Weibo following of 71.6 million — have also been tapped to model for the collection and attract millennial eyeballs.

Tapping into ‘Guochao’

Cui agreed that linking up with homegrown design talent is an opportunity for brands to generate goodwill among younger Chinese consumers. In particular, he cites the recent trend of guochao — or national pride, referring to nostalgic and traditional Chinese elements manifesting in casualwear and streetwear collections, with Chen's work as a prime example. "Brands can use guochao to build relationships with younger audiences, and picking the right designer to relay that message to consumers is critical" he said.

Enter Chen. Even before she launched her brand in 2014, the Shenzhen-born, Shanghai-based Central Saint Martins graduate garnered global attention for her evocative cross-cultural aesthetic. Her designs — colourful, streetwear-tinted reimaginings of Chinese legends and tribal art — pushed Chen to the forefront of Shanghai’s then-nascent web of emerging designers, and onto the racks of stockists Lane Crawford, Luisa Via Roma and H. Lorenzo.

This has made the fashion industry more open minded.

“I’ve always found different inspirations in Chinese culture and presented them in my work through a modern lens, so I’m guessing that’s why H&M chose me as their first Chinese collaborator,” said Chen, who sees the move as a win-win. “While the Chinese market is maturing, they’re validating my skill and perspective and I’m able to reach a wider audience through their commercial channels.”

This may be H&M's first Chinese designer collaboration, but other global brands have already been there and done that. Chen herself has partnered with the likes of Sony, Swarovski, Airbnb and Kiehl's, while streetwear favourite Feng Chen Wang has worked with Levi's and has an ongoing partnership with Converse. Last summer, menswear designer Xander Zhou worked with South Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster on sunglasses and a raincoat.

Feng Chen Wang for Converse | Source: Feng Chen Wang

“I don’t think it is a trend that will pass,” said Feng Chen Wang’s eponymous designer. “Instead I think it is a new way that shows how we are now connecting to each other across the world… This has made the fashion industry more open minded, and it is important that they open their doors to all different designers who can offer their own perspective from a range of backgrounds and life experiences.”

H&M’s move cements the pattern by indicating that such collaborations are a viable move for mass market brands and the industry at large. It also presents an alternative to the current norm of hiring Chinese celebrities and influencers to bring in sales.

“[However], none of the top 10 fashion collaborations by social engagement are with Chinese designers,” said Liz Flora, editor of APAC research at Gartner L2. “We have data on collaborations for luxury brands, [all of which are with] an artist, foreign brand, or Chinese celebrity/KOL.”

Collaboration Nation

For years, China has been seen as a country of consumers, but designer collaborations indicate that some brands are recognising its creative capital. “As Chinese designers receive more attention on a global level, it benefits our creativity and motivates us while shining a spotlight on our culture,” said Chen. “I hope this message not only reaches consumers at home but Chinese people around the world.”

Later this year, streetwear label Sankuanz will release collaborations with Timberland, Herschel Supply Co and 88Rising after working on numerous drops with Puma. However, its creative director Shangguan Zhe reckons there's still a long way to go. "I don't think Western brands have considered Shanghai a creative capital, at least not yet," Zhe said. When asked how brands can improve their ways of going about such partnerships, he recommended they "increase mutual understanding and exchange."

The Puma x Sankuanz 'Cell Endura' sneaker | Source: Puma

When a major brand taps an emerging designer, seeing the designer as an equal partner and empowering them to represent their culture can pay off for both parties. “H&M’s production and design teams gave me a lot of support and commercial guidance,” Chen said. “The consensus was that we were on the same page and shared the same values,” she added, mentioning that the brand harnessed its resources in sustainable textiles to help her develop a pair of recycled nylon mesh tights.

While pursuing a collaboration with Chinese designers can raise awareness for global brands in the oversaturated market, it’s no shortcut, and investing in research, development and local amplification is crucial, as always. “Design is borderless... regardless of which country the designer is from, it’s an exercise of assessing their abilities and the market potential,” said Cui. “For a collaboration to be a win-win, it’s really about digital activations, and the resources and attention that brands are willing to invest.”

Like all partnerships, creative collaborations rely on chemistry rather than a formula for success. “It’s not something brands can imitate,” he added. “A successful collaboration needs a long-term strategy and synergy, be it brand positioning, development or between internal personnel. I’ve seen too many brands fail at this.”

Brands should do in China what they would also do elsewhere… which of course includes collaborating with Chinese creatives.

For a giant like H&M, a single 45-piece collection released in selected Chinese-dense locations is unlikely to push the needle where revenues are concerned. Whether the move succeeds as a marketing exercise in engaging China’s discerning young shoppers relies upon the brand’s commitment to such projects in the long run, rather than it being a flash in the pan. As fast fashion giants find it increasingly hard to provide the novelty expected of them by local consumers, only collaborations with longevity and depth will leave an impression and be worth the investment.

Even big Chinese brands can hamper the success of their collaborations when they place the onus on marketing. “What both brands need more, at the end of the day, is to consider the meaning behind the products, and how the parties’ brands can benefit in the long run,” said Cui.

The Xander Zhou x Gentle Monster raincoat collaboration | Source: Gentle Monster

For global players without sufficient resources to execute a 45-piece collection à la H&M, it’s time to get creative. “Collaborations are a great way to engage with the market, but it’s not the be all and end all,” said Chen, who has also worked with Lane Crawford and H. Lorenzo on designing art installations and window displays. “Most Chinese designers, when compared to huge companies like H&M, are tiny. Because of this, we have the freedom to express our inspirations and creativity.”

Lastly, Xander Zhou reckons that brands should stop assuming that Chinese consumers will only engage with overtly Chinese design and marketing. “When I see brands doing a special Chinese New Year edition of something, I wonder if they really understand whom they are selling to,” Zhou told BoF. “The younger generation in China does not need to be wooed with Chinese characteristics.”

“Brands should do in China what they would also do elsewhere… which of course includes collaborating with Chinese creatives.”

Additional reporting by Queennie Yang.

时尚与美容
FASHION & BEAUTY

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Fosun-backed Wolford Results Show Slight Improvement

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K-Beauty Loses Steam in China

After almost a decade of dominance in the Chinese market, the popularity of Korean beauty products appears to be fading, with beauty and cosmetics exports from Korea to China growing 20 percent year-on-year in 2018. What may appear to be a healthy growth rate is actually a sharp drop from the 66 percent growth rate enjoyed over the past five years. A turn from younger consumers toward domestic and Japanese brands is contributing to K-Beauty's downturn, with Chinese brands becoming more competitive in the lower end of the market (previously dominated by Korea), and Japanese brands finding traction with a focus on authenticity, self-confidence and self-care in their advertising campaigns. (Jiemian)

科技与创新
TECH & INNOVATION

Alibaba's B2B Trading App | Source: Alibaba

Alibaba Opens Platform to US Sellers

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Google Abandons China, Again, Kinda

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China’s New Nasdaq-Style Board Launches with 25 Tech Companies Listed 

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消费与零售
CONSUMER & RETAIL

Livestream beauty star Austin Li | Source: Taobao

Department Store Gives Sales Assistants Livestream Training

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Chinese Consumers Retain Strong Desire for Imported Products

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政治,经济与社会
POLITICS, ECONOMY, SOCIETY

Illustration by BoF

China Surpasses US on Fortune Global 500 List for the First Time

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Beijing Says City’s Air Is Cleanest on Record

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China Decoded wants to hear from you. Send tips, suggestions, complaints and compliments to our Shanghai-based Asia Correspondent casey.hall@businessoffashion.com.

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