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Will Digital Media Break China’s Fashion Magazine Oligarchy?

The rise of digital platforms is unleashing new potential for indie fashion and youth media in China, challenging the dominance of legacy media players.
Source: i-D
  • Enrique Menendez

SHANGHAI, China — In less than three years, Vice Media has launched London-born style and young culture bible i-D in eleven new markets, including its recently unveiled presence in China. Now, only a month after easing into the market, the digital-only i-D China has accumulated thousands of followers across WeChat and Weibo, without any formal promotion.

Much like i-D’s other international editions, i-D China blends local content — about 30 to 40 percent of total output — with content translated from the publication’s other editions. “As we expand globally, it’s very much the intention to retain authenticity in storytelling and we believe a strong way to do that is sharing stories and content across markets. Looking for stories that are locally relevant but also have relevance across the globe and translating that content across different channels will be a key part of the strategy,” explained i-D’s London-based managing director Katie White.

According to Adam Chen, i-D China’s managing editor, the timing of the launch couldn’t have been be better. In a still-nascent fashion media market, dominated by legacy magazine brands like Vogue China, Elle China and Harper’s Bazaar China, indie-style magazines that credibly blend fashion with youth appeal have yet to gain significant traction, though local consumers — especially the young — are hungry for new voices. “There is still a gap in targeting a youth audience,” explained Chen. “There are loads of local publications aimed at youth culture, but there is not necessarily a bridge between high fashion and youth culture.”

The gap is partly due to the relative youth of China’s fashion landscape. But strict government regulation of print media has also played a significant role in inhibiting the growth of indie fashion magazines. Only online have independent voices been able to earn influence.


China’s Print Oligarchy

Whether international or Chinese, print publications in China must operate in cooperation with state-owned media houses. Vogue China, for instance, works with China Pictorial Publishing House, while Elle China works with Shanghai Translation Publishing House.

According to Chuxuan Feng, chief editor of state-owned Lifestyle Media Group, which works with several foreign magazines, including Le Figaro, OK! and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, the regulations do not aim to limit the number of international publications in circulation. “Copyright cooperation with foreign magazines doesn’t pose any complications, as long as magazines avoid including sensitive content,” explains Feng.

Yet the regulations do flatly prohibit the existence of wholly independent print magazines, allowing a handful of major magazines to dominate the market with little opposition. Even titles which are traditionally thought of as independent, such as Kinfolk, operate in partnership with Chinese publishers. As a result, the already-large influence of major fashion magazines is magnified by the absence of alternative fashion content.

The market is still looking for education in fashion, and therefore Vogue, Elle and the sort have quite authoritatively occupied this space.

“China is perhaps one of the few markets where the [major magazines] are still authoritative because the market is still looking for education in fashion, and therefore Vogue, Elle and the sort have quite authoritatively occupied this space,” says Andrea Fenn, an expert on digital strategy in China. Indeed, these magazines have played a vital role in helping to birth and nurture what is still a relatively new fashion ecosystem.

"We wanted to highlight our own identity [and] to differentiate ourselves from the other editions of Vogue. In our magazine, we talk about positive, forward-looking women who uphold our society's ideals," Angelica Cheung, editor-in-chief of Vogue China, told BoF back in 2014. "It is as important for the reader to be encouraged, to cultivate a sense of self, as it is to be told where they can buy the prettiest frocks."

But with China’s fashion market now well-established, some say the muscle of major magazines and lack of independent media is slowing the growth of the local fashion scene and perpetuating an overly commercial aesthetic. “There’s a lot of talk about traditional publications being extremely commercialised to the point that the overwhelming majority of the content is advertorial,” says Fenn. What's more, many fashion creatives work exclusively for major magazines, rendering the concept of freelancing virtually nonexistent and narrowing creative expression.

“There were a lot of people asking me to do shoots in China, and I would refuse jobs where I didn’t think the creative teams were great,” says Kai Z Feng, who, since leaving China at 18, has become one of the most successful photographers to emerge from the country and now regularly shoots covers for the British editions of Vogue and Elle.


Digital Shifts

The rise of digital media has provided new channels for independent voices in China. Yet digital, too, has more recently become the target of government controls. As of March, new online publishing laws restrict foreign companies or foreign joint ventures from disseminating a wide range of content online unless they have government approval and use servers based in China. The exact effects of the new regulations remain unclear. “They mostly apply to international publications coming from outside, not necessarily ones that are already established in China. However, the regulations will likely be loosely enforced,” says Fenn. “But digital media publications are so important because no matter how the government is trying and has always tried and will always try to control or restrict the distribution of information, this channel will always be more free than the traditional channels,” he continues.

Indeed, in recent years, media outlets like LEAF, SamePaper, Camelia and Elsewhere Zine have budded across digital platforms like WeChat as well as traditional websites. "Readership right now is above 20,000. We don't want something for the mass market.  I don't think they will like our content. We're always thinking about quality content, our reputation. It's more organic and unique; it's not a cliché," says Leaf Greener, founder of LEAF, a WeChat-native publication.

However, many of these small-scale publications are more akin to personal blogs, tend not to gather huge followings and have yet to have substantial impact in tipping China’s fashion scene away from mainstream media players.

The recent launch of i-D could help to change the equation, as being digital-only means the publication has the license to operate independently, unlike other magazines. “As a digital brand and as a leader in making content targeted at youth culture, we want to come here to understand what people want, and to truly be global and local,” says Chen. “I think by adding i-D’s storytelling to what fascinates young people in Chinese culture today, we can be the voice and the driver for what’s to come.”

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