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China’s Elusive Fashion Capital, Part 1

Almost every major fashion country has one city that shines brighter than the rest. But China’s vast, diverse market defies the norm. In Part 1 of a two-part investigation, we examine the fashion capitals of Shanghai and Beijing. Next month, in Part 2, we explore Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
Beijing (L) and Shanghai (R) skylines | Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Timothy Parent

SHANGHAI, China — There are a great many things that one can debate in fashion, but identifying the fashion capital of a particular market is not typically one of them. In America, it's New York. In Japan, it's Tokyo. In France, it's Paris. No such luck for China, however. "If you're working in fashion in China, you can't just be in one place," says Beijing-based designer Xander Zhou.

A traditional fashion capital has everything from designers, runway shows, showrooms and fashion schools to media companies, retailers, creatives and, of course, the all-important consumer.

But currently China has no fashion capital as such. Instead its fashion industry is divided across an array of separate cities, each supporting the fashion industry in its own way with its unique strengths.

Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong are amongst China’s leading fashion hubs. Nels Frye, the founder of Chinese street style blog Stylites.net, says: “I could make a case for any of these cities [to be] the fashion capital of China. For consumers, Hong Kong [is best]. For buyers and brands, Shanghai. And for media, Beijing. But none is [the] fashion capital."

Beyond China’s long-established, global metropolises, other major cities, less recognisable to western ears, such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Xiamen also contribute to the industry, especially when it comes to building China’s still very young native fashion industry.

One reason for China’s polycentric approach is the sheer size of the country.  As the crow flies, the distance from Hong Kong to Beijing via Shanghai is twice as far as it is from London to Milan via Paris. Considering that there are three fashion capitals for all of Europe, it is not so unreasonable to have at least three in a country as big as a continent like China is. But the real reason a single Chinese city has not emerged triumphant is because the country’s market is incredibly decentralised, even if the government is incredibly centralised. This may surprise an outsider, peering in at what is still a nominally communist state with its many SOEs (state-owned enterprises), but the way that fashion functions here in China is different.

Beijing

One part of the fashion industry in which the government does have a vested interest is controlling the media. In a country that lacks a free press, even fashion magazines publishing 'soft journalism' must tread a fine line. Unsurprisingly, the majority of fashion publishers and magazines are therefore based in Beijing, close to government officials with whom they must maintain the guanxi ("relationships") that are the key to getting anything done in China.

But fostering relationships isn’t the only reason the media has chosen Beijing.

With many celebrities, musicians, photographers, designers and other creatives based in the capital, it is often more convenient and practical to be located in the city that is often dubbed the culture capital of China. Condé Nast and many other publishers have their headquarters in the city.

Beijing-based designers are many and varied, from Chictopia's youthful Liu Qingyang (Christine Lau) to China's long-established couturier Guo Pei. Aside from the 30 or more designers based in Beijing, there are about a dozen retailers that have helped shape the fashion industry there. Select shops Triple Major and Dongliang both started in Beijing, too, but have since opened larger outlets in Shanghai. Larger international retailers like Galeries Lafayette, also based in Beijing, have provided a bigger Chinese platform to global names, while Hung Huang's BNC (Brand New China), described as a 'supermarket' for Chinese designers, is also based in Beijing.

Other institutions that help round out Beijing’s fashion industry include schools ESMOD and CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts), the tradeshow CHIC and the fashion weeks China Fashion Week and FashionNow.

Shanghai

Proving just how decentralised things can be, despite Beijing’s reputation as the undisputed media capital of China, two of the country’s most influential fashion publications are based outside of the capital city. Headquartered in Shanghai, Elle China was previously an anomaly. Having established itself very early on, in 1988, when the country was just opening up to the West, it has very deep roots in modern-day China. Modern Media, which publishes the glossy Modern Weekly, is also based in the city.

The top designers in Shanghai are usually considered the best in the country. Indeed, most of the established veteran designers have made their base here, including Ziggy Chen and Wang Yiyang of Zuczug. There are now over 50 designers in Shanghai, including internationally-known designers like Uma Wang, Helen Lee and Masha Ma..

When it comes to retail, Shanghai is a city brimming with options. As Shanghai is still undoubtedly the Mainland’s commercial hub, the Bund, Xintiandi, Huaihai Road, West Nanjing Road and Changle Road have now all become major international shopping centres, home to countless fashion retailers.

“Shanghai has a stronger middle class, meaning that sales are more stable, but the consumers are more or less all the same [in their purchasing habits],” claims veteran designer Zhang Da of Boundless. “Beijing is a market where customers are more cultured and experimental and prefer pieces with more character."

Ritchie Chan of the boutique Triple Major echoes Zhang Da's sentiment: "Our Beijing store is more forward and experimental. Due to the city's solid foundation in the art scene, we have a bigger representation of progressive brands like Walter Van Beirendonck and Bless here. We also hold some conceptual exhibitions and events from time to time. Meanwhile in Shanghai, we have slightly more toned down but proportion-oriented lines."

Lane Crawford has its largest store in the world in Shanghai; 10 Corso Como’s third store, after Milan and Seoul, in located is in Shanghai; and boutiques like MHT, Old Lyric, Alter and scores more provide a variety of products at a variety of price points. All in all, Shanghai’s consumers are more spoilt for choice than Beijing’s. Shanghai also boasts large tradeshows and wholesale venues like Showroom Shanghai, Novo Mania and CHIC.

In addition, the most impressive fashion schools — important to the development of China’s domestic fashion industry — are those in Shanghai. Donghua and Fudan are considered China’s top fashion schools, while Marangoni and Raffles also have campuses here. Parsons opened here last summer and Condé Nast is opening a fashion education venture based in Shanghai.

One of Shanghai’s biggest contributions to the Chinese fashion industry is its marquee event, Shanghai Fashion Week, which insiders praise for having a more curated edit of designers, when compared to Beijing’s China Fashion Week.

No single fashion week has managed to consistently show all of the best designers in China, making the system difficult to navigate, particularly for buyers. Some say the lack of a dominant fashion week is arguably the domestic market’s biggest impediment to progress. While others insist that the fashion industry in China is still relatively young and thus competition between fashion weeks in different cities may be good in the long run.

Some of the more fluid parts of the industry, such as stylists, models and photographers, have benefited from China’s polycentric system, which creates competition for their services. However, so decentralised a system also makes working in the Chinese fashion industry less efficient — and more expensive — for those forced to fly regularly between Shanghai and Beijing.

"My feeling is there could never be just one city as China's fashion capital," says stylist and creative consultant Leaf Greener, former senior fashion editor of Elle China. "Both have their own sense of beauty. Shanghai is like Paris: sophisticated, modern and chic. Beijing is more like London: bold, colourful and cultivated where royalty and punks could live in the same city."

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