NEW YORK, United States — The growing importance of the Chinese market to the retail sector is well known – particularly amongst large multinational fashion companies. Few smaller labels, however, have made it their mission to penetrate the vast country. But for Cody Ross, the New York-based Texan behind five-seasons-old womenswear label Priestess NYC, establishing a local presence in China early on is a critical part of his strategy.
"If you look at the statistics in China, there are 360,000 millionaires there now and the luxury and semi-luxury market represents about $6.5 billion," says Ross, who also happens to be a hedge fund manager. On shifting consumer behavior in China, Ross continues: "It used to be that only men spent a lot of money on fashion goods for their girlfriends. Now about 80 percent of women are spending disproportionately more in the luxury and semi-luxury brackets." The enterprising designer, who lived in Shanghai for three years, clearly sees potential in the Chinese market.
Even though Priestess NYC is young compared to the multinational fashion companies who have operations in China, it already has a regional headquarters in Shanghai, a research and development outpost in Shenzhen, and production facilities in Ningbo and spread across Guangdong province. This supply chain infrastructure is crucial for the company's production process, but Ross also sees these facilities as a way to glean information on the Chinese consumer. "It’s perfect because you can go there, study the market and you interact with consumers there. It's that interface that helps you translate the clothes for the Chinese customer."
It’s this first-hand, insider insight that has helped Ross create designs that speak to the local market (the label’s best seller in China is a Qi Pao inspired dress). In just a few seasons, he has established a strong network of stores for his edgy, contemporary-priced wares and counts Björk and Lydia Hearst as fans. The label, which declines consignment orders (a typical practice for young labels who need to cultivate a customer base), is well placed in Beijing and Shanghai at six boutiques including i.t, the younger, more casual sister store of the Comme des Garçons-carrying I.T.
But Ross is also delving deeper into China, beyond Shanghai and Beijing. His clothes are now carried in Tianjin, Wuhan, Chongqing, Chengdu and Dalian. "You may not have heard of them before, but these are some of the biggest cities in the world," says Ross. They are also high potential growth markets, with large direct foreign investments. "In the last year, retail sales in China generally grew at 19 percent and there’s incremental growth there. But in these second and third tier cities, it's more robust at about 25 percent," observes Ross.
In these cities, the label is targeting "directional and progressive consumers who pay attention to global trends," says Ross. Compared to previous generations, these young, sophisticated shoppers have far greater exposure to Western fashion and they are more open to integrating it into their lives. That's often because, with the economy booming, some of the residents have been able to finance education in the West or are employed at foreign multinationals.
Censorship notwithstanding, they also have unprecedented access to the internet, with over 300 million information-hungry Chinese web surfers, the largest internet user base of any country in the world. "There’s a lot of youth driven stuff and they are really receptive to cool, cutting edge fashion and media content," says Ross.
Having lived in Shanghai, Ross, who is fluent in Mandarin, knows that in China, personal relationships are vital. To spread his message, he literally hits the streets. "I go there myself and meet with local store owners, editors, newspaper writers, and glossies. I tell them what Priestess is about, what it represents, and what the aesthetic is. And they take it on. If I can get them in front of me and have a captive audience, I usually generate orders and get press out of it," says Ross. The label also applies the same local focus to product placement, dressing specific regional celebrities, instead of national stars, and holding events at local clubs.
Today, Priestess NYC does about 60 percent of its business in the US, with an impressive 40 percent coming from China. For other fledgling labels thinking of following in the footsteps of Ross and venturing into China, the financier cum designer has some advice: "I think the most important thing is to have cultural know-how and a sense of the dynamics taking place in China and the change that’s sweeping that country – it's really all about knowing the local culture."
Robert Cordero is a Contributing Editor of The Business of Fashion