SHANGHAI, China — The collective hysteria of thousands of young girls can be felt whenever he takes the stage. To the casual observer, Kris Wu’s celebrity may seem Bieber-esque, but Wu is much more than a pop idol in his native China. He is what’s called a ‘triple threat’ in showbiz circles: a movie star, pumping out hit after hit at the box office, as well as a leading force in reality television, a model and spokesperson du jour.
A truly modern superstar and an industry unto himself, Kris Wu is 26 years old and has the world at his feet. Already one of the most bankable stars in his homeland — itself a massive market for entertainment — Wu is now plotting world domination, having made his Hollywood debut in the ﬁlm “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” earlier this year and is focusing on music right now.
With more than 25 million Weibo “fans” (China’s answer to Twitter) and ranking eighth in an Exane BNP Paribas list of the most inﬂuential celebrities in China, Wu’s appeal is especially strong among China’s youth.
Wu ﬁrst found fame as a member of the wildly popular EXO K-pop boy band in 2012 and — since being back to China launching a solo career in 2014 — he has become almost ubiquitous in China. This year, he was named in a Forbes Magazine list of the Top 30 Under 30 in Asia.
Vogue China editor-in-chief Angelica Cheung was one of the ﬁrst people to spot just how big an inﬂuence Wu would become amongst his contemporaries. “Apart from being good-looking, he can sing, dance and act, which makes him a more all-round idol,” says Cheung. “The fact that he speaks good English also makes it easier for him to communicate with fans and partners outside China. Two years ago, when I planned to launch the Vogue Me [magazine] brand, I put him on the cover [of Vogue China] with Kendall Jenner to test the reaction from Millennial readers.”
The issue sold out online in minutes.
Most recently, Wu has embraced reality television, joining high-proﬁle singing competition “The Rap of China” as a judge and producer, sparking debate online about his authenticity as a boy band member-turned-hip-hop artist. With a reported budget of RMB 200 million (about $30 million), the show represents a huge investment from Baidu-owned video streaming site Iqiyi in the youth market — and in Wu.
Banking on the ‘wang hong’ economy
Wu has acquired a taste for the ostentatious jewellery traditionally associated with American hip-hop artists. Layers of gold chains and an earring in each ear accessorise an outﬁt comprised of pieces from Burberry’s “Kris Wu Edit” — a selection hand-picked by Wu, the brand’s ﬁrst Chinese ambassador.
“In the past you wouldn’t imagine someone at my age working with Burberry or Bulgari because they have a long history and are such classic brands,” explains Wu. “I like the contrast; I think it’s interesting. They already have older customers, they already have that market and they want to explore new markets, younger markets, and that’s what I can offer them. I think it’s a win-win situation.”
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this market in China. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) estimates that Millennials represent 40 percent of the total Chinese urban population, a proportion that will increase to 46 percent by 2021.
The under-35 demographic accounts for 65 percent of consumption growth in China, and BCG anticipates that China’s Millennial consumption will continue to grow at an annual rate of 11 percent until 2021 — twice the rate of consumers older than 35. By then, total Millennial consumption in China is projected to reach 69 percent.
Wu made his runway debut for Burberry in January 2016, a “breaking the internet” event in China according to digital consultancy L2, who said that around the time of the show, approximately one-third of fashion brand mentions on Weibo were about Burberry. Following this phenomenal early success, the “Kris Wu Edit” was officially launched in November last year. For Burberry’s chief creative officer and president, Christopher Bailey, who ﬁrst met Wu at the Met Gala in 2015, the partnership was a natural ﬁt.
“I think of Kris as a bit of a renaissance man. He works, creates and lives ﬂuidly across lots of different areas, from music to ﬁlm to style and across many different geographies. He has an addictive and contagious energy. It was very soon after we ﬁrst met that we started to explore ways of working together,” says Bailey. “We have collaborated on several projects, from him walking in our shows, to the curation and edit of collections, social media projects and hosting events together. It’s always fun and we often chat to explore other creative projects that we can do together.”
As soon as Burberry tapped Wu, his fans took to social media, calling out to one another to buy the brand. Their message to Burberry’s headquarters was clear: it had made a wise choice in Wu and they would now put their money where their mouth is.
The collaboration has been seen as a win for the British brand, which this year saw ﬁrst-quarter retail revenue rise 3 percent on an underlying basis to £478 million ($613.2 million), above analysts’ estimates of £471 million. Comparable sales were up 4 percent, ahead of estimates of 2.5 percent, boosted by a return to strength in mainland China, where it saw mid-teens percentage growth on the back of its partnership with Wu.
Wu’s career — including his move into reality television — has coincided with several trends in celebrity and culture impacting the consumption patterns of China’s youth. Celebrity-driven reality TV has become a wildly popular genre, with more than 100 such programmes broadcast on networks across mainland China. This, along with the explosion of social media, has driven China’s “wang hong economy”, in which highly-engaged fans feel strong enough ties to idols to not only invest in concert or movie tickets, but also products that are part of an endorsement or collaboration with their favourite stars who become internet celebrities.
According to China Daily’s citation of CBN Data, the wang hong economy was worth around RMB 58 billion ($8.7 billion) last year, more than China’s cinema box office the year prior.
Though product collaborations with celebrities are not new in the West, they have become far more prevalent and meaningful in the Chinese market since 2015, giving fans the opportunity to buy into something directly designed or chosen by their idols, rather than a more traditional or generic kind of product endorsement. “Back in the days when [the] internet wasn’t so easy, there was a distance between celebrities and their fans, but people want to get connected, they want to know ‘What’s the real him?’” explains Wu. “There’s deﬁnitely more reality shows [and] I really like it. Just having the fans see me in movies or in a music video, that isn’t the real me, that’s not the full picture of Kris Wu. I like being able to show people [that] I have this side, that side and all that. Especially with ‘The Rap of China’, that’s what I really love to do and what I have conﬁdence in.”
With more than 25 million Weibo 'fans' Wu’s appeal is especially strong among China’s youth.
The celebrities who have beneﬁtted most from the rise of the fan economy are, like Wu, those most popular with young women. Data supplied by Weibo shows Wu’s followers are 55 percent female and 45 percent male, with 31 percent between the ages of 18 and 24 and another 39 percent aged 25 to 34.
The 'xiao xian rou' phenomenon
Some — including a team from Xiamen University studying the “xiao xian rou” phenomenon (“xiao xian rou” literally translates as “little fresh meat” and is a commonly used term for describing young, fresh faced male celebrity heart throbs) — have posited that the rise of stars like Wu is the result of a new generation of young women who have as much freedom and ﬁnancial support as young men. Their greater inﬂuence on the nature of celebrity means they have a greater inﬂuence on the nature of consumption than young women of previous generations.
With his highlighted hair carefully tousled, the polite, softly-spoken Wu does seem more “xiao xian rou” than young thug, but he has adopted more of a bad boy image in recent years, with a generally unsmiling expression, dyed hair, tattoos and an increasingly hip-hop-inﬂuenced sound, setting him apart from other Chinese singers and actors of his generation. “Being authentic, being original is really important,” Wu says. “The past few years I’ve been looking for this special identity for myself and that’s what differentiates me from other people. When I tell people, ‘This is how I dress myself every day. This is how I do my music.’ I actually do that.”
It’s not difficult to see why the multi-faceted Wu is a sought-after spokesman for a growing number of brands. As well as Burberry, he has worked with companies as diverse as Bulgari, Mercedes-Benz Smart, Beats by Dre and McDonald’s. “There is a crazy trend about him, but it’s more than that,” Antoine Pin, managing director of Bulgari Greater China and Australia, has said of Wu.
“He’s not just ‘little fresh meat’, he’s ‘fresh meat’ with a future... He can be very good aging meat… He’s an interesting person, very young [yet] mature for his age. He’s in control of who he is and what he does. He’s passionate about plenty of things. He’s very social, very talkative and at the same time very respectful of anyone. He has the balance of maturity, considering the craziness around him, and the composure.”
In spite of his large stable of brand partners, Wu insists that any risk of overexposure is under control, having learned to be more selective about who he works with.
“One of my fantasies, before I was a celebrity, was about shooting commercials for people, doing a commercial for McDonald’s and all that. When I ﬁrst came out I just wanted to shoot so many commercials, I wanted to see my face everywhere! I needed to cut down and be more picky, so even though there’s a lot of stuff going on, I consider a lot of things before working with any of these brands,” Wu tells BoF.
Though he says he isn’t sure what percentage of his income comes from brand partnerships, he maintains that it is “probably not that much” because of his preference for working with high status and luxury brands.
“When you work with more high-end brands, they pay you less. When the brand is up here [Wu waves his hand around forehead height] and you are also up here and you work together it looks good for both of you.”
In spite of his massive social media following, Wu is only an intermittent contributor to Weibo and Instagram — his preferred social platforms. Though accepted wisdom dictates that constant updates are required to keep a social media following engaged, Wu says his fans are accustomed to his long absences in communicating directly with them.
In terms of the way he can inﬂuence young Chinese consumers to buy Burberry, for example, Wu sees his role as educator as well as spokesperson and a connection between brand identity and youth culture, rather than simply giving a voice to a brand via his massive social media following.
“Because Burberry is this classic brand, people might not know how to wear it in the cool kind of way. I think a big part is just wearing it the right way, maybe blending it with other street brands to make it a younger look,” he says. “Obviously posting stuff and doing the regular advertising helps too, but just wearing it in the right way, wearing it with my identity and my style, me putting my ﬂavour onto it.”
Hungry for global exposure
Wu is quick to point out that the discernible differences between the Chinese youth culture of today and that of Western countries are shrinking as information is democratised online and more young Chinese travel abroad.
He himself is the product of an international upbringing. Having been born in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou, Wu moved abroad to Canada at the age of 10 with his family and returned to China a few years later, only move to Korea to start his career in K-Pop.
It’s important to view Wu’s generation in the context of recent history. Even after Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening-up period of the late 1970s, the ﬁrst generation to beneﬁt from China’s “economic miracle” was conservative in both style and spending, with immense pressure to save and invest in large purchases such as a house and a car — both exceedingly expensive in China’s main cities, particularly in relation to average wages.
The Kris Wu generation, however, those born from 1990 onwards (known in China as the ‘Post-90s’) not only have a larger discretionary income than previous generations, but largely unfettered access to fashion, pop culture and celebrity information from around the world.
“The biggest difference is everyone wants to be unique [now],” Wu says. “Everyone wants to be stylish, they want people to look at them and think they are stylish. They care more about their appearance and their whole look, that’s something that has changed [in China].”
Wu’s style, like his career, has evolved at warp speed. A propensity for offbeat looks and almost garish accessories in the earlier days of his fame has morphed into a sleeker aesthetic, heavily inﬂuenced by urban streetwear.
“It was fun [to experiment, but] the more stuff you try the more mistakes you are going to make. Some of the stuff will make you look dumb, and I had those experiences,” Wu says. “What has changed though is identity. I do hip-hop music and there is a certain look to hip-hop.”
Looking ahead, Wu sees fashion design as something he is keen to try, having already informally discussed more hands-on collaborations with the likes of Burberry’s Bailey and Off-White’s Virgil Abloh.
With further forays into writing and producing music for other artists, this young “triple threat” now has an even brighter spotlight on his agenda.
From cosying up to co-stars Rihanna and Cara Delevingne at the premiere of Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” to getting mobbed at the Grammys after the international success of his singles “Juice” and “July”, Wu is laying the groundwork to parlay partnerships with global brands, Hollywood ﬁlms and internationally-recognised hip-hop producers into worldwide fame.
“[That’s] one thing I deﬁnitely want to do,” Wu says, glancing at the English one-word tattoos scattered across his arms. “Fortitude,” declares one. “Dreamer,” reads another. “To really make it global, really make it in the States. That’s something I’ve been working towards.”
Editor’s Note: In the Chinese translation of this article in the 2017 edition of the #BoF500 print edition, it states that Kris Wu walked the Burberry show in February 2016. This is not correct as he walked it in January 2016. It also states that his title as brand ambassador is大使 when in fact his title is 代言人. It also states that Kris Wu appeared on the cover of Vogue Me when in fact he appeared on the cover of Vogue China.
This article appears in BoF's latest special print edition: “Generation Next”. The issue is available for purchase at shop.businessoffashion.com and at select retailers around the world.
Did you know that BoF Professionals receive our print issues first? Annual BoF Professional memberships also include unlimited access to articles, exclusive analysis, invitations to networking events and the members-only app. Not a BoF Professional? Subscribe here.