HONG KONG, China – Last month’s long-awaited news of Vogue entering the Hong Kong market comes at a time of volatility for fashion media in the wider Greater China region. Its debut, slated for early 2019, marks almost 30 years since other international fashion titles, such as Harper’s Bazaar and Elle, entered the Hong Kong market, and 13 years since Vogue launched in Mainland China to much fanfare.
Unlike many other markets, Hong Kong’s unique fashion and luxury eco-system – a concentrated population of long-time luxury consumers and strong print advertising performance in the face of digital competition – has largely protected its existing fashion media infrastructure. The city’s special administrative status and its British colonial legacy also left a sophisticated bilingual publishing environment that adds to the anomaly.
“[Hong Kong] has been insulated and print is competitive and unusually strong, but as with every other market, it will change and we are well positioned because of our experience in other markets that we can capture the digital market as well,” Markus Grindel, managing director of global brand licencing at Condé Nast International, told BoF following the announcement.
“Because it's so mature, it’s really good timing to get into the market, it's time for bringing something new and disrupt the market in that sense.”
Tommy Tse, an assistant professor in media and culture at The University of Hong Kong’s department of sociology speculates that Vogue’s appearance in Hong Kong is related to the rumoured discord among the local Chinese offices, regional Asia-Pacific hubs and the global headquarters of fashion, luxury and media conglomerates.
According to Tse, the new publication may seek to streamline mainland and Hong Kong sentiments within the fashion landscape – a possibility when one appreciates the news surrounding Vogue China’s restructuring in a wider context. He notes conflicting understandings of celebrities and KOLs, media budgets, artistic direction, consumers’ tastes and preferences.
“The conflicts between headquarters of global fashion conglomerates and their Chinese offices …make me wonder whether the actual role of Vogue Hong Kong will be in mediating the ‘right’ fashion sensibility to their target consumers across Asia and Greater China,” says Tse.
Trouble at the Top
As Tse mentioned, Condé Nast China has seen numerous changes in its senior roles in 2018, with both Anita Chang, publisher of Vogue China, and Feng Wang, editorial director of GQ China, leaving the company in April after 14 and eight years respectively, replaced by Li Bao Jian as Vogue China publisher and Zeng Ming at GQ China.
Rumours throughout the year that Angelica Cheung – who has been editor-in-chief at Vogue China since its inception in 2005 – was set to leave were so widespread that Condé Nast released official denials, only fuelling the rumour mill further. Condé Nast China declined to comment for this article.
Like major Western magazine markets, China’s fashion titles are helmed by powerful and often long-standing figures, such as Cheung and Elle China’s Xiao Xue, who has been editorial director of the magazine since 2006 and CEO and editor-in-chief since 2017.
In other major industry moves of 2018, Trends Media Group – publisher of 18 titles, including the Chinese editions of Cosmopolitan and Esquire, as well as Harper’s Bazaar China – revealed in March that its president and CEO Su Mang was resigning for “personal reasons” after 20 years with the company. In the same year, Wang Feng left his role of editorial director at GQ China and joined Trends as its vice president and chief content officer.
Our numbers were very positive, but year-on-year, I just don’t know how sustainable that will be.
Feng Chuxuan, founder and publisher at Huasheng Media Group – responsible for Chinese editions of magazines such as Wallpaper, Nylon, Kinfolk and T Magazine China – has similarly seen his company rocked by recent turbulence at the top. Dan Cui, who had been editor-in-chief of T Magazine China since he made the leap from GQ China at end of 2017, was unexpectedly relegated to a co-editor position.
“How can I find editors like they have in international editions of Surface or Wallpaper?” Feng asks, rhetorically. “It’s hard to find an editor [in China] that is overseeing truly excellent content.”
The recruitment challenge doesn’t end there. Jerri Ng became editor-in-chief of InStyle China when the title rebranded from Modern Lady in 2017, and it was the first InStyle in the world to be published weekly. She left that role over the summer, suggesting to BoF that the grind of leading a print publication in a digital world was one of the reasons for her departure.
“Print media is less and less relevant to the Chinese market,” she says, even for InStyle China, which made major concessions to the new media world by populating its pages with QR code links to e-commerce and multi-media content, as well as an army of influencers contributing to the publication, dubbed “InStyle Girls."
“Our numbers were very positive, but year-on-year, I just don’t know how sustainable that will be,” Ng explains.
When Pixels Trump Print
The fault lines infiltrating mainstream print magazines in China should look familiar to Western observers. The impact of digitisation and new generations of consumers looking to social media for influence and advice, for example, combined with slowing growth in revenue from advertising are problems faced by print media publications around the world.
Despite the malaise currently plaguing the magazine business in China, print is still a relatively profitable business, with total magazine revenue (including both consumer and trade publications) expected to reach $6.13 billion by 2020, according to data from PricewaterhouseCoopers.
At an estimated 1.8 percent compound annual growth rate over the period between 2015 and 2020, however, it’s easy to see that the squeeze on revenues is only too real.
One way in which the Chinese environment differs to that in the West is the pace of change. Its fashion magazine industry is relatively young, with Elle China, the first international fashion title to enter the China market, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
The readership wasn’t as solid when we transformed to the new digital era, so our problems are even worse than in Western countries.
“The readership wasn’t as solid when we transformed to the new digital era, so our problems are even worse than in Western countries,” says Leaf Greener, former fashion editor at Elle China and current publisher of Leaf, a digital magazine available via WeChat.
The second major difference is in the culture of publishing in China, which never had the same strong delineation between editorial and advertising content as the Western media.
As such, newfound pressure on ad revenues has led to an even faster breakdown in whatever division did exist, blurring the lines between advertising and editorial in ways that many claim has led to a poorer reader experience.
“Every single page, even the cover story [is for sale],” says Lily Chou, 24, the Shanghai-based editor of niche fashion bookazine Rouge Fashion Book.
“Why are you losing so many readers? Because they don’t want to read a whole magazine of advertiser pages. It’s not even Dolce & Gabbana’s fancy advertisements, it’s cars and phones. Why should I spend money on this?”
The Downside of Leapfrogging
This relatively short life-span of “traditional” fashion media in China has, in many ways, made it even easier for young people to disengage with printed information, turning instead to pervasive social media platforms, such as WeChat and Weibo.
“There really is a shift — in China everything moves in fast forward,” says Chloe Reuter, founder of Reuter Communications agency and The Luxury Conversation, a newsletter and research project focused largely on China’s luxury industry.
“In a way, because they started off later, they are quicker to adapt.”
When post-90s consumers in China were surveyed about their luxury consumption behaviour at the tail-end of 2017 by The Luxury Conversation, not one of them had purchased a physical magazine in the previous 12 months, says Reuter.
There is potential to win these digital natives back to a printed product, some insiders believe, by targeting the generation of Post-90s individualists with more specialised information to help differentiate themselves from their peers.
The example of new indie publications such as Rouge Fashion Book, now up-and-running for a year, as well as the entrance of global niche fashion magazines bringing localized editions into China in recent years, has raised hopes that consumer interest in magazines isn’t necessarily waning, but rather shifting away from mass-market titles.
However, China’s unique publishing environment makes the proposition of a proliferation of niche, independent magazine titles difficult to imagine. Even if there was broad customer demand for the product, media is tightly controlled in the country, with publishing licences linked to state-owned enterprises.
All titles with a Chinese international standard book number [ISBN] are subject to local censorship dictates (avant-garde fashion magazines can run into trouble if nudity is involved in risqué photo shoots or if content is deemed immoral for depicting a less-than-idealised clean-cut vision of society).
Chou’s publication side-steps this issue by printing part of each run with a Chinese ISBN for sale within normal Mainland China channels, and another portion printed with an international ISBN. This limits distribution of the latter to international retailers, as well as the few bookstores around China licenced to distribute foreign materials. It also gives the title more leeway in terms of uncensored content for that version of the bookazine.
Contrary to the message that young people aren’t reading print publications, both Chou and Feng say a large percentage of their readers are young people. Chou was shocked at the proportion of high school-aged students reading Rouge Fashion Book, especially considering its RMB 200, or $30, price tag is a rather significant sum for students.
“If you are born with an iPhone in your hand, maybe a book is a really fresh thing. Like the iPad was for [people] when it first came out because they hadn’t seen it before,” Chou says.
Over at Harper’s Bazaar, Sha Xiaoli — who has been with the magazine since 2001 and took on the role of general manager and editor-in-chief following Su Mang’s departure — believes that although this generation has come of age attached to mobile and connected devices, there is also room for magazines in their information gathering habits, as long as the information and its format is special enough to prompt the additional effort and expense.
“I believe we will always have a print version of Harper’s Bazaar. It has value as something you can own or keep, but the magazine of the future needs to be more inspiring than a useful shopping guide," she says.
“In the future, for the younger generation, a printed magazine may become something like a luxury bag. You might not buy it every day. But when you invest in it, you treasure it."
Reasons for Optimism
Both Sha and Feng point to the growth of lower-tier cities as hope for the future of traditional fashion media, with a population of rapidly maturing consumers outside of major cities on the eastern seaboard hungry for information and guidance from trusted authorities.
Sha also believes the size of China’s market means there are still opportunities that remain untapped, with many consumers working their way into the middle class requiring the kind of mass market fashion and luxury lifestyle education provided by major fashion titles.
If we don’t go through this, publishers won’t make necessary changes.
“For us, the digital revolution actually brings more opportunities because we can use this bigger platform to reach more readers and educate them from zero about trends in fashion, culture, art and design,” she says.
Feng likewise remains hopeful, saying the painful process of adjustment currently facing the magazine business in China will result in positive outcomes for the industry if it forces publications to evolve.
“If we don’t go through this, publishers won’t make necessary changes. You have to experience war to appreciate life,” he says.
"Magazines are running a marathon, they need to continuously make an effort, continue to endure, continue to study, in this way you can continue to make a magazine. [I don’t know what] a successful magazine will look like in the future, but I think it will be targeted to a more divided and specific market."