SHANGHAI, China — Though they make up less than nine percent of the country’s 1.4 billion people, China's ethnic minority cultures punch well above their weight when it comes to highly specialised traditional and artisanal handicrafts.
One look at the spectacular “one hundred bird” dress traditionally worn by women of the Miao ethnic minority of southern China reveals handwoven cloth, pieced together with brocade silk in red, yellow, green and blue. Embroidered on the chest and corset are patterns made up of flowers, birds, insects, fish and butterflies, with a hem made from embroidery and batik decorated with a circle of birds at its bottom edge.
It is a 5,000-year-old culture of couture at odds with modern China’s reputation for mass-produced fashion and cheap labour, one also at odds with the breakneck pace of modern and increasingly urban life here, where it’s easier and more affordable to head to the local mall to buy the latest style from Zara or H&M, or buy a look inspired by your favourite celebrity with two simple clicks on your phone’s Taobao app.
Today, the keepers of these traditions are few, and their numbers get fewer each year. But their recent rediscovery, and an embrace from fashion and accessory brands both within China and abroad, is shining a spotlight on the traditional handicrafts of China’s ethnic minorities and giving their future survival a shot.
At an event timed to coincide with the fever surrounding Shanghai Fashion Week, Italian brand Marni, which has recently undergone a design renaissance under the irreverent, accomplished hand of Creative Director Francesco Risso, today announced an upcoming collaboration with traditional artisans from the ethnic Miao minority of Southern China.
Though over 91 percent of China’s population is of Han ethnicity, the country is actually comprised of 56 official ethnic groups, counting groups as diverse as the Zhuang, Yi, Hui, Uyghur Muslims, Tujia, Mongols, Tibetans, Dong, Yao and Bai. The Miao people, who have a 5,000-year history and in China number a little over 9 million people today, have long been known for their intricate embroidery, lace and pleating techniques and heavy silver headdresses.
The Miao interpretation of time makes you wonder whether we shall readdress our understanding of luxury.
“I have fallen in love with the Miao,” Risso told BoF prior to the event in Shanghai. “Their interpretation of time makes you wonder whether we shall readdress our understanding of luxury and envision a different purpose, that goes beyond hasty consumption,” he said.
Marni is not the only major international brand tapping into thousands of years of Miao know-how. Earlier this year, Japanese giant Uniqlo announced plans to employ 400 Miao women to provide embroidery for Uniqlo products.
The Fast Retailing-owned company, which currently boasts more than 700 points of sale in China with plans to exceed the 1,000 mark within the next three years, has won fans in China for its localisation efforts and well-priced basics.
"Chinese shoppers have become more rational, and they are not blindly following the crowd or imitating others. They want products with both local culture and [local] consumer mentality," said Pan Ning, chief executive of the brand’s China operations.
In recent years, a documentary television series aired by state broadcasters and numerous local newspaper reports have flagged the near-extinction of traditional Chinese handicrafts, as an influx of cheaper, machine-made goods prove too affordable and convenient to resist. In response, Beijing in 2017 inaugurated a ‘Cultural and Natural Heritage Day’ to raise awareness and support for these “intangible national treasures” before they disappear for good.
There has also been a movement from fashion and accessory designers within China to integrate local minority artisans and handicrafts, as a way to promote and continue the tradition.
Angel Chen has always included elements of traditional Chinese culture in her collections. In her SS19 release, the designer drew inspiration from traditional Qiang embroidery native to her hometown of Chaozhou, employing, among other techniques, a traditional, three-dimensional embroidery style with gold thread. “I wanted to draw upon Chaozhou culture because I really love it and it’s in my blood. I feel that it should be respect and shared with international audiences,” Chen explained.
Ziwei Longhong is a member of the Yi ethnic minority and hails from the famously beautiful Lugu Lake region of China’s southern Yunnan Province. After graduating from her MA at London College of Fashion in 2017, she founded Soft Mountains, a contemporary jewellery brand inspired by silver Yi jewellery’s traditional geometric designs.
“It’s much more than a jewellery brand, we want to create a platform to promote the ethnic minority culture. It was sad for me, when I left my hometown to discover that nobody knows about the Yi people,” Ziwei said.
Based between Shanghai and London, Soft Mountain’s pieces are handmade by the Yi community’s few remaining artisans, with prices ranging from $98 to $350. Most of the brand’s customers currently hail from China’s tier one cities, but an upcoming launch on Net-a-Porter is expected to change that.
Though it would be easy to conflate Soft Mountain’s success with Chinese youths’ increasingly nationalist, heritage-forward appetites, Ziwei reckons that design comes first. The connection with minority traditions and craftsmanship is an added bonus rather than a driving factor in shoppers’ purchasing decisions, she says.
By contrast, Angel Chen sees a greater pride among Chinese people for local traditional handicrafts as parallel to the nation’s geopolitical and economic power. As more brands enter the market, it also doesn’t hurt as a point of differentiation, she says.
“Chinese consumers are also bored of seeing very ordinary and very mass-produced products; they are keen to see something that’s undiscovered and has history and a story behind it. Consumers are looking for products with more spirit,” Chen said.
The connection with minority traditions and craftsmanship is an added bonus rather than a driving factor in shoppers’ purchasing decisions.
The same sentiment is echoed by Felicie Corre-Le Blan, a former long-time employee of Hermès who came to China with the storied French house before striking out to launch the fashion and lifestyle brand Chinoises, which collaborates with Miao artisans to create embroidered silk jackets, retailing for around $430.
Since opening its e-commerce site in May, the brand has garnered famous fashion-world fans such as Julia Restoin Roitfeld.
“As a consumer, I want something that lasts forever, not just for a season. I suppose the idea is to maybe promote craftsmanship that people don’t know about, promote minority people, but also make something that you will keep for a long time and that will not be out of fashion in a few months,” Corre-Le Blan said.
Though she believes most Chinese consumers are not yet actively seeking out traditional minority handicrafts (Chinoises’ customers overwhelmingly come from Europe), they certainly seem to appreciate efforts to support them, particularly when it’s international brands who are making the effort to discover and promote them.
“[The reaction from Chinese people] has been such a good surprise,” Corre-Le Blan said. “They say: ‘Thank you for showing me this, thank you for showing our crafts.’”
FASHION & BEAUTY
How Spon-Con Became GQ China's Greatest Asset
GQ China’s five-year-old WeChat-only sponsored content arm is thriving. Last year, the GQ Lab account inked deals with over 200 brands from Net-a-Porter to Louis Vuitton, earning nearly $7 million in revenue. According to an anonymous insider, its advertising revenue accounted for almost half of Condé Nast China’s annual revenues thanks to the leadership of Group Publisher Paco Tang, who recently made headlines after being accused of corruption (Condé Nast China has since dismissed the allegations). GQ Labs has found success not only by targeting influencers across media and advertising to disseminate content from the industry’s elite to a wider audience, but by leaning into social issues faced by China’s growing middle class. The media brand has also succeeded in building on its parent brands GQ and Condé Nast, keeping tight reins on quality control and brand messaging rather than ceding to advertisers’ whims. (Jing Daily)
Fan Service Platform Takes On Magazine Relaunch
Jalouse, the French quarterly indie style magazine, is taking on a new life in China for the second time. After a lukewarm mainland debut in 2013, Jalouse China launched on September 28 in Paris, with covers featuring Kpop girl-group Blackpink, Chinese boy-band Exo member Tao and local actress Zheng Shuang. Rather than partnering with a traditional media company, the title — in an attempt to better target China’s Gen-Z cohort — will be championed by local fan service platform OWhat: a social community and marketplace for celebrities’ fans, which has already seen its user transactions exceed 1 billion yuan (over $140 million) this year. With established connections to Asia’s top entertainment companies and abundant data on the hottest artists of the moment, the deal could set a new precedent for Gen-Z-centric media brands in the mainland, though catering to the whims of the country’s increasingly discerning youngsters won’t be a walk in the park. (Irina Li for BoF China)
Ontimeshow Raises 10 Million Yuan in Funding
The Bailian Fashion Industry Fund has invested the equivalent of $1.4 million in one of China’s biggest fashion trade shows. The injection is aimed at optimising Shanghai-based Ontimeshow’s development, with a focus on its digital and B2B platform. Though Shanghai Fashion Week has upped its runway ante in recent years, the proliferation of successful trade shows has helped support the Chinese fashion capital’s community of retailers and designers. Founded by BoF 500 member Yeli Gu, Ontimeshow has expanded in its 10 seasons of business and partnered with global fashion week stalwarts from Tranoï, France’s largest trade show, to the British Fashion Council. (36 Kr)
TECH & INNOVATION
JD.com Links Arms with WeChat to Take On Pinduoduo
The rise of social e-commerce in one of the world’s most plugged-in countries has saturated the Chinese market with a range of rival apps. Following on from the success of group-buying app Pinduoduo among consumers in lower-tier cities, Chinese retail giant JD.com has launched its own social e-commerce service Jingxi, accessible through WeChat’s Discover tab. This isn’t the first time JD.com ventured into the group buying space: it launched Pingou in 2014, but severed it as a separate business arm this year. Since its launch in 2015, Pinduoduo has cemented itself as China’s third largest e-commerce player, with a 7.3 percent market share behind Alibaba’s 55.9 percent and JD.com’s 16.7 percent — whether the latter has what it takes to beat Pinduoduo at its own game remains to be seen. (Tech in Asia)
Tiktok Parent Aims West with News App Topbuzz
Bytedance, the tech giant behind short video platforms Douyin and Tiktok, has set its sights on the West, where it hopes to replicate the success of its popular Chinese news aggregator Toutiao, which has changed the ways mainlanders consume news and boasts 120 million daily active users. Though Bytedance launched Topbuzz in 2015, it has only recently begun to gain ground abroad. In contrast with aggregators Apple News, Flipboard and Google News, Toutiao (and its Western equivalent Topbuzz) provide algorithm-driven news stories by reputable media partners alongside user-generated posts by content creators. It’s worth noting that Toutiao only allows China’s government-sanctioned institutions to publish political stories, but this won’t be the case for Topbuzz. (Abacus)
US Blacklist Targets China’s Artificial Intelligence Favourites
Days before the 13th round of US-China trade negotiations kicked off on October 10 in Washington, tensions spiked yet again. On October 7, Chinese AI firms SenseTime (the world’s most valuable AI start-up) and Alibaba-backed Megvii were among the 28 agencies and companies named on the US Commerce Department’s trade blacklist, said to be implicated in human rights violations against Uyghurs and other members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region. The companies have since opposed the allegations, and though the commerce department said that the move is unrelated to the resumption of trade talks, it could derail growth and discourage prospective partners. The timing is especially unfortunate for the two AI startups, which were on track to go public on Shanghai’s Nasdaq-style tech board and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. (Technode)
CONSUMER & RETAIL
Hong Kong Protest App Spurs Calls for Apple Boycott
Over the past week, Chinese netizens have called for a boycott of the US tech giant after it rejected, then approved an app allowing users to track police patrols in Hong Kong. HKmap.live debuted as a website in August as rioters protested the now-withdrawn extradition bill, helping them track “the locations of protesters, police, and traffic,” as well as use of tear gas, mass arrests and transit closures. Following two attempts to debut on the Apple App Store, the HKmap.live app officially went live on October 5, drawing criticisms from mainland Chinese media outlets and netizens that saw Apple’s decision as an act of support for Hong Kong’s protests. “I’m ready to ditch my iPhone and start using Huawei!” wrote one user on Weibo. (Sup China)
Weibo and WeChat Helps British Brands Beat the Brexit Blues
Despite the frustration and panic surrounding the UK’s current political climate, “Brand Britain” has not lost its touch with Chinese visitors, students and businesses. The UK Office for National Statistics reported that while Chinese students accounted for 35 percent of university applications in 2016, the number has grown 17 percent year-on-year in 2019. This growth can be attributed to China’s younger consumers, who have an affinity for quirky and kitschy brands, as well as British luxury’s reputation for quality and craftsmanship. However, the willingness of British brands to cater to Chinese shoppers’ digital habits — in particular, use of social media apps WeChat and Weibo, and payment apps AliPay and WeChat Pay — is what sets shopping in London apart from other fashion capitals. (SCMP)
Is Alibaba's Lazada Winning Southeast Asia? Not So Fast.
Alibaba may have the largest slice of China’s e-commerce pie, but its Southeast Asian subsidiary Lazada is winning the region’s race, according to the group’s Chief Executive Pierre Poignant. “We are growing at triple digits for the past three quarters, which has really sort of defined our position as No. 1,” Poignant said, though recent reports have hailed rival platform Shopee as the region’s most popular e-commerce platform and other competitors Tokopedia and Bukalapak are also vying for dominance in the fast-growing market of over 600 million people. It appears that the two are neck-a-neck: according to online shopping aggregator iPrice, Shopee had the highest number of monthly active users, downloads, and site visits in the region as of 2019’s second quarter, while Lazada had higher monthly active users in four of the six major e-commerce markets in the region — Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. (Tech in Asia)
POLITICS, ECONOMY, SOCIETY
NBA Fallout Continues as League Faces Furore from East and West
On October 4, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sparked outrage among Chinese basketball fans after tweeting his (now deleted) support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. Since then, “the world’s wokest sports league” has seen its mainland events disrupted and partners pull out of lucrative deals: the Chinese government pulled the plug on the Nets’ planned event in Shanghai on Tuesday, sportswear giant Li Ning has withdrawn its Rockets sponsorship and both state television provider CCTV and Tencent have said they will stop airing Rockets games. The NBA’s ‘apology’ statement has drawn criticism from western commentators shocked at “the swiftness with which the [league] bent its knee to Chinese sensitivities.” Meanwhile, fans continue to express their disappointment in the mainland, where over 640 million Chinese citizens watched some form of NBA content during the 2017-18 season — nearly 300 million more people than the US population. (NBC)
Hong Kong’s Richest Suffer Decline in Total Asset Value
Last year, Hong Kong’s most affluent residents suffered the biggest collective loss of wealth among the world’s wealthiest countries, according to data from Wealth-X. Amid macroeconomic uncertainties brought on by the US-China trade war and pro-democracy protests, Hong Kong’s ultra high net worth individuals collectively lost 9 percent of their total value — a development that made way for New York to reclaim the top spot as the world’s top city for wealthy individuals. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has lost its spot as the largest market for Swiss watches; unsurprising, given the city makes up around 11 percent of turnovers for Swatch Group and Richemont. (SCMP)
Chinese Make Record Number of Trips on National Holiday
According to local media outlet The Paper, China's railways handled a record-breaking 17.13 million individual trips on the country’s National Day, the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China that kicked off a seven-day holiday (and for many, a travel rush). According to data released by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, a total of 542 million people traveled on the first four days of the holiday, raking in domestic tourism revenues of 452.63 billion yuan (around $63.5 billion) — another record high. Though Hong Kong used to be a favourite destination for the occasion, only 93,000 mainland tourists visited the city for National Day this year, marking a 62 percent drop from 2018, according to Hong Kong’s immigration department. (Global Times, Sina Finance)
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