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Small is Beautiful Too

In China’s fashion market, making a statement used to be a matter of muscle and might. But 'doing things big' is no longer the only way to succeed.
  • Queennie Yang

SHANGHAI, China – Although Angela Chow doesn't work in the fashion industry, she is a frequent guest at big events organised by major luxury brands here. To call her a wealthy socialite doesn't quite do her justice, as it's her personality as well as her pocketbook that keeps the invitations coming. Above all else, the reason she is courted again and again is the hope that her presence will help keep the tills ringing. These days, however, the words Ms. Chow publishes most in her WeChat stream are: "Today's event is super boring."

“These glamorous parties don’t suit me anymore," reads one recent post. "And although I'm clutching my gilded invitation in one hand and drinking as much Perrier Jouet as I want in the other, having to wait for such a long time here bores me to death. The whole extravagant setting makes me feel like I don’t really belong here. All of this is done for the media anyway just so there's a big news splash the next day. None of us here will probably remember the party for real. I know I won't.”

“Maybe I'm too old or just not a 'party animal' any more,” she continues. “Or maybe they just don't get that I can be satisfied with something smaller."

How Small Became Superior

In the past, 'big' was always considered a good thing in China. Words like 'grand' and 'marvellous' were chosen for fashion marketing copy because they symbolised the vast resources and rich backgrounds of a brand. And during the early years when they were still in the 'conquering' phase of entering the Chinese market, companies used to frequently throw large luxurious parties in order to establish their position and reputation.

This is still a common approach, as seen most recently this summer when Michael Kors held a runway show in a plane in one of Shanghai Hongqiao Airport's garages, immediately linking the brand to the phrase 'jet set' in the minds of a massive new audience around the country. Sometimes, big still works.

But nowadays, more and more clients resemble Ms Chow, who, after a few years of watching luxury brands bring out their biggest guns, have cultivated a more refined and thoughtful taste. Increasingly they have different life experiences, which lead them to have expectations that are different from the old mentality that 'bigger is better'.

In China’s top tier cities, there are enough of these customers to support shopping areas that are exclusive, intimate, understated — and surprisingly quiet. Shanghai’s Julu Road, Fumin Road and Changle Road are typical of this collective appreciation of all things small, where tiny alleys are dotted with even tinier shops, transforming that corner of the French Concession district into a growing base for unassuming designer fashion.

Chinese fashion insiders long ago warmed to the notion that small can be beautiful — and, sometimes, more affordable. Boutiques selling edgy young Chinese designers like Dongliang have opened charming little studio-cum-retail spaces near residential areas, where, unlike in huge and often sterile shopping malls, clients can find things that match their personalities. For the stylish in Shanghai, ‘small’ has become the joy of roaming these shops, hunting for treasure.

'Small' has also become emblematic of a growing number of Chinese luxury consumers for whom 'logo mania' is long gone. For them, the must-have Ferragamo shoes of yesteryear have gradually been replaced by footwear from smaller, less notorious brands such as Charlotte Olympia, Giuseppe Zanotti or Sophia Webster. In this more reflective cross-section of the Chinese fashion market, ubiquitous LV handbags have given way to humble brands like Sophie Hulme, or expensive and exclusive ones like Lana Marks.

Small means niche: it has become a byword for brands that are different from the rest. Big is for the media and entry-level customers — and for those who can't afford it. For the real VIPs and KOLs (key opinion leaders), sitting in the front row of a fashion show or front and centre at a gala is no longer enough to distinguish oneself from the rest.

A Not-So-Secret Event Weapon

Even the biggest brands are beginning to catch on. If Fendi’s seminal Great Wall of China runway spectacle of 2007 is already a distant fashion memory, then 'small' is the new secret weapon for marquee brands to get success — and ironically, get noticed — in China's fashion industry today.

"These days, I don't see the point of so many large-scale statement events. I'm doing a lot more small, intimate, targeted ones," Melvin Chua, the fashion PR powerhouse whose firm Ink Pak Communications has staged events for the likes of Giorgio Armani, Louis Vuitton and Burberry, told BoF earlier this year. "For small formats, then we do a wide media reach. And if we do big, we do them more linked to sales. So for a big event for Vuitton we're about to do, we'll do a big pop-up instead of a big party. I want to see amazing limited-edition products in the store. That's what's selling an event to the media in China now."

Gao Ming, senior vice president of Ruder Finn and general manager of the PR firm’s Shanghai bureau, insists there is no such thing as the optimal scale for an event. Large-scale events allow a brand to "mould their image," but the nature of the message that can be conveyed is limited. On the other hand, small, more intimate events can facilitate deeper and more comprehensive communication. Ruder Finn was responsible for the recent opening of the Hermès ‘maison’ in Shanghai, one of the biggest luxury retail launch events of 2014. But the firm also organises much smaller events.

“As with most exclusive and high-end luxury watch and jewellery brands, small events make more sense. Small, intimate groups of customers facilitate information flow from the inner circle and each person, as a part of that circle, becomes a medium that carries on the message. The result is that it makes the brand’s image more visible and its impact on sales more visible too,” says Gao, referring to a promotional event this year that introduced the Cartier Panthère Series to the market by dividing guests and media representatives into small groups of no more than ten to create a 'zero-distance environment.'

“Big events require huge amounts of manpower and there has to be a very experienced person responsible for every single element. But the advantage of big events is that there is no danger of awkward silences," Gao concedes, explaining that for the past few years, Ruder Finn has aimed to mix CRM, PR and marketing events on a smaller scale.

Shopping Big Through 'Small' Experiences

For brands and retailers selling fine, sometimes handcrafted products, such as Shang Xia, Lane Crawford or 10 Corso Como, the importance of 'small' speaks for itself. Above all, the message is about intimate, individualised experiences. In the same way that the 'slow' fashion movement has taken markets in the West by storm, 'small' appears to be a movement with traction in China.

Jiang Qiong Er, artistic director of Shang Xia, says that from the very beginning, the Hermes-backed Chinese lifestyle brand has aimed for “sharing,” and not pure “marketing.” In other words, every guest that arrives at the Shang Xia boutique is treated like a friend. That kind of an experience is not something that can be conveyed by throwing a big party; it needs a more introspective gathering.

Although decidedly more high-octane than Shang Xia, Lane Crawford’s footwear and accessories department, a creative space called Blitz, allows itself to be regularly invaded by innovative collaborative projects. Shanghai’s 10 Corso Como too is focusing on the personal touch, as it continues to develop its series of artistic and cultural events. Instead of focusing only on fashion, the boutique presents cosy attractions around themes such as Italian cuisine or film in order to convey a spirit of conviviality.

“This really is 10 Corso Como’s most enchanting feature. We wanted customers to be able to better understand and experience the products they buy by immersing themselves more into the culture where it's from,” says 10 Corso Como’s former marketing manager, Zemira Xu. “It is not about an advert attracting impulsive buyers; it's about creating a long-term loyal fan base for the brand and what it sells.”

Staging massive parties or events to reinforce a brand narrative no longer satisfies the needs of a breed of rapidly evolving Chinese fashion consumers who increasingly want deeper, more memorable and meaningful connections. What’s required of marketing, PR and events managers, now, she suggests, is more akin to editing or curating than it is to conventional event planning. The more fascinating or exquisite, the better.

A focus on smaller attractions has proved effective for Xu and helped to shape the approach of her own PR company, DIA Communication. And in case there was any doubt about the agency's philosophy, she has recently updated its tagline. “Small and beautiful,” it reads.

Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 27 November, 2014. An earlier version of this article misstated that Gao Ming is vice president of Ruder Finn. He is not. His correct title is senior vice president of Ruder Finn. The article also misstated that Jiang Qiong Er is CEO and artistic director of Shang Xia. She is not. Her correct title is artistic director of Shang Xia.

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Inside the $7 Billion Dior Phenomenon