SHANGHAI, China — By now, it’s cliché to comment on how much China’s complex fashion market is evolving, but each time I come here, my mind is boggled by the rate of change.
The most notable shift I’ve observed on this trip to the China — coinciding with Shanghai Fashion Week — has been the growing focus on the country's young designers. In the past, all anyone here seemed to talk about were big luxury megabrands, from Louis Vuitton and Gucci to Burberry and Prada, but now young designers, who are the great new hope for the next decade of Chinese fashion, are attracting attention.
In 2008, on one of my first business trips to Shanghai, I met with Qiu Hao and Helen Lee, two of the leading lights in a fashion landscape then dominated by Western behemoths. I talked to them about building their fledgling businesses. They were both still in the early stages of moulding their identities, not just as designers, but as Chinese designers at a time when young fashion designers here were few and far between.
Today, the picture couldn’t be more different. There are now scores of young Chinese designers vying for the attention of both the local and global markets. This year, out of 26 designers on the shortlist for the LVMH Prize, 6 were Chinese (though, none were named amongst the award’s 8 finalists). An explosion of ‘showrooms’ or mini-tradeshows full of emerging brands have sprouted up in and around Shanghai Fashion Week. And there is now even a whole book, Fashion China, featuring 41 Chinese fashion designers.
What’s more, as Chinese consumers tire of a monotonous mono-brand shopping experience, offering mass-produced products, interest is now shifting towards multi-brand, lifestyle stores, especially those stocking young Chinese fashion designers. While many of these businesses have yet to turn a profit and are still seeking a workable business formula, I expect there will be many more of them sprouting up in the coming years.
The pioneer in China’s multi-brand retail landscape is Hung Huang, whose Beijing-based Brand New China was the first to see an opportunity in bringing these young Chinese designers together under one roof. But now, there are scores of new retail concepts coming to the fore, including local concepts like Dong Liang and international imports like Maria Luisa and 10 Corso Como, which hosted a series of talks with young designers here this week, who spoke about the ups and downs of building their businesses in China.
Designers were also a hot topic at the Shanghai Fashion Week International Fashion Forum where BoF columnist Colin McDowell hosted an honest discussion in his characteristically gregarious style with some of the country’s top designers like Uma Wang, Sankuanz and Zhang Da.
What’s clear from all these discussions is that designers here face the same challenges as their counterparts elsewhere on planet fashion, but have had only limited support from the local fashion industry. In order to satisfy growing consumer interest in young fashion designers, the Chinese fashion fraternity will need to nurture, support and invest in the future of these designers, develop solid foundations and help them grow their businesses. This is an essential part of any healthy, fashion eco-system.
So, while everyone might be looking out for the first big Chinese fashion brand to go global, in the current atmosphere I find it hard to see how that will happen. From small seeds, big trees can grow, but only if they are given the right conditions and environment in which to flourish. This is the challenge for China fashion in the coming years.
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And don’t forget to check out BoF Weekly, a week in review published with Flipboard and updated every Saturday.
Imran Amed Founder and Editor-in-Chief