SHANGHAI, China — From whichever way you examine China’s place in the global fashion industry — consumer, supplier or manufacturer — it is clear that the country is a linchpin for making progress on the sustainability front.
As Kering Chief Executive and leader of the “Fashion Pact” initiative François-Henri Pinault put it during an event held in conjunction with Shanghai Fashion Week (SHFW), “there is no luxury without sustainability and there is no sustainability without China. It’s as simple as that.”
Kering’s K Generation awards, in which three start-ups were awarded on the basis of their green-tech innovations with fashion industry applications, was just one of the sustainability-focused pushes at this season’s SHFW, which spanned October 9 to 16. The local sustainability focus follows that of recent fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris, in which carbon neutrality, pared-back shows and the circular economy were the talk of the town.
However, as the case has been made in other markets, talk isn’t enough; in a market obsessed with novelty and convenience, will Shanghai’s sustainable fashion ambition translate to real action?
Sustainability’s New Landing Ground
Both luxury brands and emerging players have raised the issue of Shanghai’s sustainability credentials.
Stella McCartney, a long-time advocate of animal rights and environmental protection, chose China’s biggest fashion week to launch a sustainable capsule collection with luxury e-tailer MyTheresa, marked with a talk at Tongji University’s school of design, one of the fashion capital’s top design institutions.
“What I’m trying to do is encourage it not to be a trend and to be something that sticks,” McCartney told the room packed with students.
“I believe it can because I believe it’s something the future generations are hugely passionate about and engaged in,” she added, alluding not only to the young people in the room, but those around the world who have added their voices to the UK’s Extinction Rebellion movement.
McCartney isn’t the only global luxury stalwart bringing her sustainability efforts east. Prada is today hosting an event at their Rong Zhai mansion in downtown Shanghai to discuss the brand’s ongoing “Re-Nylon” initiative.
As China has moved from the fashion producing hub of the world, to the fashion consumption centre, Pinault said its ability to lead the way on issues, such as sustainability, is becoming greater.
On the runways, designer Zhang Na’s Reclothing Bank once again flew the sustainability flag with enthusiasm. Stemming from a personal project started in 2012 to upcycle old clothes and educate consumers about more conscious consumption, recent advances in fabric technology have enabled Zhang to turn the project into a fully-fledged brand, with garments made from Tencel, recycled bottles, plastics, corn and coffee beans.
“[When I first started] I could not have imagined what technology would be discovered,” Zhang said, noting that people here have begun to think about sustainability as a moral imperative as well as a business proposition. “The materials have improved so much [that it makes business sense].”
Demand for Development
This groundswell in sustainability-focused dialogue and design at the top is having a trickle-down effect. Fashion investor, Founder and CEO of Yu Holdings Wendy Yu has observed a whole new generation of Chinese designers, who, like Zhang, are putting social consciousness and responsibility at the forefront of their business.
As China’s strong manufacturing base sees much of its low-end business moving offshore, the shift is empowering designers while incentivising manufacturers to become more flexible and innovative in their approach in order to appeal to China’s sustainability-minded talents.
“[Young Chinese designers] are really thinking more carefully about their supply chain and sustainability isn’t just marketing for them, they are really being careful about what they stand for,” Yu said.
One of China’s leading voices promoting and creating solutions for a more sustainable fashion industry is Shaway Yeh, founder of sustainable innovation agency Yehyehyeh and Special Advisor to the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. Yeh served as a moderator at the Kering, Stella McCartney and Prada events, alongside organising her own sustainability conference, Shan Future Forum, during SHFW.
This season marked the second time Yeh has hosted Shan, but she has gone from welcoming a little over 100 attendees to turning away over 400 applicants — proof to Yeh of a sea change in how China’s fashion industry is beginning to prioritise sustainability.
The international array of speakers at the conference included British Fashion Council Chief Executive Officer Caroline Rush, Jane Wang, General Manager of Cashmere giant Erdos, and Kyung-Ae Han, Vice Chairwoman of the Kolon Group, a prominent Korean sportswear manufacturer.
“There’s demand from the [Chinese] government, there’s demand from [Chinese] consumers. We are all being affected by climate change more and more. There’s a reason people are talking about it,” Yeh says.
Considering that fashion weeks are inherently ephemeral and resource-intensive, Yeh said SHFW and other organisations around the world have a vital role to play as platforms that give a voice to sustainability advocates.
Another panellist at Shan was Lv Xiaolei, vice secretary of the SHFW Committee. She pointed out that an increasing focus on green initiatives over the past four years has helped frame the fashion conversation in China for both consumers and the wider the industry, with the former increasingly demanding action. Lv and Yeh both reference local cashmere giant Erdos, a regular at SHFW, which has committed to implementing sustainable agriculture and production processes, as a prime example.
“We must now make more noise, throw out the old ways the industry has been practising and [move forward] practising sustainable development,” said Lv.
A Top-Down Push for Mass Appeal
For all the talk at SHFW, the gap between awareness and action is the industry’s biggest obstacle. “Talking about it doesn’t mean they know what to do about it,” said Yeh.
Indeed, at this year’s edition of the Redress Awards for sustainable design held in Hong Kong, Redress NGO founder and CEO Christina Dean said Mainland China supplied the bulk of entrants. However, Dean notes that sustainability hasn’t quite become a priority in the country’s wider consumer culture.
“I look out the window here [in Shanghai] and I don’t really see it. I’m always relatively optimistic because I think there’s only one way consumers will go, but awareness to action is still quite slow,” she said.
Candy Li helped pioneer the city’s sustainability initiatives by organising consumer-facing platform Green Code alongside luxury retailer Lane Crawford and SHFW for a number of seasons. However, she was forced to shutter the platform because of a lack of interest.
“My company lost millions on this project, so I can’t afford to do it anymore,” Li explained, adding that Green Code was unable to attract investors, sponsors or a stable roster of sustainable fashion brands able to stay afloat in China’s ultra-competitive and crowded marketplace.
Li notes that consumers may care more about sustainability but estimates that those who consider it as a major factor when shopping probably make up 1 to 5 percent of the population. As is the case with global fashion brands and consumers, shoppers will prioritise style and design over sustainability, which is often perceived as a bonus.
Even so, some insiders remain optimistic, as China’s colossal size means small progress is still significant in the wider scheme of things. “China is a planet, it’s not like a country,” said French fashion designer Jonathan Riss, who moved to Beijing in 2005.
Riss’ recent collection of upcycled vintage Louis Vuitton keep-alls, priced between $10,000 and $15,000, sold out in stores such as Lane Crawford, and Riss notes that a number of buyers were from China.
“There all types of people and not everyone will be interested [in upcycled and vintage products] but many people will love it,” he added.
And whether the movement toward sustainable fashion is pushed forward by consumers or not, there are signs the government wants it.
“In terms of government policies, the Chinese government is quite progressive in pushing an environmental agenda,” Yeh said. Lv Xiaolei points to a government initiative in Shanghai which turned the city’s 26 million residents into diligent recyclers virtually overnight, using a combination of social pressure (those who incorrectly sort their rubbish are named and shamed among their neighbours) and technology.
And, this being China, the central government’s desires tend to become a reality, signalling positive signs for action on sustainability in the Chinese fashion industry sooner rather than later.
“Inside this country you have the consumers, the producers, and a government that is willing to move proactively toward sustainability,” Pinault said. “We need that leadership from the Chinese government because if China can make its fashion industry sustainable, the rest of the world will follow.”
FASHION & BEAUTY
Chinese Menswear Market Lags, but Shows Potential
Yatlas, a casual menswear brand owned by Chinese menswear giant Musheng Holding Group has existed for five years but only recently opened a flagship store in Nanjing. The brand is filling a gap, not only for its parent company but also for the domestic menswear market in China between workwear and sportswear that has existed for far too long. Though womenswear is a major driver of the China market, there is demand for high-quality, stylish streetwear for men that, until now, hasn’t been met by local fashion companies. Another brand remaking itself to better play in this sector is Peacebird, with menswear fresh off the Paris catwalk where it showed as part of Tmall’s China Cool day. (Nino Tang for BoF China)
Shuting Qiu Nominated for H&M Design Award
Fresh from a well-received presentation of the Spring/ Summer 2020 collection at Shanghai Fashion Week’s Labelhood platform for emerging independent designers, Shuting Qiu designer Qiu Shuting has been nominated for the H&M Design Award 2020. Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Art in Antwerp, Belgium, Qiu has also been a finalist of the 2019 BoF China Prize and shown in Milan. Qiu is making a name for herself for her colourful tailored looks, with layers of prints giving blazers and trousers a youthful bent. (H&M)
Angel Chen Launches MAC Beauty Capsule
MAC cosmetics became the latest international brand to collaborate with China’s young fashion superstar, Angel Chen. The resulting capsule collection was officially launched in Shanghai with an event hosted alongside fashion week and features make-up in vibrant “Chinese Red” hues, in packaging decorated with ornate dragons. Inspiration for the collection came from traditional Chinese make up culture, which has been having a resurgence of late as young consumers seek inspiration from soap operas set in Imperial China. (Beauty Almanac)
TECH & INNOVATION
Alibaba Leverages Tech for Product Development, Is Private Label Next?
Alibaba is increasingly edging into new product development, including in the fashion arena, with Tmall recently joining with Japanese textile maker Mitsubishi Chemical to develop a thin, heat generated fabric to help people stay warm without added bulk. Although Alibaba’s trend forecasting centre has so far worked with brand partners to provide data-driven insights and develop new products, there must be some temptation to leverage this technology for future private label brands. One only needs to look at the FMCG arena to see how this might play out. Alibaba’s own milk brand, TheLand now accounts for half the value of all milk sold through Tmall. (Fibre2Fashion)
KOL Incubator Ruhnn Faces Multiple US Lawsuits
More than 10 law firms in the US have announced they are suing Ruhnn Holdings Ltd. (also known as Ruhan) for causing investor losses by allegedly issuing materially false and misleading business information, failing to declare a 40 percent fall in its number of online stores and a 44 percent decline in KOLs on its platform leading up to an IPO in April. Ruhnn, founded in 2016, partners with high-level KOLs with strong fan followings to facilitate own brand apparel and beauty products, as well as facilitating connections between its KOLs, retailers and brands. (Captial Watch)
Chinese Drama Digitally Erases Its Scandal-Prone Actors
Two scandal-struck megastars in the long-delayed costume drama “Win the World” are being digitally scrubbed from the show, according to producers. Talent Television and Film Co. Ltd. said it had enlisted Tmall Technology, a company owned by e-commerce giant Alibaba, to replace Gao Yunxiang and Fan Bingbing with as-yet-unnamed “top-tier actors” by means of “scene refilming, technological tools, audio re-recording, etc.” The show’s release was delayed after Gao was charged with raping a woman at a Sydney hotel in March 2018. A few months after that scandal broke, Fan was brought down by allegations of tax evasion, eventually paying a fine of 884 million yuan ($129 million). They are the first stars to be digitally removed from a major production in China. (SixthTone)
CONSUMER & RETAIL
Top 100 Chinese Fashion Retailers Revealed
China’s Chain Store Management Association has unveiled the country’s top 100 fashion retailers based on 2018 National Bureau of Statistics data, with Chow Tai Fook, Lao Feng Xiang and Anta Sports taking out the top three spots. There were 20 fashion retailers on the list with revenues exceeding 10 billion ($1.41 billion) last year, with only three of them being companies made up of a single brand. The vast majority, including Belle International, Anta and Semna, operate a number of different brands and have actively been pursuing mergers and acquisitions to further their brand expansion. (Winshang)
China’s Latest Influencer Trend: KOCs
Key Opinion Leaders, or KOLs, have long been used by luxury brands in China to promote products and influence sales. But experts are now claiming China’s Key Opinion Consumers, or KOCs, maybe even more beneficial to building brand image. Celebrity influencers have fallen out of favour with many Chinese netizens, who are hyper-aware of their lucrative brand deals. Plus, for brands looking to break into the Chinese market, the soaring costs of popular KOLs are often unattainable. KOCs, on the other hand, are everyday consumers, whose value is based on their relatability. The focus of KOCs is product reviews, and they often only have a few hundred followers. But for young Chinese consumers, this personable, friend-like appeal can have a powerful impact on purchasing decisions. (Jing Daily)
America is Losing the Chinese Consumer
American brands face major challenges in a country that is increasingly facing off against the US on matters of trade and geopolitics, including stronger Chinese brands and a tendency to snub foreign brands running afoul of Chinese politics. The recent NBA bust-up in China was a reminder of just how quickly Chinese attitudes can turn on Western brands. The shift signals a possible end of an era, with foreign consumer brands now holding a smaller market share in the categories tracked by McKinsey & Co. than at any time since the global financial crisis. (The Wall Street Journal)
POLITICS, ECONOMY, SOCIETY
HK Leader Carrie Lam Gives ‘State of the Union’
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was twice cut off by heckling opposition lawmakers before completing her annual policy address via video feed, calling for an end to the “pessimism” that has gripped Hong Kong amidst five months of protests. Lam said the protests had “seriously damaged Hong Kong’s image”, but by relying on core values such as rule of law, respect of human rights, efficient bureaucracy, free trade and the One Country Two Systems, she was sure that “the rainbow will emerge after the storm.”
With retail taking a battering due to the protests, property consultancy CBRE also revealed this week that retail rents in Hong Kong, among the most expensive in the world, fell 10.5 percent in the July to September quarter, the sharpest decline since the first quarter of 1998 at the time of the Asian financial crisis. (South China Morning Post)
Former World Leaders Urge End to Trade War
An op-ed penned by three former world leaders says the 18-month trade war between the United States and China “represents the single greatest threat to global economic growth”. In spite of the encouraging development of a potential “phase one” verbal agreement announced by President Trump and members of China’s trade negotiating team, the former Prime Ministers of Australia, New Zealand and Sweden warned that a failure to bring the trade war to a final conclusion by the end of 2019 “significantly increases the risk of recession” next year in the United States, Europe, Japan and other developed and emerging economies, while also seriously undermining China’s near-term growth prospects. A harsher than expected contraction in China’s exports and imports in September has been blamed on the bite of trade war-related tariffs taking effect. (The New York Times)
Chinese Liberals Cast Out from Online Refuge
For several years, alternative thinkers in China have taken refuge on Douban, a platform dedicated to film and book reviews that appeared to pass under the country’s strict censorship radar because of its relatively small size. Now users fear its days are numbered after some of its functionality, specifically that which allowed users to follow one another – much like Facebook’s newsfeed – was disabled. Users can still post reviews, or leave comments in Douban’s user-generated online forums, and the company said the suspension was part of an upgrade of its website, but many are sceptical given the broader tightening of online control and protests in Hong Kong only further increasing scrutiny. (Quartz)
China Decoded wants to hear from you. Send tips, suggestions, complaints and compliments to our Shanghai-based Asia Correspondent firstname.lastname@example.org.