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Shanghai Fashion Week: A Barometer for the World’s Largest Fashion Market

China’s fashion capital will be the first to completely return to live, physical shows but insiders concede it’s not quite ‘business as usual.’
Yirantian, Ming Ma, Shushu/Tong and Angel Chen's Spring/Summer 2020 collections | Collage by BoF
  • Casey Hall

SHANGHAI, China — As 2020 continually reminds every human being on the planet, a lot can happen in six months.

Today, walking through the streets of Shanghai’s upmarket Xintiandi district — the spiritual and physical home of Shanghai Fashion Week — there is little evidence of Covid-19 impacting people’s everyday lives. Many people are mask-less and activities like eating out, shopping and taking public transport, so fraught only months ago, finally feel easy and natural.

It is into this climate that Shanghai Fashion Week is planning its physical re-emergence next week, from October 8 to 18, with more than 90 physical shows on its schedule, as well as its regular coterie of trade shows, showrooms, forums and parties running alongside the catwalk calendar.

"Our audience is very excited they can go to a real show," said Tasha Liu, the co-founder of Labelhood, the emerging designer platform that celebrates its 10th outing at this edition of Shanghai Fashion Week. "We are the only ones in the world who can do these kinds of shows [now] and can connect with consumers in this way," she added.

As is characteristic for Shanghai Fashion Week, big brands from China's high street, such as Urban Revivo, Lily and Threegun, will show alongside the best of the country's up-and-coming independent design talent like Angel Chen, Shushu/Tong, Ming Ma, Staffonly, Leaf Xia and Yirantian. Many of these names might have also showed their collections overseas in an ordinary year, but this year, their home market has taken on significantly more importance.

“For this season, every brand is putting their focus on the domestic market,” Liu said. “They will put more effort in China, [because] they know the business is here.”

Indeed, this year’s consumer recovery in China has been heartening for many fashion brands and retailers. The message is being supported not only by the country’s relatively limited spread of the virus domestically, but also by the Chinese government at all levels.

Domestic consumption has become the single biggest focus in stimulating the economy, and Shanghai Fashion Week, which is partly organised by government organisations, is seen as a key part of that push, making it likely that brisk business will be both encouraged and undertaken.

A China for ‘China-Normal’

The biggest change in this edition of Shanghai Fashion Week is a dearth of international brands dotting its showrooms (and catwalks, to a lesser extent). Especially in the early years, one of the main drawcards of Shanghai Fashion Week has been its ability to act as a platform for international brands to reach the colossal Chinese consumer market.

As far back as 2004, Jean Paul Gaultier was utilising Shanghai Fashion Week in just this way, with the years since also seeing the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Giambattista Valli, Vera Wang and many more bringing an international flavour to Shanghai Fashion Week's catwalks.

In years gone by, the feeling was that Shanghai Fashion Week needed these international names to elevate its position globally, to prove that Shanghai was a fashion capital of growing importance. That feels less necessary now.

This is largely due to the ways in which the local fashion environment has changed. A decade ago, there was very little business conducted at Shanghai Fashion Week and showing there was primarily an exercise in marketing and brand-building. But in recent years, the blossoming of a showroom and professional buyer ecosystem in China has brought business to the forefront of Shanghai Fashion Week. During that time, the event also emerged as the leading fashion week in the country, racing ahead of would-be rivals in Beijing and Shenzhen.

Multi-brand favourite Le Monde de SHC's Shanghai store | Source: Le Monde de SHC

Up until this year, an increasing number of international brands were bringing their collections to Shanghai, not to show on a catwalk, but to present to a growing army of domestic buyers who can seed their designs across the vast and complex Chinese retail landscape.

Multi-brand retailing in China is a relatively recent phenomenon and in the past half-decade the country has seen an explosion of multi-brand stores. While Covid-19 has been a global disaster for fashion retail, in some ways it could help further incubate the burgeoning multi-brand environment in China — largely to the benefit of local brands.

“It’s a really good opportunity for the Chinese independent designers. A lot of buyers, because they couldn’t go abroad, they decided to make more orders with independent domestic brands, and in the last few months, they have gotten very good sales,” explained Tube Showroom founder Zemira Xu, who added that many Chinese stores she has spoken with have seen their year-on-year sales improve every month from May onwards.

According to Xu, the success of the multi-brand format is being driven in large part by fashion consumers who would normally buy ready-to-wear on overseas trips. Stuck within China by travel restrictions, this fashion-forward population has latched on to multi-brand stores as a way to discover interesting new designs and niche designers.

The success of the multi-brand format is being driven in large part by fashion consumers who would normally buy ready-to-wear on overseas trips.

“They are very mature consumers, they know what good design is, they know what good quality is, and when they didn’t have the opportunity to go abroad for shopping, they started to find out what is [available] in the local market [at] multi-brand stores,” Xu said.

This year, Mode Shanghai’s trade show and showrooms such as Ontime, both of which have always had a significant international brand presence, will see this dimension diminished by the difficulties for international brands making the trip to Shanghai.

Domestic buyers, however, are expected to come out in force, investing even more heavily in local brands after being forced by the pandemic to forgo their own international fashion month travelling schedules.

The enforced break international designers have to take from selling their collections into China’s wholesale market is, in short, good for domestic brands and bad for their international counterparts. Though no-one doubts there will always remain an appetite among Chinese consumers for international fashion brands, when they do re-enter this landscape, it will be a tougher and more competitive one than before. An environment in which professional buyers and consumers are more comfortable with buying local brands.

Angel Chen and pieces from her H&M collaboration | Source: Courtesy

Angel Chen, who has shown in New York, London and Milan fashion weeks and will show on the main stage in Xintiandi for this edition of Shanghai Fashion Week, introducing a new collaboration with outerwear brand Canada Goose, says her experience matches that observed by Xu.

“The wholesale business overseas shrank, which is to be expected, but for the China’s domestic market it’s growing. For us, the total business is still growing well, so I’m very happy,” Chen told BoF.

Directionally, Shanghai Fashion Week has been manoeuvring to encourage ‘China for China’ business for some time, but this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated that trend.

At this point, no-one knows just how temporary (or not) this phenomenon is, or whether there will be a widespread re-opening to international brand participation in Shanghai Fashion Week in a post-Covid future. For now, it presents a greater opportunity for local brands to make their mark while international brands are shut out.

A More Digital Normal

Although March’s “On the Cloud” edition of Shanghai Fashion Week, hosted in conjunction with Alibaba’s Tmall platform, had its fair share of critics taking aim at the uninspired look of livestreamed shows and the lack of engagement digital presentations garner in comparison to real world shows, the fact that organisers were able to be pull it together with only a month’s notice was an impressive feat.

“Last season, Shanghai Fashion Week was the first to take action and do the virtual fashion week and they pushed all of the brands to think about online, virtual show, livestreaming, big data and also to think about digital content for sales. It pushed the brands to be more forward-thinking,” said Angel Chen, adding that the Angel Chen brand now regularly utilises livestreaming and plans to open a Tmall store before the end of the year to facilitate its growing online business (it currently operates a Taobao store).

The existence of Alibaba’s established livestreaming infrastructure and the willingness of Chinese consumers to engage and buy online was a big part of why it was possible. Though the focus at this coming edition of Shanghai Fashion Week is very much focused on the return of offline shows, showrooms and events, Alibaba has retained its partnership with Shanghai Fashion Week, and will host the Tmall Fashion Festival over the last weekend (October 16-18) of the event kicking off to its Singles Day festival activities.

Online events remain an important part of the fashion week's international programme and dimension.

Shanghai’s partnership with Alibaba is significant because the tech giant has previously focused more of its energies on proving its international fashion credibility by partnering with New York, Paris and Milan fashion weeks. It too has jumped on the ‘China for China’ bandwagon.

With a global pandemic stifling the potential for more cross-border business to be facilitated at many of the showcases, online events remain an important part of the fashion week’s international programme and dimension.

Shaway Yeh, China's fashion sustainability doyenne and founder of the Shan Future Forum, considered doing an offline version of her event, as she has done at previous editions of Shanghai Fashion Week, but in the end, she decided the diversity of voices and experiences that could be gained by having international participants outweighed the risk of "Zoom fatigue" hindering audiences from tuning in.

"Most fashion weeks are focused on making business happen, that's what the mission and discussion around fashion weeks and the showrooms is focused on and that's what they should focus on, but I think most people have forgotten about the communication aspect and overall vision part," she said, doing her part to correct that balance with a three-day programme that will include appearances from Gucci Chief Executive Marco Bizzarri, H&M Chief Executive Helena Helmersson and Eva Kruse, founder of Global Fashion Agenda.

An international dimension will also be added with The Harrod’s Studio, which will see the luxury department store set up three purpose-built studios streaming events with influencers and industry experts, as well as the Green Carpet Fashion Awards, an event making its debut in China on October 10.

These events all show that Shanghai is not cutting itself off from the world, though the ways in which the pandemic has forced a shift in focus at Shanghai Fashion Week is likely to reverberate for years to come.

There is little doubt in the confidence of China’s fashion industry to stand on its own two feet in a post-pandemic world, just how much this will change the long-term dynamic between local and international brands in terms of their position within the country’s fashion firmament remains unclear.



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Alibaba Chairman and CEO Daniel Zhang at the company's annual investor day | Source: Alizila

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A Cheetah Mobile robot | Source: Cheetah

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Crowds in Shanghai during Golden Week in 2016 | Source: Flickr/Jakob Montrasio

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