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Op-Ed | Better Infrastructure Will Boost Creativity in China

China’s creative class will have greater global impact when its fashion ecosystem improves and when leaders invest more in mentoring and educational opportunities, argues Andrew Keith.
Capsule collection from Ziggy Chen for Lane Crawford's Created in China programme | Photo by Ricky Lo/Lane Crawford
  • Andrew Keith

HONG KONG, China — Even in a country as quick to progress as this one, making the move from 'Made in China' to 'Created in China' won't happen overnight. Yet there is no doubt China's fashion scene is blossoming. In a short time we've gone from a handful of budding designers to a multitude and some of them are beginning to bloom.

In China, consumers and influencers are proudly championing their design talent like never before — not just at home, but globally as they travel. In an era in which consumers are creating trends and driving change, this is helping seed global interest in these brands at an early stage of their development. It’s exciting to see our designers Min Liu of Ms Min and Xuzhi Chen of Xu Zhi nominated for this year’s LVMH Prize.

China’s flourishing creatives are global in mindset, travelling to research, source and collaborate. They’re probably using digital in a more intuitive way than their Western counterparts. They’re connected and aware — not isolated and provincial. They want to create international brands and not be defined homogenously as ‘Chinese designers’ — they just happen to be based and working there.

What China needs to help make this happen is a fashion ecosystem. There are many moving parts here, but, as yet, no infrastructure.

Currently, the Chinese fashion education system doesn’t provide for fashion and product design in the same way institutions like London’s Central Saint Martins or New York’s Parsons do. As a result, many designers who go abroad to study and return with great design skills. However, they often have no commercial knowledge, assuming by default that manufacturing will be easy just because they’re working China.

Like young designers everywhere, many live hand to mouth, challenged on cash flow, unable to make minimums for factories. But at least in the West, there are ateliers where designers can work with and learn from experienced artisans. There are also structured buying seasons in the West, as well as a network of wholesale partners, fashion councils, sponsorship funds, mentors and support systems that emerging designers can benefit from.

As a retail partner providing an omni-channel platform with global visibility, we believe that Lane Crawford and Joyce have a role to play in helping create China’s fashion ecosystem..

In 2013, we identified three young Chinese contemporary brands, Ms Min, Chictopia and Helen Lee, to work with on a wholesale basis. Because it's a boom market in the country, contemporary was the focus, and as Joyce was already working with the likes of Huishan Zhang we wanted to expand the portfolio. We have worked with designers on range planning, fabrications, production volumes and delivery schedules for an international fashion calendar.

We have taken designers to the Met Ball and AmFar Hong Kong to see how the industry interacts with them. It’s important that the brands we select must sit within an international fashion edit, be open to acting on feedback, and if they consistently underperform they will be exited from the portfolio. This is a commercial business unit with a growing ‘open-to-buy’ — it is not CSR.

Today, Ms Min presents in showrooms in Paris and New York and is opening its first retail store in Shanghai this week; Chictopia has a number of freestanding stores in China; and Helen Lee has been appointed the creative director of an international fashion sports and skiwear brand, Perfect Moment. Our ‘Created In China’ portfolio now includes more than 30 brands. China consumers have responded strongly to these Chinese brands and, encouragingly, 20 percent of the portfolio’s sales come from online outside the region.

Talent is scouted through Weibo, at Shanghai Fashion week this week, which has recently introduced a trade show element, and by word of mouth. Indeed, one of our new designers, Xu Zhi, was brought to us by designer Angel Chen, who was part of our first Creative Callout. (The pair had lived together when they were both at Central Saint Martins.)

Interest from international retailers in designers from China is growing but, at the same time, many people continue to write them off as a passing phase and a novelty. For China and Chinese consumers, this is certainly not the case. Consider how the Chinese government is investing in soft power and prioritising domestic consumption. Also, consider the sheer size of the domestic market, the appetite for fashion beyond logos, and the zealous nationalistic pride that runs in parallel with a desire to take its place on the world stage.

Having a scalable and sustainable fashion industry is important to China’s future. Certainly in the short-term, the domestic market alone can challenge and reward enough and provide a sizeable chunk of the global market. But, to fully harness this wave of talent and capitalise on consumer and industry interest, a real fashion ecosystem needs to be built — and the time is now.

Andrew Keith is the president of luxury department store Lane Crawford and fashion boutique Joyce with operations throughout Greater China.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

VOICES is the place where the global fashion community comes together to exchange ideas and opinions on the most important topics facing fashion today. To learn more about VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details and apply to attend our invitation-only global gathering in December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, hosted at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire in the picturesque English countryside, one hour from London.

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