As Founder and Chairman of Eve Fashion Group and also acting in other prominent roles for the China Fashion Association and China Entrepreneur Club etc. Ms. Xie Hua is an influential figure in the Chinese fashion industry. She is a regular speaker at domestic and international fashion events and never shy to speak her mind on what is (and should be ) taking place in China’s fashion industry.
The Eve Group is one of China’s most successful menswear companies who’s stable of brands includes Notting Hill, Jaques Pritt and Kevin Kelly etc. plus an variety of products and accessories that tap into and promote Chinese culture.
Several months ago planned to spend an hour or so interviewing Xie Hua with a few questions about her company and the Chinese fashion industry at large. What I got instead was an amazing history and culture lesson plus a tour of Eve’s headquarters in South West Beijing.
After a long exercise in translation, below are excerpts from my interview with Xie Hua with part two focusing on China Fashion Week to be published next week. Any translation errors are completely my own.
How did you get started in the fashion industry?
When I graduated from university there was no such thing a ‘fashion’ industry in China, there was just a ‘clothing industry’, so obviously a career path in fashion didn’t exist either.. Originally I was a university law teacher, then in1994 I led a student tour to some factories in Guangzhou. The most successful factories were all making clothing and the owners were rich yet hadn’t even graduated from primary school, After that tour, I saw the business opportunity in making clothes and so I quit teaching and started Eve Fashion Group.
How did you grow your business in the early days?
Our first major campaign was in 1999. A lot of advertising companies gave me advice to advertise on TV etc., but I ignored them all. I decided to spend our entire year’s advertising budget in one day which everyone thought was completely crazy.
So on Valentine’s Day I spent the entire budget on gifts and sent them to thousands of men. Back then men tended to only meet women in their work environment, so when they all received valentine’s gifts they freaked out and didn’t know who it was from. Once they opened it the gift they discovered it was from Eve and through this we spread our name and became known in the market.
Later we started giving VIPs gifts such as tea pots and they were so popular that customers would request them and so we became known for our non-fashion products too. Following this we decided to expand into cultural products as well.
Why has fashion and luxury consumption grown so much over the last few years in China?
During the 90s we started to see ‘brands’ emerge in China, but there weren’t any mono-brand stores or flagships like we see today. Everyone just went to department stores with racks upon racks of dodgy mannequins and uninteresting black and grey clothes. People would just feel the clothes or maybe try them on and then buy it and leave. They didn’t know or care what brand it was and there was no ‘shopping experience’ at all.
Then China’s economy started to grow and China became more open to foreign things like fashion. These days Chinese are very conscious of everything they do and always consider what they are eating, wearing, using and watching, etc. Taking advantage of this, many big brands entered the China market, and now many Chinese think nothing of spending tens of thousands of Renminbi on an outfit.
There are now restrictions on buying and trading property and its the same for cars because the government restricts the number of license plates it issues. But if rich people cant buy houses and cars then what else can they spend money on? The government never restricted what individuals can wear so the only thing to spend money on is clothes.
Only a decade or two ago, when you got married it was mandatory to buy a TV for the household, then it was a computer, now the price of one outfit for some people could even by a cheapish car. Some Chinese don’t think price an issue at all, but in many parts of the West this would be over the top.
How can high-end Chinese brands develop and compete with the European houses?
I was once preparing to give a speech at a fashion conference and had a beautiful PPT ready to go, then the speaker before me spoke about his company and brand started by his great, great, great grandfather. Even with beautiful slides, there was no way I could top a story about four generations old brand, so in the end I just spoke about how luxury evolved in China.
Actually, China has an extremely rich history of high-class products and an appetite for luxury. In feudal times people would go and catch pure snow flakes to boil into the highest quality and most sought after tea. This shows that for hundreds of years we were very sophisticated and had refined tastes.
European brands have long histories and they use this partly to justify their high prices. Most Chinese brands can’t boast heritage like this, but they need to develop their own attitude to approach the market.
I’ve heard some people say the reason Europe is more developed in fashion is due to their diligent research of the human anatomy. To this I reply that Chinese have been researching the human body inside and out for thousands of years. Ancient Chinese chairs were designed so people sit in a best position to stimulate the body’s meridians and nourish the flow of chi. Moreover, clothing was deliberately made large so people could move freely and remain relaxed which was optimum for health.
So although Chinese brands like Eve have only been in business for 15 years, we should be able to charge respectable prices because we have thousands of years of research and philosophy imbedded in the designs.
What are the challenges for young fashion designers today?
We have various cooperations with Central St. Martins, Parsons and China Central TV’s Project Runway show that exposes me to a lot of young designers around the world.
In general, I have discovered the most common challenge for them is marketing. Despite graduating from fancy design courses they just don’t understand marketing at all. Therefore, I insist all our designers spend time in the store working on the sales floor to understand why people are buying Inevitably they learn that the reasons people buy are different form what they originally thought.
Also, many designers act like they are artists (so think they don’t need to learn marketing). But artists often don’t care if anyone ever sees their art, they mostly just do for themselves, and if an artist’s work isn’t seen it doesn’t mean he’s not successful.
Fashion designers dream about how many people will wear their clothes, but if their clothes aren’t worn and don’t sell it does mean they aren’t successful. So designers should know their market and although they are creative there are different demands for them and artists.
With China’s booming fashion market is it viable for young graduates/designers to start their own brands?
I don’t recommend these young people try to start their own brand straight away. Fashion theories taught in schools don’t necessarily translate into the real world and only inside the industry can you understand consumer’s habits.
Designers also need to give them self space to design, and not be distracted by all the other tasks running a company requires. A great designer isn’t necessarily a great CEO. Does the designer understand lighting, merchandising and accounting? Unlikely! I know a guy who started a brand and for five years he didn’t go anywhere because he was too busy running around designing and couldn’t manage the business side of things.
So my advice to designers is to get two or three years work experience inside an established fashion a company before starting your own brand. Let the market be your school for a while.
Are there opportunities for foreign fashion designers to work for Chinese brands??
As many more business relationships are being formed between Chinese companies and overseas schools etc. there are growing opportunities to work with Chinese brands. But it’s not easy for foreign designers to find work in China. Even just filling out the working permit forms is a nightmare. Therefore you need to find a Chinese company willing to hire you and help with all of this.
We like to work with foreign designers who have lived in China and can understand the Chinese customer, but are not based in China full time. We like international designers for their brain and creative visions which are better nurtured outside China. To be a full time designer in China its perfectly fine for us to employ Chinese designers