Dominic Johnson-Hill is not your everyday entrepreneur, but as Creative Dictator of Plastered T-shirts, a company he founded in Beijing in 2006 and with stores in Beijing and Shanghai his is an intriguing success story. With annual revenues around USD one million per year and a regular face on Chinese TV Dominic is the kind of guy who will send pizzas to magazine editors and print his own phone number on a T-shirt he then wears on TV in front of millions of people. The Maosuit recently sat down with Dominic and quizzed him about Plastered T-shirts and the fashion business sin China.
Why did you start Plastered T-shirts? Was it because you identified a business opportunity or a niche in the market?
No. I started Plastered purely out of passion. I love T-shirts and had bought them all over the world. Sure I saw there was an opportunity because there was no real T-shirt brand in Beijing, but I just winged it really. The first idea for a T-shirt came from seeing the crappy “I climbed the great wall T-shirts” and so I remixed one of these T-shirts and put a sexy bikini clad girl onto it.
How would you define Plastered? Is it a fashion brand, lifestyle brand, souvenir brand?
I’m not great at defining the brand as where it belongs in the industry. I hate the expression lifestyle brand and for some reason it makes me makes me want to throw up. You could say Plastered is a streetwear brand, or the way I see the company is as a marketing business that sells cool artwork that just happens to be on T-shirts.
Was there immediate success?
No. I was profitable from the beginning, but it wasn’t a lot of money. Around the end of 2006 I realized I had turned over USD 60,000 in December alone and so I quit my job as a Manager for an English School company and put all my effort into Plastered. I threw myself into what I was passionate about and what came naturally, which was marketing, design, PR and branding. Then after one year or so I got my first media interview and that’s when I started to pick up Chinese customers. Now 80-90% of customers are Chinese.
You have used some unconventional marketing techniques. Can you tell us about these?
It’s been gorilla marketing all the way for me! I never had the interest to buy a print advertisement. I always just wanted to shock and make people laugh by doing interesting things that I would enjoy. It was about continuing on that path and doing things I was passionate about.
I started with a sticker campaign and used Chinese and English swear words, I gave T-shirts the local nutters and colourful characters in the neighborhood and soon people stared to ask them where they got the T-shirts from. I did the first ever fashion show in a hutong (small neighborhood alley), which was very stressful and difficult, but we had 150 people including many top magazine editors come to it. To get the media to come I researched all the magazine editors online and then sent them tailored gifts like pizzas and then followed up with phone calls to charm them into coming.
We also teamed up with rock bands and provided them with T-shirts and then held a big rock show with over 1500 people turning up. We do lots of in-store activities, performances in the stores and getting involved in the local community. Our shop staff are all old ladies from the neighborhood which gives the brand a community type feel. That’s why Plastered is so special.
You regularly appear on Chinese TV. How did that happen?
I realized the media was asking more questions about me then the brand and so I decided to build my character and persona and become the brand ambassador so to speak. I became the perfect story for Chinese media and everyone wanted to write about the foreigner who created a successful business by showing the side of Beijing and China he loved. I ended up on all the Chinese TV stations, chat shows and documentaries etc. Now if you, Google or Baidu (Chinese search engine) my Chinese name I get more hits than Plastered does.
Do you think Chinese symbols, iconic images and designs will become more mainstream?
As I was building the brand I got to a point where I asked myself, “If I opened Plastered in London would I do it with designs from England or keep it with the Chinese images?” I decided I would always keep it Chinese. I’d rather be the guy who takes cool, contemporary, retro and sexy China overseas because no one has done that successfully.
There is massive potential and everyone perceives china very differently now. Regardless of whether people see China as a threat or a superpower it still generates interest, and if you can create cool images that are latched onto that then it’s very powerful. So I have a lot of hope that I can take these images and sell them overseas.
Do Chinese designers need to spend time overseas before they can become world class?
To keep art pure you don’t. I’ve bought art work from a guy in small town near Nanjing who has never left there. He’s just very creative and has own view on life. Perhaps with designing clothes its different, but I don’t think you have to have international experience to design great images.
Certainly designers I work with who have studied overseas have a more creative outlook on life because they escaped the horrible Chinese education system ,which is really tortuous. It’s very hard to think creatively when you have to study 12 hours a day and do four hours of homework. You almost have to be dysfunctional and lazy and let your mind be idle to let the creativeness come out. Certainly designers I work with who have studied overseas have a more creative outlook on life because they escaped the Chinese education system.
Five years ago we had difficulty finding Chinese designers, now you can see some kids born in the 80s and 90s dropping out of university and starting design companies. So its happening, but China will take time to get develop lots of good designers.
In the last five years how has the fashion sense of young Chinese changed?
I’ve been in China for 18 years and through the 90s I watched all the rich kids getting into luxury brands and designer labels. During the 2000’s the young Chinese started to look inside China and want their own identity and buy their own brands. Wearing Chinese retro was weird at first, but then it came popular and this coincided with the government declaring 30 years economic development. Everyone started looking back on the last 30 years of products and retro became very popular. Overall the younger generations in the cities are being much more experimental in their fashion these days.
Do you have any tips for doing business in China?
Never stop creating new marketing ideas and designs etc. because you get gobbled up so quickly in this market. I went from an initial investment of USD 5000 to annual revenues of USD one million in two and a half years but I could have lost it all the next year if I hadn’t continued to create and market the brand. No one respects your idea, your IP or your creativity and they will copy you outright! So my advice is to continually create new ideas and execute them quickly. That’s where my power in staying ahead of the game lies to stay ahead of game.
The other thing would be to know the culture, because it really is another planet here. Learning the language and knowing the culture is a huge advantage
You began plastered when there was little competition. Is there still room to start a fashion brand similar to Plastered?
Oh yeah! There is very little competition. There are lots of copycat shops but hardly any proper competition from brands that do anything big or significant. So there’s a huge amount for room for someone to come in and do something creative.
Several times you’ve been approached to franchise the business yet you’ve chosen not to, why?
I don’t really understand this and it just isn’t my mindset. I might take some investment money to scale up the business, but not to franchise it to other people. I’m in favor of keeping Plastered small and strong. My dream is to have four or five stores around China that can replicate the same experience as plastered in Beijing and Shanghai and that’s enough for me. I can’t envisage 1000 stores. I want to keep it within my control and stay passionate about the business.
What does the future hold for you and Plastered T-shirts?
Lately in the Beijing store I’ve been putting SOPs and KPIs into place plus documenting everything we do. So now I have a manual for running the business and I can replicate our operating systems in other stores. This year I want to open two more stores in second tier cities. If these are successful and create media attention, then I may do another round of investment and grow to ten or so stores and then maybe look to being acquired. I don’t think we are ever an IPO company, so if I want to exit the business the only option is an acquisition.
What is the best legal structure for a small brand like Plastered in China?
I have a BVI (British Virgin Islands company as the holding company) in Hong Kong and an I have a Foreign Invested Corporate Entity (FICE) in China which means I can operate a textiles business and open more stores without having to open a Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprise (WOFE). I’ve actually divided the company into two, one for Plastered T-shirts and one for all of our IP such as the designs we create and buy.
I opened the first store by doing a deal with the landlord, he had the license and I had the product. In China, unless you have high levels of investment, you can start a business without the proper legal entity to begin with and no one will care. First you can get started and make some money then get your proper business structure set up.
Thanks to Dominic for taking the time to speak to us, and for providing many of the images used.
Directions to Plastered’s Store can be found here.