Following Part I of my interview with Su Baoyan – President of the China Fashion Association (CFA) that focused on China Fashion Week, in this Part II of the interview, I talk with her about the CFA’s efforts to help develop the fashion industry in China.
Why are Chinese so interested in fashion now?
Its not just not just now, China has been interested in fashion for a long time, but now the economic development level is higher and we have the right conditions for (large scale) fashion consumption.
Editors Note: China has been holding fashion design competitions and Fashion Weeks for at least 20 years, so fashion isn’t new to China at all. It’s just now financially viable for international brands to enter en masse, which is why China is suddenly the hottest fashion market in the world and gaining lots of attention.
How is the Chinese fashion industry developing differently from other countries?
One main difference is how each category developed along its own lines. Womenswear design developed quite early. Menswear spread across the whole country without much variation, but became a huge market. In the last ten years sportswear has grown very quickly. In China brands have tended to stick to one category only, so if I do fashion, I do women’s, you do men’s, or I might do inner wear (lingerie) or maybe kids, but I definitely wont do a whole line of men’s and women’s etc. Generally, no brand would mix the categories.
Also, brands expand across the country in unique ways. Some brands may start in a second tier city and then spread to a third tier city. By that time they may have a few hundred stores, and only then will they be known well enough to open in Beijing and Shanghai. (This is the reverse of major brands around the world that tend to start in the big cities first and then spread out to smaller ones).
International brands have gained popularity very quickly, but Chinese brands still need time, what influence do you have to help the industry grow evenly?
This is a big issue we are facing now and it’s not a level playing field. As China became open and welcomed foreign brands everyone started to come in. Then Chinese people started to like foreign brands more, but this was to the expense of Chinese brands. Its fine to like foreign brands, but to shy away from Chinese brands all of the time isn’t appropriate so we need to address this issue to have balanced international and domestic brand development. Because China started with mass-market brands we couldn’t reach the sophisticated level of design and quality that international brands employ. But now brands like NE Tiger, White Collar etc. are coming up and have achieved this level of sophistication.
Moreover, the media also portrays the international brands in a better light and gives them a better reputation. For advertising revenue, the magazines aggressively pursue foreign brands. This is distorting the image between Chinese and international brands. The industry isn’t doing this! It’s the media! We need to get the media to also promote the Chinese brands in an even way. We aren’t saying that international brands aren’t good, we are very open to them. We opened the country (for business) and we opened our minds, but we don’t want to ignore our own designers.
How do you work with individual cities in China to promote fashion?
We are involved in different initiatives with the cities. In 2004 we worked with Shanghai City Government to create the Shanghai Fashion Hub (now called D park Shanghai), where young designers could set up their studios and showrooms. This was a big success and so the Beijing Government asked us to create a similar area in Beijing. So we created D Park Beijing in the 798 Art District and this is now where China Fashion Week is held and many major international brands hold their events and exhibitions.
A big issue now is the development of new malls and retail zones, is the CFA involved in this type of city planning?
The Beijing City Government is responsible for new real estate developments and retail area planning. We don’t create the plan, but are consulted and give our opinion as to which areas could be promoted and will work best for shopping malls and shopping streets etc. We also consult with each local district within the city about their plans and retail. Although there are main retail areas developing around Xidan, Wangfujing and Guomao, Beijing is too big to just have a few concentrated shopping areas, so we are involved in future planning.
Beijing is a strange city for retail. One mall can be very successful, but the other side of the road is completely dead. People who live in West Beijing will travel East, but not the other way around. Part of this comes down to parking and bad traffic flow with one-way streets and restrictions on turning left/right etc. This is especially a problem for high-end consumers, who’s time is very precious and don’t have all day to waste in Beijing’s already horrible traffic.
In five years time, what will be driving the fashion industry in China?
Fashion will develop according to different people and regions. China’s fashion tastes vary greatly from city to city, especially for women’s wear. Long winters with no color in the North means that women like colorful clothes to have color in their life, but in the South they need more neutral tones and the clothes are cleaner and softer. The North West is the resource rich for minerals and mining so this affects what people can wear in big industrial cities too.
Editors Note: Mining and industrial cities are often extremely wealthy and spend a lot on luxury goods, but they are also very dirty and so dark clothes are the mainstay of everyone’s wardrobe.