BEIJING — It’s now two years since I opened Brand New China, a store that sells Chinese design. Since then, I have learned a few hard lessons about Chinese taste.
LESSON ONE: No Sex Appeal
In retrospect, we all thought sexy would sell in China, like it does all over the world. Not True. We took a large number of dresses by Simon Wong, a talented designer who was already selling very well at Topshop in the U.K. I still remember two pieces that I particularly liked: a latex body-hugging jumpsuit, and a diagonal-cut strapless dress. Nearly all the young girls tried them on, but only one ended up buying the dress. “Too risqué” was the reason.
So, despite the fact that China is totally into fashion, sex appeal is still not what it might be in the West.
LESSON TWO: Pretty Is Better Than Cool
Content and TBA, which stands for To Be Adored, went on the rack around the same time. Content is a Shanghai label created by an architect. The first season in BNC, the line offered fabric with printed images of the designer’s black-and-white photos of her hometown. Whether by accident or design, the way the photo is distorted when the fabric is cut and sewn together was very cool, very urban chic. I thought it would do very well with the young clientele. I was wrong. People who appreciated Content’s cool urban look were older, in their 40s. A lot of them worked in the media industry. They really went for the whole photo-printed fabric.
TBA, on the other hand, is the very picture of kawayi, the Japanese word for cute. This term is widely used in China as well. TBA’s first line was the Shirley Temple Look, white lace collars with fleshy peach silk fabric. I thought people might find it too old-fashioned. Wrong again. It flew off the rack with the younger crowd.
LESSON THREE: Fabric Matters/Size Does Not
When we first introduced Uma Wang to our customers, I was ready for them to scream about the prices. We trained the salespeople to explain about the fabric the designer imported from Italy. Surprisingly, Chinese customers did not flinch at the price tags, which are almost on par with international brands — a $2,000 dress was not hard to sell.
We were very worried about the variety of sizing in our merchandise. We had European, Japanese and American designs, and very few used Chinese sizing. I was afraid this would confuse customers. Not so. Chinese fashion buyers are so used to shopping abroad that they can find their size, however it’s labeled. The only problem is we didn’t have enough sizes to suit everyone.
LESSON FOUR: Chinese Do Not Want to Dress ‘Chinese’
When we first opened, we had a few designers who specialized in Chinese looks, ranging from Chinese collars to wrapped buttons. We always thought that these items would sell well considering Chinese always dress in ethnic fashions at public events. Not true at all. Adult Chinese and young Chinese stayed away from buying dresses that looked especially Chinese. As one customer told us, “My face already says I am Chinese. I don’t need to say it again with a dress.” Instead, what sold well were Western-styled cocktail dresses. Fan Ran, a designer based in Beijing, specialized in cocktail dresses with intricate details of gathers and folds. I used to go to events and see three or four of her dresses around the room.
These were all surprises to me, as someone who has worked in fashion media for the past 10 years. Particularly the fact that Chinese are still very conservative about exposing lots of flesh, and the fact that price is less of a concern than we originally thought. But the biggest surprise was that Pretty still reigns in the Chinese Look Book.
Nothing can beat Pretty.