SHANGHAI—Street-style star Fil Xiaobai — real name Yan Sushi — got her start as a university student in the Western city of Chengdu by posting pictures of herself, complete with tattoos and multicolored hairstyles, on China’s top micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo.
Today, at age 27, Fil boasts more than 1.15 million “fans,” on that platform and, even though it’s blocked in China, has also started posting to Instagram, where she has 75,000 followers.
In 2012, Fil got her big break, winning a street style competition hosted by a Chinese television show that sent her to report from Paris Fashion Week as part of her prize. Since then, Fil has continued to leverage her street style into a multipronged career as a stylist for pop star and actor Kris Wu, as well as television shows such as China’s “Next Top Model.” Last year she was also appointed fashion director of Yoho! Girl magazine.
Her standing with a young and urban population of fashion fanatics in China has also made her a popular brand partner for luxury labels looking for an extra edge with Chinese Millennials — a rising generation with disposable income much higher than their predecessors and a digitally native outlook that makes them more disposed to discovering brands via social media.
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Fil has collaborated with international labels such as Chanel, Mulberry and Dolce & Gabbana, as well as many domestic Chinese brands. Although she doesn’t have as many followers as some other influencers — known as key opinion leaders or KOLs in China — brands have begun seeking her out because of the air of authenticity that accompanies her personal style.
Over lunch at a restaurant in Shanghai’s major retail thoroughfare, West Nanjing Road, Fil told WWD about her love of shopping, the problems with KOL culture in China and the importance of what she calls “high quality followers.”
WWD: How did you get your start?
Fil Xiaobai: I started on Weibo in 2009, which was very early. I just posted about my daily life. At that time, no one else was doing street style at all. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just wanted to share my looks. After graduating in 2012 I moved to Beijing, then I started posting for some brands and they paid me.
WWD: You are from Chengdu, which is known for being a laid-back place where people love spicy food. How have you adjusted to life in the capital?
F.X.: This is my fifth year living in Beijing and now I feel more grown up, more like I know about fashion. The fashion industry in China is so weird, and fashion in China is totally different from anywhere else. It’s only starting — it has a 30-year history.
WWD: A lot of other Chinese influencers have migrated to other platforms, like WeChat, but you have stayed primarily on Weibo. What do you like about it as a platform?
F.X.: I like Weibo because it’s easy, and I am a lazy person. I don’t want to talk or write that much, I just want to post pictures, so Weibo is good for that.
WWD: Is there such a thing as oversharing on social media, do you think?
F.X.: I don’t share much. I post my work, cover shoots for Yoho! Girl, the celebrities I have styled, my own street style, but I don’t share my thinking. I don’t share my thoughts about politics or anything because people will judge you and someone will be upset. It’s so hard, especially in China.
WWD: Who else do you follow on Weibo?
F.X.: On Weibo I follow some stylists and the celebrities I style for, but not that many. I don’t think there are many good influencers in China.
WWD: But there certainly are a lot of people who are described as influencers, or KOLs, in China.
F.X.: It’s so easy to earn money in China as a so-called “fashion KOL” because the brands — local brands, luxury brands, and the PR agencies — they just want to do something, they don’t care about doing something good.
Brands don’t know who is who or what they do in China. A lot of people buy followers on Weibo and it’s hard for brands to work out what is authentic. If brands and agencies are too focused on KPIs [key performance indicators], that will mean they are getting quantity and not quality.
WWD: What sets you apart, do you think?
F.X.: My followers are very loyal to me. They are really fashion people; normal people don’t know me or what I am doing. Fashion lovers who know something about fashion and are seeking specific information and influence are the ones who find me and follow me.
I’m a customer first, then an influencer and stylist. You have to spend money, shop around, feel the design and quality to develop your own taste and point of view.
WWD: It’s interesting you think being a consumer is so vital. When do you have time to shop?
F.X.: I love shopping. No matter where I go, the first thing I do is to go to the best concept store in the city and go shopping. When you go shopping you can get a feel for the fashion of the city; it’s a good way to get to know a new city.
WWD: You have worked with quite a few brands. How do you decide which collaborations to get involved with?
F.X.: If a brand approaches me, I will talk with them and decide whether it’s good for me or not. Fashion in China is just growing up; a lot of people aren’t professional and don’t know what they are doing.
I only work with brands I like. Some brands have approached me, but I am not their target and I tell them that. I don’t care about money, if it’s not suitable for me.
WWD: How do you describe your personal style?
F.X.: I think I’m still finding my own style. I don’t like dresses and skirts; I don’t want to be a pretty girl. Now, my followers recognize a “Fil style,” which often means sportswear mixed with luxury. [Fil is eating lunch wearing an oversized camouflage print parka over jeans and fur-lined Gucci loafers.]
WWD: What are some of your favorite brands?
F.X.: Louis Vuitton, since they have changed the designer, I am a big fan. At Gucci, Alessandro [Michele] is doing a really good job and building a new aesthetic. Also, Vetements, I don’t know another brand that has influenced today’s style so much around the world.
WWD: As fashion in China is just developing, do you think you have a role as an educator, to help young people learn about personal style?
F.X.: I want to tell my followers to know themselves. If your legs are short, your shoulders are narrow or you have a big head – then dress to your advantage and if you do that you will look more fashionable.