As luxury brands over a century old adapt to the tastes of newer generations, the fastest route to youth culture relevance has been through strategic partnerships with cult streetwear labels many decades their junior. This has been especially true in China, where streetwear-obsessed Millennials and Generation Z shoppers have become a significant focus for luxury labels.

Out of all luxury collaborations with other brands, designers, celebrities or influencers, it was a streetwear label that was the most effective partner for generating social engagement in China, according to the new “Luxury China: Streetwear Insight Report” released by Gartner L2. Rimowa’s much-hyped Off-White partnership in fall 2018 was the luxury collaboration with the highest engagement on China’s Twitter-like Weibo during the report’s May 2018 to March 2019 study period.

The collaboration with Virgil Abloh’s luxury streetwear label also served as the main source of social engagement in China for the 121-year-old luggage maker. Posts featuring the Off-White logo-emblazoned suitcases were responsible for 94 percent of Rimowa’s total Weibo engagement, and the collaboration also generated the highest daily Baidu Index score for the brand from January 2018 through March 2019.

The #offwhiterimowa hashtag received more than 42 million views on Weibo, and the luggage sold out on the brand’s limited-time pop-up store via a Mini Program on China’s top messaging app WeChat. The success of a streetwear collaboration in China wasn’t just a one-off occurrence for Rimowa: the second and third highest Baidu Index spikes on its brand name from the beginning of 2018 through the third quarter of 2019 were the results of its earlier Supreme and Off-White collaborations, respectively.

The global streetwear craze has outsize influence in the China market, where Gen Z and Millennial consumers make 42 percent of luxury purchases. Gartner L2’s report finds that streetwear-related brand search terms have seen double the year-over-year growth of traditional luxury fashion brand terms on China’s largest search engine Baidu.

The savviest luxury streetwear collaborations leverage not only the popularity of global streetwear sensations like Off-White in China, but also the influence of young local celebrities. Rimowa, for example, enlisted some of China’s biggest young celebrities to drive social hype for the Off-White collaboration, with Weibo posts featuring heartthrob Millennial actor Zhu Yilong and members of Gen Z pop idol groups Nine Percent and TFBoys modeling with the suitcases.

A growing number of top global luxury brands are going straight to the Chinese celebrities themselves for streetwear collaborations. Fendi did this in July 2019 with its brand ambassador Jackson Wang, a boy band idol turned hip-hop star known for creating the hit song “Fendiman.” The brand’s Fendi x Jackson Wang capsule streetwear collaboration earned more than 101 million views on its Weibo hashtag thanks to a star-studded promotional concert in China, which was attended and promoted on social media by a wide range of Chinese pop stars and top fashion bloggers.

This collection echoed a 2017 streetwear collaboration between Burberry and hip-hop star Kris Wu, Burberry’s former brand ambassador who has since decamped to become Louis Vuitton’s new brand ambassador after striking up a friendship with Abloh.

In addition to Chinese celebrities, brands are also tapping into the power of local digital streetwear platforms that have captured the attention of China’s Gen Z shoppers. For example, Gartner L2’s report found that 18.6 percent of luxury fashion brands posted promotions in partnership with China’s most popular streetwear platform Yoho! during the study period. Montblanc went a step further with a full-fledged Yoho! product collaboration.

In partnership with both the streetwear platform and Chinese footwear brand Bing Xu, the 113-year-old luxury label launched a youthful flamingo-emblazoned backpack at China’s largest consumer-facing streetwear trade show, the Yoho!-hosted August 2019 Yohood event in Shanghai.

Moncler Palm Angels

Moncler Palm Angels was sold in China on Tmall.  Courtesy

Luxury brands’ focus on China as they pivot to streetwear has coincided with the embrace of novel e-commerce platforms and sales geared toward reaching younger shoppers, which include online versions of the streetwear drop model. Rimowa’s Off-White collaboration, for example, was sold in a pop-up shop via a Mini Program, or app-within-an-app, on China’s top messaging app WeChat. Moncler, meanwhile, turned to Alibaba-owned B2C e-commerce platform Tmall for “drops” of its Genius collection after launching pre-sales of its collaboration with streetwear label Palm Angels on the platform in October 2018.

In an era where international brands are getting caught up left and right in China’s increasingly nationalistic online “cancel culture,” not all streetwear collaborations have been an automatic hit. Nike, for example, pulled its collaboration with Japanese streetwear label Undercover from the China market in June 2019 following founder Jun Takahashi’s public support of ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Valentino, however, offers its own Undercover collaboration for sale on its Chinese site without issue.

In addition to streetwear collaborations, a growing contingent of luxury brands is appointing creative directors with streetwear credentials, and China’s digital platforms have been a key focus for their sales. Burberry, for example, has instituted monthly limited-time drops via WeChat Mini Program of its streetwear-inspired B Series that was introduced as part of the new Tisci era.

Louis Vuitton has offered Mini Program drops of its Virgil Abloh-designed sneakers, including a see-through monogram series dropped on WeChat during Paris Fashion Week. As luxury brands’ streetwear investments have become more permanent, millennial and Gen Z Chinese shoppers — and the apps they’re most active on — are set to become even more important for brands’ global growth.

Liz Flora is editor of APAC Research at Gartner L2.

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