Neiwai co-founder Xiaolu Liu, model Du Juan and co-founder Jiang Li at the brand's sixth anniversary celebration in Shanghai.

SHANGHAI — Neiwai, the homegrown Shanghainese lingerie brand, took over the event space in the city’s new TaiKoo Hui shopping mall last week for its sixth anniversary art show.

The show space was divided into six separate rooms, as inspired by the Franz Kafka quote, “Everyone carries a room about inside him.” Actors from Shanghai’s Sleep No More theater production choreographed a dance sequence around the six different living spaces, which were bathed in muted lighting and neutral tones, as a prelude to the fashion show. The rooms were intended to convey different emotions and reflect one’s inner self.

Featuring not only lingerie but also items from the new loungewear and men’s wear collections, the fall fashion show also acted as the eagerly anticipated return to the runway by Chinese model Du Juan, after an absence of seven years. Ahead of the fashion show, Du was excited to get back out there. “The show is very special because it is more about a lifestyle. You have the six different rooms, and they are showing it in a more artistic way. They are special and different,” she said.

Neiwai appointed Du as a brand ambassador this year, creating a line of 500 pieces inspired by the model including lingerie, pajamas and sleeping masks in distinctive patterns and high-end fabrics.

“The new generation of Chinese women are independent,” Du said. “They have their own standards and they want to take care of themselves inside and out, which is what the brand name stands for. Neiwai is not just a lingerie brand; it’s more a new type of lifestyle and a new type of attitude for the new generation of Chinese women. When you wear their products, you know that they have a very strong design foundation, but it is always very comfortable.”

Du Juan in one of her own designs for Neiwai.

Du Juan in one of her own designs for Neiwai.  Courtesy

Neiwai, which means “inside outside” in Mandarin, was founded in 2012 by Xiaolu Liu and her husband Jiang Li after the couple returned home to Shanghai from the U.S. They began by creating high-quality, wireless bras that were comfortable yet stylish and selling them online. They have now developed into an online and off-line lifestyle retailer, carrying ready-to-wear, sportswear and undergarments for men and women. The brand’s sales target for this year is $100 million.

Li believes that he and his wife are witnessing a paradigm shift in the consumer market, with a rising middle class and increasing brand awareness. “In the past two decades, when it comes to the Chinese market, people think about low quality without a defined awareness, but now everything is very different. A lot of young people either get an education abroad or are well-traveled, so they are much more sophisticated in terms of tastes and what they want,” he said.

“We were created at the beginning of this era and we started off as an online brand at a time when nobody believed you could build a high-end online brand. Everybody believed you could only do low-price, low-margin stuff and build on volume instead of quality. But we believed that there are consumers like us who, instead of just the cheap stuff, wanted something high quality and more design. This is a fundamental belief we had when we started the brand,” Li said.

Neiwai now operates six stores in mainland China, and plans to open 40 units by the end of the year in high-end shopping centers in top-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Nanjing.

Although the company is opening stores on the urban, east coast of the country, sales data show that 35 percent of the brand’s consumers are from third- and fourth-tier cities, normally found inland, a rising demographic that cannot be overlooked.

Rather than going directly to the lower tier cities on its own, Neiwai’s domestic expansion plan involves clustering with other luxury retailers, a move typical for most high-end brands in the country. “Now we see there are a lot of newly designed shopping centers opening up, firstly, in top-tier cities, but now they are gradually coming down to tier three cities or tier four cities, so we will go with them because, in China, the shopping mall business is dominated by a few big names,” Li said. “Once they decide to open up new stores in those lower tier cities, the best shopping center in the whole city, we will have a lot of confidence that it will be a very successful store.”

The couple also have plans to expand their brand into the children’s wear market and develop an off-line presence overseas. “In terms of global expansion, we are looking to new markets especially in North America, South East Asia and also Europe. In Europe, we are going to have our exhibition in July in the Interfiliere Paris,” Li said. “We are also looking to open up bricks-and-mortar stores in the U.S., probably in New York first because I was living there for 10 years.”

Neiwai markets itself on being a local company designing products for Chinese body types. “We actually help a lot of females with small breasts in China feel more confident and comfortable and that is very important because in China around like 60 percent are A cup or B cup. They were very not that confident about their bodies before as they couldn’t find any comfortable bras which fit them,” Liu said.

“We would like to instill more self-confidence in Chinese girls because it used to be that everyone had that cover girl from the Westernized magazine and think that’s the perfect body. But Chinese girls, most of them don’t look like that, that’s defined by genes, so what we’re telling them is that’s one kind of beauty but there are other kinds of beauty,” Li said.

The couple’s core concept of comfort and design propelled the brand to be one of the highest visited shops on Tmall and the eighth bestseller in last year’s Singles Day sale in the underwear category.

Neiwai’s chic, understated sixth anniversary art and fashion show was in stark contrast to the brash Victoria Secret Shanghai fashion show, which was held in China for the first time at the end of last year. Leading some to wonder if international lingerie retailers are missing the mark in the country.

“I think, with all fairness, even within Victoria Secret, they see the tide has turned. It’s not like they don’t know it. They are just too big to steer the ship and change the direction. They have a line of bralettes, which are very successful actually, but they have other traditional stuff,” Li said. “We notice this pattern in China especially, and actually also in other countries: domestic brands almost always win when there are choices because, all things considered, customers actually would like to believe domestic brands know their body better, and actually we do. We can provide them with the best fitting product.”

Neiwai will not forget its competitive advantage when entering the foreign marketplace, however, choosing to initially target segments they are already familiar with. “The U.S. has many different races. To begin with, we will target Asians and Caucasians with similar figure types. In the long run, we will set up design studios locally to compete with local brands,” the couple said.

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