BEIJING — Wan Li admits that he needs some fashion help. Sitting in his office wearing a black belt and brown shoes, the otherwise smartly dressed civil aviation lawyer realized he needed to up his sartorial game when he met a group of British lawyers last year.
“I realized what a lawyer who was properly dressed should look like,” said the 27-year-old. “I decided I needed to make some changes.”
This story first appeared in the October 23, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Wan sought the help of an image consultant through a firm called Principle M. Together, they discussed his desire to dress in a way that would impress his clients.
After looking over photos on Pinterest to agree on a look, they settled on a light gray, two-button made-to-measure suit. The consultant also helped him purchase ties and pocket squares to accessorize his look.
Wan is among a growing number of Chinese who are seeking professional help to dress and look better. The image consultants, who are partly fashion gurus and partly salespeople, dish advice to help sell their company’s made-to-measure clothing. Their male and female clients are predominantly lawyers, financial professionals and businesspeople — those who can afford the clothes and workshops that can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.
“Normal Chinese companies have this uniform, and it’s a very boxy suit. Most of them are black or charcoal, they’re very big and sloppy,” said Elsa Zheng, an image consultant at Principle M. “Some of them even get married in that suit. So for me, it’s really easy for me to improve their image because the starting point is really not [good].”
Justin Kwan, cofounder of Principle M, said his customers are eager for guidance.
“They don’t even know what a black-tie event means. So they’re actually quite excited about learning about that from us,” he said.
In Beijing, two-year-old Principle M and the decade-old Melly International represent the extreme ends of the spectrum in the nascent image-consulting industry. Principle M counts roughly 100 clients and skews toward young professional men. Melly International has 3,000 clients of both genders, and they tend to be older professionals, often in leadership roles.
Principle M’s clientele is generally upper-middle-class, with many working in law or finance. Its made-to-measure suits start at 5,800 renminbi, or $943, for those made of Italian Dino Filarte wool. Those sourced from Vitale Barberis Canonico and British mill Scabal cost more. The company is considering expanding beyond these three primary suppliers to other British producers and also to fabrics such as tweed.
The company makes money on custom clothing, and the consulting service is seen as added value, Kwan said.
Melly International, founded in 2004, has more than 3,000 clients, said founder Wang Xiaocan, and its seven-page intake form records everything from physical measurements and professional details to hobbies and family life.
Meeting with a consultant is free — Chinese would find up-front consultation fees hard to accept, Wang said. The company’s consultants spend anywhere from six months to as much as four years on each client and customers pay for training sessions on, for example, how to style their hair and how to dress. The company will custom produce clothes for the client from its in-house design and tailoring staff, and depending on a particular need, will also teach them how to act and speak in professional settings to project a certain image.
Among the firm’s first clients were people working for the national state-owned broadcaster CCTV, Wang said. The firm has since expanded to high-powered professionals across most fields from artists to finance types, with lawyers also making up a large contingent. Clients will usually spend from 3,000 to 30,000 renminbi, or $488 to $4,878, for the clothes and services.
A high proportion of clients return to the company repeatedly for new clothing, she said. The company goes so far as to save certain fabrics for years in case clients want to produce similar garments or make repairs. Melly uses a range of more than a dozen imported fabrics for its men’s suits, including those from British mills Hield and Charles Clayton and Italian mills Marzotto and Reda. Silk and other fabrics used in Chinese-style formalwear are made in traditional centers of production in Suzhou and Hangzhou.
New clients must often wait three months for their initial appointment because of high demand, Wang said.
While Wang feels her company has gained market recognition, she and Kwan acknowledge that expansion is a gradual process. They both rely almost solely on word-of-mouth referrals. Melly has never done any formal promotion, while Principle M does some limited promotion via the mobile application WeChat. When it does, the emphasis is on promoting workshops and other events to get potential clients in the door.
Michel Phan, an associate professor of luxury marketing at Emlyon Business School in Shanghai, said retailers and malls should consider adding image-consulting services to breed customer loyalty and distinguish themselves in a crowded market. Galeries Lafayette brought such services to the mainland when it opened a location in Beijing last year.
“They have similar brands, if not the same brands, in every mall, so what makes a consumer go to one mall versus another besides the fact that it’s close to their home or work,” Phan asked. “To offer image-consultant service could be an interesting value added to the malls.”