SHANGHAI — As Champagne glasses clinked and heads of industry assembled at The Woolmark Co.’s gala in October to celebrate 50 years of trade with China, six of the country’s most successful designers presented their capsule collections made with Australian merino wool. During the event, the designers were periodically called for press photos, interviews and business introductions, yet between these obligations, they gravitated back to one another, sharing pats on the back, chats and inside jokes.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that in the emerging pool of contemporary Chinese designers, there is camaraderie and familiarity among the biggest players. The kinship could also be down to the fact that many of them have studied at the same overseas colleges, shared the same manufacturers and suppliers, and worked in the same studios as their careers advanced.
Although many of these successful young Chinese designers studied their craft overseas — this cohort particularly favoring Central Saint Martins in London, many are now returning home to China to set up or promote their labels as the market in their homeland matures.
There is a mix of reasons why this moment in time offers a unique and exciting opportunity for Chinese designers to return home. As the nation’s economy continues to grow, albeit at a slower pace, disposable income remains on the rise and consumer tastes are maturing, favoring sustainability, innovation, design and locally produced products.
Nowadays, many of the top 50 brands in China, such as Huawei, Xiaomi and Alibaba, are global names purchased by consumers around the world, which has improved their perceived value at home. “That sort of influence on Chinese consumers has been a prime factor and they are saying, ‘We are very happy to accept local brands. Not just happy with it, but actively choosing it on the basis that it is Chinese,’” said Bernhard Wessels, managing director at Kantar Retail North Asia.
“If you look at the design space and the art space, and even the rise of some luxury Chinese brands, they have certainly built enough credibility to really compete with Western brands, and that will continue to grow. In the art space, there is so much happening in China that consumers will — over time — step away from the idea that local is worse and foreign is better,” Wessels said.
It is not only Chinese consumers who are maturing. As the economy develops, and manufacturers climb the value chain, many are investing in technology, innovation and creativity to stay competitive. Textile producers are supporting local design talent in different ways, such as incubating young designers, lowering the minimum quantities for samples, and sharing technical know-how with domestic fashion colleges.
“I think, especially over these two years, [China] has changed a lot on the manufacturing side. Before, the factories were based on quantities and it was about how to get that productivity there. But I think in these two years it has changed to innovations, new techniques and new creations,” said Chen Xuzhi, who graduated from Central Saint Martins and founded his label, Xu Zhi, in 2015. Xu Zhi has stockists in China, other parts of Asia, the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“With the factories’ productivity and efficiency, [materials] can be at a really affordable price point. So that has offered new designers like us, and young brands like us, many more options. You get a very luxurious fabric with a very competitive price point. That is the real change and you can see that more and more rapidly these two years,” Chen said.
Although Chen graduated only three years ago, he — along with many of his peers — are leaving their mark on the fashion industry at home and abroad. “I do feel like we moved together to London, or to Europe, or to one of those established fashion cities just to get an education, but all of us seem to be slowly moving back,” he said.
Chen is based in London and has offices in both London and Shanghai, but he is considering moving back to his home country permanently. “The suppliers and the manufacturing side are becoming more and more supportive. It makes the producing side a lot easier. Then the market is getting bigger and bigger and the customer is now getting more and more sophisticated. But they are also helping the brands by supporting Chinese brands, and Chinese young brands, in contrast to big brands overseas. So I think with this combination, it is definitely the combination that drives everybody to see themselves here,” he said.
Uma Wang also studied at Central Saint Martins and founded her label in 2009. The company has 88 stockists across China, other countries in Asia, Europe, the U.S., Canada, Russia, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand. She laments the fact that there weren’t as many opportunities in China when she was starting out in the industry.
“I think we have the best opportunity right now since I started my brand 10 years ago. At that time, it was very quiet. The industry and the media, they didn’t really have many designers to support,” Wang said.
“Now the market, the world and the media, everyone is looking for what is happening in China. For me, I am so jealous about that because when I started there was nothing really exciting. Firstly, there are a lot of talents, more than before because they really had a lot of experience about fashion in London Central Saint Martins or somewhere else. [They have] more of a view of fashion than when I was young. Also, [they have] opportunities and big competitions. I had much less,” Wang said.
Many large Chinese companies involved in apparel production are helping bolster the domestic design industry by working with students to develop local talent. “We strongly support young, local designers because we need them. We have a good program that we started in 2015 called Knit for Next. It’s a young designer competition. We share our forecast fashion colors and trends for knitting stitches to students in every [fashion] college in China,” said Zhou Xiaotian, vice chairman of Zhejiang Xinao Textiles, one of the country’s leading spinners.
It isn’t only the textile industry that is supporting and fueling growth in designer fashion. Government policy is also helping as it looks to develop the burgeoning design industry to further secure the future of an already well-established garment sector.
Min Liu graduated from the London College of Fashion in 2007 and founded her signature label, Ms Min, in 2009. The designer has stockists in China, Lebanon, the U.S. and Australia. Min benefited from government subsidies on her rent when she moved into bigger premises four years ago, which she claims contributed to the growth of her business.
She agrees that right now is a very exciting moment for young designers in the country, but more could still be done. “All kind of platforms are encouraging Chinese designers, but I do think, technical-wise, like the manufacturing industry, like garment manufacturers and fabric manufacturers, I think we need a lot more support. I think only when they are putting more focus on the creativity, and support creativity, will it enhance each other,” Min said. “I just think that part really needs to be supported, but I can feel the change.”
Angel Chen, who is China’s International Woolmark Prize finalist, also studied at Central Saint Martins and graduated in 2014, when she founded her label. After interning for brands including Alexander Wang in New York, Chen initially did not have her sights set on returning to China or on starting her own brand. But this changed after inviting Tasha Liu, who at that time was cofounder of multibrand boutique Dong Liang, which focused on Chinese labels, to her graduate collection show. After three days of discussion, Chen was persuaded by Liu that it was time to return to China. Angel Chen has 70 stockists in China, other parts of Asia, the U.S. and countries in Europe. Although the designer declined to share sales figures, she told WWD that revenues increase every season by 60 percent.
Dong Liang already worked to promote emerging Chinese designers domestically and internationally, but in 2016 Liu also founded Labelhood. Running in conjunction with Shanghai Fashion Week, the platform aims to showcase young local design talent and integrate them into the city’s international and commercial fashion week.
“When young designers graduate, the China market is providing the most welcoming buyers, press and consumers, which can make their business survive and develop. The big consumer market is upgrading. People would like to see more exciting, new and related things happen here,” Liu said. “The resources here are getting more and more mature, [along with] showcasing platform, p.r.s, trade shows, showrooms, multibrand shops and e-commerce channels. The ecosystem makes supply and demand work together more efficiently compared with five to 10 years ago, which is helping new labels enter the market with more affordable costs.”
Chen has, by her own account, benefited from being incubated by one of the leading manufacturing groups in China, Chenfeng, which she joined in 2017. The manufacturer offered the designer, and many of her contemporaries, work space in one of its factories in Suzhou, just outside Shanghai, and free range over production facilities to produce their collections. “They are not only supporting us, but other young designers, including Xu Zhi, Feng Chen Wang, Haizhen Wang and many others with their manufacturing, sample making, pattern cutting and even for fabric resource. Some of the designers they maybe even support with sponsorship,” Chen said.
The symbiotic relationship between young Chinese designers and local manufacturers is crucial as designers look to develop international brands in previously uncharted territory and manufacturers seek new competitive advantages in a market where they might once have competed on price.
“The first year, the manufacturing technicians were still not ready for designers’ product. They had basically been producing product for Uniqlo, or those types of brands. They were not used to designers’ products; complicated, special, with lots of detail and very important — with the finishing. So designers have definitely shaped their technique. They got to practice and hire more technicians with the specialties,” Chen said.
The designer that she is very close to a lot of the other Central Saint Martins graduates who moved back to China after their studies, and they often share information with each other, from manufacturing to sales and payment terms to logistics. “We have a WeChat group chat, but also when there are very specific things, we call each other all the time,” she said.
These personal bonds run deep, with the group of Chinese Central Saint Martins graduates even going on holiday to Gibraltar and Morocco together.
“We just had a drink. There were 12 people, including me, Yang Yang from the Lawn, Dido from Deepmoss, Billy from Oude Waag, Li Jun from Junli, and Min Mao from Ming Mao. What is extremely funny is that all of us started our own brand,” Chen said.
As the pool of internationally recognized Chinese design talent continues to grow, retailers are keen to stock mainland Chinese stores with local talent. “We have evolved our buying to reflect the increase and diversity of Chinese designers; as most of these rising talents are young graduates starting their labels. With the growing level of design sophistication and quality, this new generation of Chinese designers has been challenging the perception of China as a manufacturer and helped establish China as a fashion design powerhouse,” said Kelly Wong, fashion director at Lane Crawford.
The retailer has expanded its offering of local design talent as Chinese consumers’ attitudes have shifted, according to Wong. “They have genuine interest in supporting and are willing to champion local talents, which inspired us to launch ‘Created in China’ back in 2013 when we opened our store in Shanghai. Since then, we have grown our Chinese designer portfolio from three brands to close to 30 brands in 2018.”
This first wave of returning Chinese design talent has already started to create a community and a solid foundation of suppliers, garment manufacturers, sponsors and other networks. That growing ecosystem will be key as these designers help push “brand China” from “Made in China” to “Created in China.”