LONDON — London-based Chinese designers are getting more attention than ever before due to China’s rising fashion influence — and spending power. But even as their status in the industry grows, these designers remain caught between East and West and their businesses face multiple challenges.
Xiao Li, Steven Tai and Minki have all decided to take a break from the fall 2019 runway and recalibrate. Those who remain on the calendar — such as Jamie Wei Huang, Ryan Lo, Xu Zhi, Yuhan Wang and i-am-chen — are making changes to their brands in order to maintain growth in a difficult market.
LVMH Prize nominee Xiao Li said she needs time to reshape her product development, bring back the innovative spirit and expand her studio in Qingdao, China. Known for innovative yarns and textures, the Royal College of Art alumna won the Loro Piana award for best knitwear collection and the International Talent Support Diesel Award with her graduate collection. Her brand is stocked in more than 30 stores worldwide, including Dover Street Market, Totokaelo and Lane Crawford.
“For the last two years, we were constantly overloaded. Now I just want to focus on the product development and to slow down so that I can bring back the innovative aspect of the brand I started with five years ago,” said Li, adding that she is re-positioning the brand and has stopped doing pre-collections. Instead, she plans to produce two “strong and innovative main collections.”
Macau-born Steven Tai said he will use his fashion week budget to launch an e-commerce business. “I have always wanted to develop the e-commerce side of the brand, and this season I wanted to focus on recreating our digital presence and think about how we communicate the brand through the digital sphere,” said Tai, whose intellectual and quirky fuss-free aesthetic has attracted a cult following in Asia.
This season’s story, he said, will be told through the brand’s new e-commerce site. “And I think that is something quite exciting. This is more beneficial for the brand in the long term. I am still doing a look book and a Paris showroom, and my recurring clients will still buy,” he added.
Minki Cheng has also been questioning the value of doing a show. “I am not quite sure what shows generate for us. I think it works for big luxury brands because of the impeccable experiences they can create. On the contrary, we need relatable images for social media as show pictures look very distant to our audience.”
Cheng, like many other emerging talents, is also under financial pressure. “As we do pre-collections, the expected yearly cycle would be six showrooms: four in Paris, two in Shanghai and two London shows for us. The cost is simply too high, and resources are not being used in the most efficient manner. So, we decided to cut down two of the Paris showrooms, making it four showrooms spread evenly throughout the year,” he said. The brand is also skipping London Fashion Week for fall/winter 2019.
It’s a challenging time for contemporary designer brands as well, especially when half of the business comes from Asia. China-born Taiwanese designer Jamie Wei Huang said that while China may be considered the most “vivid fashion market in the world,” contemporary brands are not getting the attention they deserve in the region.
“The Chinese either love streetwear or luxury. There is not much room for contemporary designers. So we adjusted the design, the fabrication and the price to fit into the China market,” the designer said.
Huang, who started her brand in 2013 in London, also plans to launch an affordable athleisure line later this year, with a focus on the Asian market.
Even when a Chinese brand is doing well, it’s rare that it can flourish simultaneously in the East and the West. “It can confuse the direction of the brand if we try to please one side of the business more,” Li added. Her brand’s sell-through rate internationally is above 85 percent, while in China, she is often told that her pieces are too expensive.
“It is impossible to please every unique market, so we have to stay focused. People demand various products because of their way of life, their aesthetics — and the weather. In our Japanese market, stores want us to shorten the dresses and they order primarily in XS or S. In America, we have been working exclusively with 11 Honoré in the past two years to offer bigger sizes that can go up to XXXL.”
Xuzhi Chen, whose label Xu Zhi was nominated for the 2017 LVMH Prize, is adapting his brand in response to the slowdown in the Chinese economy.
“China is a lot bigger than any of the international markets. We started off with a lot of craft techniques, therefore our price point remained relatively high in comparison to my peers. 2018 was a challenging year for retail. People are saying 2019 will be an even slower year. I think broadening our offering and adjusting pricing so more of the people can buy into the brand – or buy a lot more — is important for us to move forward and grow,” said Chen.
Xu Zhi will be sponsored by JD.com this season for the third time. “What I have with JD.com is more of a partnership, and we will also be offering a capsule to be launched this coming summer with JD Fashion. Other than that, we are looking to a long-term collaboration and more crossover projects in 2019 and to working with JD.com to offer our products to wider audience in China.”
For many Chinese designer brands, London remains the city of choice. Guangzhou-based knitwear brand i-am-chen is showcasing its fall 2019 collection off-schedule as part of the Fashion Scout showcase. The label is also a finalist in the latest edition of the International Woolmark Prize, which will be held on Feb. 16 in London.
“Currently, 80 percent of our business comes from China while the rest comes from overseas. So the priority for us is to expand internationally,” said Dai Bao, brand manager of i-am-chen. “We were honored with the Merit Award at Fashion Scout, which supports us for three seasons. We wouldn’t be able to afford any major show without such support. London has a fashion community that nurtures new designers and its supports extends globally.”
Yuhan Wang, a 2016 Central Saint Martins graduate with a full-time job at Marni, will continue to showcase in London with Fashion East. “I made most of my collection before I started at Marni so it’s manageable. It will be challenging going forward but Marni provides a very friendly working environment and I believe things will work out well,” Wang said, adding that her collection is inspired by traditional Chinese ideas of femininity and its connections to Western culture.
London veteran Huishang Zhang, who works between London and China, said his advice to young Chinese designers is to “focus on building a good relationship with key stockists and direct customers. These two parts of the puzzle will support you in your growth.”