HONG KONG — It may have been her hometown, but when Charlex Lin came back to Shenzhen four years ago, she felt out of place. Freshly graduated with a degree in fashion design from the U.K., she’d wound up back in the southern Chinese city — a place known for being the factory floor of the world, not a launching pad for young designers.
“At first, I thought the city is too commercial, and I was lost for a while because I couldn’t find anyone who was creative with a similar background,” Lin said.
Fast forward two years, however, and Lin had launched her own women’s wear brand Alias, and she was organizing a series of underground fashion events called Carpe Diem. At one of them, she took out a floor in a vacant building, bringing 32 local designers together to stage a fashion show. The after party in the industrial park could’ve been mistaken for something out of Peckham in London or Berlin’s Kreuzberg, and it was followed by a pop-up market that ran for several days.
“Actually Shenzhen has some very cool kids here,” Lin said. “After meeting them, I tried to get myself to get out more. It happened not long ago, just in these two years. Now we’re creating a small group for these local creatives, the scene is getting bigger and bigger.”
A number of fashion creatives have had similar overtures to the city: drawn to the place for lower costs of living and proximity to manufacturing, then discovering its small but burgeoning cultural class. The growing wealth of Shenzhen’s 10 million population — thanks to its financial and technology sectors — and a confluence of supersized infrastructure projects increasingly see it as the fourth city mentioned in the same breath after Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. What Shenzhen lacks in glamour, it makes up for in speed and an “anything-goes” mentality, its residents say.
There were several milestones this year. First, Alibaba opted to hold the countdown to its Singles Day extravaganza, the world’s biggest shopping holiday, in Shenzhen for the first time. The Hangzhou-headquartered company said that the city, with its pioneering free-trade zone, was the best place to roll out the company’s most globalized event and state-of-the-art innovations such as virtual reality shopping.
“Shenzhen has a special place in China,” Chris Tung, Alibaba Group’s chief marketing officer, said at the time. “This southern coastal city bordering Hong Kong has always been at the forefront of China’s opening up to the world and represents the spirit of forward looking and innovation.”
That same month, the Italian fashion school Istituto Marangoni opened a campus there, its seventh globally. The Victoria and Albert Museum in the city’s Shekou district is due to open next October, too, and is an additional oft-cited piece of evidence for the city’s rising cultural clout.
But the most obvious marker of Shenzhen’s arrival is the Ping An Finance Center. The fourth-tallest skyscraper in the world, it’s an impossible-to-miss landmark that rises 115 floors and encompasses a large mall, scheduled to open in the second quarter of next year.
Richard Lin, manager for research, Shenzhen at Jones Lang Lasalle, which has signed on to provide property management for the new tower, said that while there were many shopping complexes around town, they were mostly built by local developers and not on par with what luxury retail brands wanted. Projects like the Ping An Finance Center will add in world-class retail space, and over the next two years, prime retailing floor space in Futian CBD and Houhai will increase by about 4.3 million square feet and 3.2 million square feet, respectively, according to JLL.
There are more megaprojects underway. Five metro lines are being built, as is a high-speed rail route connecting it to Guangzhou, the provincial capital, and Hong Kong.
“I’m very bullish on Shenzhen,” said Adrian Cheng, executive vice-chairman and joint general manager at New World Development. His company just plunked down 9.1 billion yuan, or about $1.2 billion, this month to develop a range of commercial and residential projects in Shenzhen. The city has domestic wealth and foreign talent drawn in by its reputation as the Silicon Valley of China going for it, he said, but Cheng also admires Shenzhen’s scrappy feeling.
Across the border in Hong Kong, he finds the human talent veers toward staid and established industries.“They don’t want to question. They don’t want to fail,” he said.
Shenzhen has actually already made some fashion fortunes. Husband-and-wife duo Xia Guoxin and Hu Yongmei became billionaires after listing Shenzhen Ellassay Fashion Co. on the Shanghai stock exchange last year. Its flagship brand Ellassay creates upmarket women’s wear and the company purchased Laurèl in 2015 and Ed Hardy this year with the ambition to become a global fashion group.
In 2014, Krizia, one of Italy’s first ready-to-wear brands, was bought out by Shenzhen Marisfrolg, the fashion label founded by Zhu Chongyun. Although virtually unknown in the West, Marisfrolg has hundreds of stores across the country, also expanding to Singapore and South Korea.
Designer Victor Chu of V Major, the 2014 winner of the Woolmark Asia prize, said local multibrand boutique Dark Moss is becoming well-known for its ability to scout emerging design talent. Although he must make frequent trips to Shanghai in order to see buyers, he’s enabled creative space by being away from a more established scene.
“If it’s empty here, we can make everything here. I think that way,” Chu said.
Kain Picken, who co-designs the line Ffixxed Studios with Fiona Lau, admits “there’s still a little bit of stigma” to being based there. Also the recipient of the Woolmark Asia prize, the Hong Kong company keeps a studio at the base of Shenzhen’s Wutong mountain. “When we’re in Shanghai, people say ‘How can you live in Shenzhen?’ People have this idea of what it was like 10 years ago.”
“We’ve been here five years and originally the main kind of benefit in the beginning was just access to manufacturing,” he continued. “The thing we didn’t expect or think about was the last few years that Shenzhen itself has developed creatively and it’s undergone quite significant change. Specifically the area we’re in now, change from what was small- to medium-size manufacturing to kind of an artist hub.”
While the stage is set for the city’s rise, Picken said its fashion ecosystem still needs some time to grow organically.
“You can bring money and people and ideas but organic growth takes a few years for things to connect and for people to navigate it. Shenzhen is at that place where there’s now putting a lot of things into place. We’re just waiting for that organic growth to develop a life of its own.”