The front row taking in a show at Shanghai Fashion Week.

SHANGHAI — By simultaneously providing a platform for up-and-coming designers, as well as international brands looking to access China’s massive consumer market and a burgeoning local fashion retail business, Shanghai Fashion Week’s spring 2018 edition, which ran Oct. 11 to 18, consolidated the event’s place at the center of the country’s fashion sphere.

Since launching its own trade show platform Mode Shanghai in 2014, Shanghai Fashion Week has reported a fourfold increase in registered buyers, and organizers have since partnered with six other trade shows and showrooms. At this edition, B2B show space totaled more than 320,000 square feet and featured over 1,200 brands from China, Asia and beyond.

Gu Yeli founded OnTimeShow, a SHFW partner showroom, in 2014 to provide a platform for domestic and international brands — many of them from the Asia region and leaning towards a younger, Millennial demographic — to meet with the growing number of buyers from around China who come to Shanghai to browse new talent.

“Shanghai is for brands [that] want to enter the China market. All the other cities are looking at Shanghai and from there you can move to other cities,” she explained.

The scene at Mode Shanghai.  Alex Wu

The term on everyone’s lips when it comes to China’s fashion market is “consumer upgrade” (xiaofei shengji in Mandarin), which refers to the hundreds of millions of consumers in China who are moving up the value chain and diversifying their taste and spending habits — creating opportunities for quality, design-led brands of all sizes from China and elsewhere.

“The market is changing. The customer is changing their lifestyle so that is changing everything in the fashion market. People will still buy fast fashion, but people are expanding their tastes. So before, they would spend a certain amount of money on 10 things, now they want to buy two things of higher quality. This represents a great chance for these designer brands in China,” Gu said.

Though the government has wholeheartedly embraced China’s “consumer upgrade” as it attempts to shift the driving forces of the country’s economy from an investment-led to consumption-led model, according to the doyenne of SHFW known to all as Madame Lv, Shanghai Fashion Week vice secretary general Lv Xiaolei, the government is jumping on the bandwagon of a grassroots movement being driven by consumers and remaking the country’s fashion market.

“This upgrade is not government-led first, actually it’s consumer-driven. The new generation of young Chinese consumer groups have distinct personality characteristics and consumer characteristics. In order to make clothing and apparel products on the market better meet this escalating demand for quality and design, large-scale traditional Chinese clothing brands can no longer simply capture the market with their advantage of legacy and large-scale [bricks-and-mortar] reach,” Lv said.

“We see many large commercial fashion brands now transforming and upgrading and becoming more design-led as designer brands and small and medium-scale brands with fashion and design sense begin to have more market acceptance and attention.”

As part of the trade show contingent, international name White hosted a condensed version of its Milan show, bringing 56 Italian brands to Shanghai and seeing 2,000 visitors over its three-day run from Oct. 13 to 15.

Though White has hosted a traveling roadshow to markets such as Shanghai, Seoul and Dubai before, chief executive officer Brenda Bellei Bizzi said this was the first time White has held a trade show in a different locale, choosing Shanghai Fashion Week because of the opportunity it presents new designers trying to break into the Chinese market.

“We think Shanghai is a platform for new designers. There are a lot of new designers here not just from China but from Asia in general. We have been here many years to scout designers and bring them to Milan, so we thought if there is an opportunity for the young Asian designers, also there will be an opportunity for young Italian ones. We think of Shanghai as a platform to launch new things, new trends, new designers, because this area is very rich in creativity. We thought it would be a good opportunity,” she said.

Also on the agenda were a number of international brand events, including an elegant one launching a collaboration between Birkenstock and Chinese designer brand Ms. Min. Called “Deer Park,” the event included art installations from sculptor Jiang Sheng, as well as a show of Ms. Min’s spring 2018 collection modeled by local KOLs and friends of the brand.

Ports 1961 — incidentally the company where the couple behind Ms. Min, designer Min Liu and husband-slash-president Ian Hylton met while working as designers — hosted an outdoor fashion showcase and 3.1 Phillip Lim held an interactive floral, sound and art exhibition called “A Dialogue in Bloom,” both as part of the Shanghai International Fashion Showcase [SIFS] platform, which launched three years ago to introduce international brands to the Chinese market.

SIFS organizer and Apax Group founder Terence Chu considers Shanghai Fashion Week to be the ideal place for brands to try something different.

“I don’t think there is much point in just doing a show [for these brands], we push for them to do a new concept in Shanghai. It can be art, inspiration, insight,” he said.

Visitors interact with a floral arrangement at 3.1 Phillip Lim’s “A Dialogue in Bloom” exhibition.  Courtesy

Phillip Lim surprised many visitors to his exhibition by not including any clothes at all — displays of flowers and interactive sound elements were designed section by section to coincide with looks from 3.1 Phillip Lim’s latest collection, which guests could reference in a catalogue as they walked through the exhibit.

“To be honest, yes [we were afraid of it being too abstract]. But at the same time, to push ‘repeat’ on the show in this day and age you really need to do something different…To be honest, it really played on my mind. But I would rather people ask the question, ‘What was that?’ than have people say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that before,'” Lim said.

“Everyone already knows we make clothes. Where we are in New York, there is this expectation to do what you always do, but here in Shanghai, people don’t know what to expect, so we thought we would take the opportunity to market the brand, not just show clothes on a runway but show ideas and elements that are very important to the brand.”

According to Jillian Xin, senior buyer of Lane Crawford — the Hong Kong-based department store that currently stocks more than 40 Greater China brands — the best word to describe the evolution of SHFW over the past 15 years into a multifaceted event encompassing runway shows and presentations, international brand events, showrooms, forums and workshops is “dynamic.”

“All these things add more dimension to fashion week, engaging not just media and buyers but fashion students, business leaders and consumers,” she said.

Photographers stalk showgoers outside the Xintiandi tents of Shanghai Fashion Week.  Courtesy

As for the shows, a total of 93 brands were on the official SHFW schedule, over numerous platforms, including Labelhood — a more flexible platform targeting up-and-coming designers — as well as the tents in the upscale retail area of Xintiandi, where more established brands tend to stage catwalk shows.

For the past few years a lot of attention has been focused on the up-and-coming names at Labelhood, and this edition was no exception.

A longtime visitor to SHFW, Xin cited ShuShu/Tong, Sirloin, Staff Only and Angel Chen — all of whom presented collections as part of Labelhood — among her favorite shows. Angel Chen was also on the list of favorites for H. Lorenzo founder Lorenzo Hadar, alongside Pronounce, Minki and Angus Chiang.

Hadar was also with Xin on using the “D” word to describe Shanghai Fashion Week.

“The difference between Shanghai Fashion Week and elsewhere is the dynamic that the designers and the people and the organizers make you feel. It’s super dynamic in the creativity and the atmosphere,” he said.

Angel Chen’s spring 2018 collection first showed in Milan last month and featured a number of brand signatures — windbreakers in various lengths with embroidered Chinese elements are a year-round bestseller for the brand — with a well-curated and confident approach to colorful streetwear.

Another rising brand with a few seasons now under its belt, Xu Zhi, likewise continued codifying its design touch points with an elegant range of cocktail dresses adorned with more tassels than a burlesque troupe. Xu Zhi showed his spring 2018 collection at Shanghai’s newly opened W Hotel, at the same time unveiling a capsule collection of sleepwear for the hotel chain.

Likewise, Shanghai-based brand Sirloin, showing for the first time on the SHFW schedule — though they have presented collections at showrooms during fashion week here previously — made a splash with their sleepwear and underwear as outerwear concept. Some of the looks are predictably daring — trouser-less dressing probably won’t find mainstream acceptance anytime soon — but others, such as a silk button-up pajama worn as daytime attire, or a T-shirt with underwired cups sewn into the garment to give the look of a corset-T-hybrid, quite possibly could.

Andrea Panconesi, ceo of Luisa Via Roma said he was “very curious” about the development of the Chinese fashion industry and local design talents.

“I hope to be able to recognize designers with a unique personal style in Shanghai, but I’m also very happy to help China designers open to the global market, so that more people can understand and fall in love with [Far East] aesthetics and Chinese designers,” he said.

Panconesi was particularly impressed with local high-end eco-fashion brand Icicle, which held its 20th anniversary show during SHFW.

Though little known outside of China, Icicle, run by founder Ye Shouzeng and president Shawna Tao, has quietly built a substantial sustainable luxury brand — though Icicle has several lines, its top-tier collection has a price point comparable with international brands like Max Mara — with 200 stores, 2,000 employees and an anticipated turnover of 1.6 billion yuan, or $241.4 million at current exchange, in 2017.

Like other fashion weeks around the world, SHFW has been working on its green credentials, helped this season by the participation of Icicle, as well as a partnership with Kering Group, which took the opportunity to host a workshop introducing their open-source app that aims to combat the environmental impact of fashion supply chains.

Michael Beutler, Kering Sustainability operations director said SHFW, with its roster of exciting emerging designers, was the ideal place to introduce young brands to the ethos of sustainable supply chains.

“It’s a very interesting place to be and I think there is a growing mindset in China around sustainability. So it’s an important point that as people are getting more and more into fashion and luxury to ensure that they are not just aware but also adapting and adopting sustainability as part of what they do and I think it’s an easy sell because there’s a lot of that spirit already there,” he said.

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