For the last ten years or more, the world’s luxury businesses have been buoyed up on what seemed an insatiable appetite for new, status goods in China. But a soberer and subtler taste in fashion and luxury goods is emerging as the country’s economic boom slows. President Jin Ping has instilled anti-bribery measures that curb the habit of ‘gifting,’ a practice worth millions of dollars in sales each year. Self-styling is replacing ensembles straight from the look book. More discreet logos and designs from Saint Laurent and Celine are propelling taste in handbags and appreciation is growing for the dark romance of designers like The Row and Alexander McQueen.
“Vogue readers now know their Haider Ackermann from their Balmain,” says Anjelica Cheung, editor-in-chief of Vogue China. “When we launched the title in 2005 we were running features and profiles at great length to be able to explain the heritage and background as a form of education – now, those same features are on two pages. What’s needed now is an expert point of view to help readers find their own style and stand out.”
From being fashion followers, certain pockets in China are home to emerging tastemakers who are revelling in their own strength of self-expression, valuing artisanship and heritage over flash and obvious signs of wealth. In creative, fashion-forward circles in Shanghai, you can witness men wearing togas and turbans over skinny jeans and shirts at a time when designers are exploring possibilities of skirts and tribal layers on the menswear catwalk in London. Come spring, you can bet that the nation’s female fashion leaders will be availing themselves of boxy midriff tops, swishy prom skirts and hybrid surf sandals.
It is the rate of change from ‘nouveau’ to individualistic that is startling. In Japan, following the economic boom of the 1980s – a period that witnessed an unprecedented appetite for status luxury items – tastes evolved at a gradual pace edging towards the more artistic and expressive in a shift that was to slowly percolate down from the fashion crowd to the general population. More than three decades later and Japan holds its own as a leader in fashion. By comparison, the pace of change in some pockets of China has accelerated. What might be expected to evolve over ten years or more is happening in five years or less.
“The cycle and speed of change is much faster than before, due to the rapid pace of the fashion industry itself, the avail of the internet – where knowledge and images of fashion are transmitted on a much more frequent basis – and also to do with the shift of influencers and fashion authorities, “ explains Shaway Yeh, group style editorial director of the Modern Media Group, which publishes a stable of fashion and art publications and apps including the lifestyle title, Modern Weekly.
“What’s important to note is that Japan is a relatively homogenous market – smaller scale, more uniform taste – so it is easier to spot the direction of trends. China is a stratified society, where the differences between first tier cities and the third or fourth tiers are huge, not only in terms of taste and lifestyle, but also the availability of merchandise and access to products. The top tier fashionista or luxury customer may have already cultivated a sophisticated sense no different to people in Paris or New York, while the local trendsetters at third or fourth tier cities may still [be] following the trends of last year,” Yeh says.
The impact of foreign travel is also influencing tastes as a growing number of Chinese are not only shopping abroad – taking advantage of lower taxations on luxury goods – but they are also bringing back inspiration. Over 100m Chinese are expected to travel abroad this year. Indeed when it comes to taste, China is dividing and sub-dividing into a highly intricate layer cake, making it ever more complex pin down. Even among the wealthy and privileged in one city there might be multiple style directions.
Lane Crawford prides itself on being the first luxury department store in China. It was founded in Hong Kong and opened a 150,000 sq ft flagship in Shanghai in October 2013 and another store in Chengdu will soon follow. Its expansion suggests a growing confidence in consumers shopping outside of the single brand designer outlets that have dominated the luxury landscape to date.
“You can never generalise with China as it’s so vast and every city and its population has its idiosyncrasies. Beijing, because it’s the power base of government and has a need for appropriate business attire. Shanghai is very fashion-forward and less about business needs,” says Lane Crawford’s fashion director, Sarah Rutson. “In general, however we are seeing a ground-swell [of] desire across all locations for new, more niche brands. Customers want to show off something that other people feel compelled to ask about – something is luxurious when it is hard to get or find and not seen everywhere.”
The steer towards things that are original marks a paradigm shift. Remember: the mothers and grandmothers of this fashion-savvy generation wore Mao suits – even handbags and lipsticks were a rarity. The penalties associated with overt displays of vanity were simply too high to risk. But things couldn’t be more different now. What’s new, whether it’s the latest Samsung device or the newest La Prairie skin care, now holds tremendous interest. There’s no better affirmation of the power of novelty than being asked about your latest acquisition. Whereas Britons and Americans are keen to play things down (“I’ve had this for years”, “I bought it at sale”), the Chinese like to announce the freshness of their purchases.
New kids on the block
Such a shift in tastes and attitudes is paving the way for an emergent generation of Chinese designers who are surfing on a growing pride for products and designs that are ‘Made in China’. At Lane Crawford, you can discover the romantic modern designs of Ms Minn, flamboyant prints from Chictopia and clean simplicity of Helen Lee’s designs. “They are not copyists or derivative,” says Rutson.
Meanwhile, a host of Chinese-born but Western-trained designers are coming to the fore. London-based Huishan Zhang is rapidly gaining a reputation for his artful fusion of traditional Chinese motifs and embellishments and modern shapes.
“The younger generations are not afraid to step out of the safety net of established luxury and they are starting to define their own individualistic sense of style by choosing younger, more up and coming designers and above all choosing home-grown talent,” says Zhang who debuted at London Fashion Week in 2010. “The Chinese consumer is very good at this and has been moving away from logo heavy design for a long time but due to the size of China and how big it is we are only just starting to pick up on it now.”
“My heritage is full of beautiful craftsmanship and history with a strong understanding of femininity and luxury. Expressing that with a modern twist and being proud of that is where all the potential is for Chinese talent,” says Zhang. It only seems a matter of time before the avant-garde taste for individuality further evolves into a ‘Made in China,’ homegrown style that will be applauded at home and abroad.