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China: The shopping superpower

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On average, Chinese shoppers spend £2,000 every time they descend on Oxford Street, meaning a Victoria Beckham leather tote is a carefree purchase. The knock-on effect? A new dawn in fashion, says Emma Strenner

Your first Chanel bag is a momentous occasion. I’ve discussed it at length with many a friend; whether I really am a 2.55 or in fact, a classic Jumbo kind of girl. It’s taken years and years of deliberation to finally decide and invest. My husband laughs at using the word ‘invest’ in relation to a bag, but it’s true. I will use this bag forever. It’s a bittersweet moment as I sign off on a four-figure sum with a few numbers on the PIN pad – but before I do, a sight I’ve grown familiar with still manages to stop me in my tracks. There are two young Chinese women ushered in ahead of me with not one, not two, but five handbags each. A couple of 2.55s in black and red, a handful of totes and a J12 watch for good measure. Not forgetting the purse they throw in as an afterthought.

Let’s face it, Sloane Street, Harrods and Harvey Nichols are no longer dominated by the pristine, white fur-lined Moncler-wearing Russian oligarch’s wife, nor the neat lines of Japanese tourists who queue outside Louis Vuitton for their classic bags, or even our own home-grown footballers’ wives. The real driving force behind the shift in London’s retail landscape lies in the Céline totes that dangle precariously on the petite arms of the Chinese tourists who have flocked to London to spend their hard-earned renminbi.

Walk through The Beauty Workshop at Selfridges and you’ll find Mandarin-speaking girls behind the counters. Wander into Liberty (home to Brit-pack designers such as Mary Katrantzou, Louise Gray and Peter Pilotto), and you will find a store so carefully curated it remains the fashion editors’ favourite and the destination of choice for the discerning Chinese shopper – so much so, half the sales staff speak Mandarin. Pop into Hermès on New Bond Street and you’ll see the staff displaying a cornucopia of scarves, bangles and accessories to their enthusiastic clientele, and they know they’ll buy, most likely with cash.

And yet, is it so surprising for a nation that, according to a recent survey by World Finance magazine, is home to over a million millionaires, a figure that has tripled since 2006? The Chinese economy is growing at 7.3% (figures from the end of 2011) while us British dawdle into a triple-dip recession with growth hovering at a mere 0.8%. And they’re fully aware of the power the renminbi wields abroad; the Chinese tourist is a savvy shopper and more likely to buy luxury goods when travelling abroad (every item purchased in China is subject to assorted taxes, tariffs and VAT).

Social Standing

But even in their homeland, the most fashionable Chinese shoppers still covet labels and social expectations play a major part in young women’s purchases. Fifteen years ago, they would have struggled to access luxury goods, even in cities like Beijing, but these days they’re teeming with boutiques, while shopping malls are popping up at an unparalleled rate.

I ask Keira Tang, a woman in her 20s who has just finished studying at the London College of Fashion where she shops when she’s at home in Beijing, and her response is matter of fact: “I love to pop to the boutiques and feel the items myself, but I get my inspiration from street-style photos, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and i-D.” For a woman who spent a small fortune on an Undercover jacket adorned with metal feathers, and can claim a Fendi Icons bag as her last investment purchase, it’s no surprise she describes fashion as her “daily dessert”.

Fashion is devoured with relish by these young Chinese professional women, but it’s also the social statement that makes it an even more significant factor in their daily life. After all, the brands they wear reflect their status – and while the larger heritage brands were previously the markers, a distinct shift into creating an independent unique identity has now moved the goalposts yet again.

London is a hothouse for street style and individualism and I think the Chinese woman is now ready for this

While China may be growing at a pace unseen even in post-war Japan (once a leader in luxury goods consumption but now left far behind by their neighbours), fashion has long been at the core of China’s aesthetic, in spite of its Communist heritage, and a major influence on what it says about the individual.

Empress Cixi (the final imperial empress who ruled before the nationalists came into power) placed a huge amount of importance on the fashions of her court. Her own dresses required 450 craftsmen to work on them.

Eileen Chang, the revered pre-Communist era author of Lust, Caution and The Golden Cangue, wouldn’t pen a single page without some reference to dress, accessories or hair.

Appearance matters – from social expectations, using clothing to show respect to the company you are in, showing an artistic sensibility and an appreciation of craftsmanship and creativity – so it’s little wonder the Chinese choose Western heritage brands. This is a nation that for decades was linked to the cheap and plentiful ‘Made in China’ tag – quality and tradition are now of prime importance. In fact, in a Huron and Industrial Bank survey of wealthy Chinese, 40% said a long history is an important characteristic of luxury brands. No wonder Chinese shoppers flock to Burberry, Mulberry and Nicole Farhi in Harrods.

China is now home to enormous flagship stores: there are 42 Cartier, 15 Hermès, 42 Gucci, 57 Burberry and 12 Chanel stores in mainline China. Italian luxury brand Bottega Veneta launched its flagship in Shanghai in May 2012 and Chanel is currently holding an exhibition in the Zaha Hadid-designed Guangzhou Opera House. Luxury brand conglomerate PPR (owners of Gucci and Saint Laurent) recently acquired Chinese jeweller Qeelin. Everyone wants a piece of the Middle Kingdom.

Even the Beckhams were rumoured to be moving east, such is the lure of 1.5bn consumers of Brand Beckham. Beauty giant P&G has set up a centre of excellence in China, which is its second largest market behind the US, while Estée Lauder established its first innovation centre in Shanghai in 2011. This is a major turning point, suggesting that in future, China will be driving beauty trends rather than looking to the US or Europe as it has in the past.

The recent slew of brightening serums and extensions on lines from Estée Lauder, Clinique and every other major brand in the beauty hall was driven solely by the Asian market, catering to the pale, flawless complexion that is most desirable among Asian cultures.

Looking East

The axis of the British fashion industry has also turned its attention eastwards, responding to the sheer power of the Chinese consumer. The London Show Rooms – an initiative which promotes British design talent abroad and helps to secure new export business through events targeting press and buyers in key cities globally – went to Hong Kong for the first time in 2012 and will be returning again this year to give Chinese buyers first dibs.

Of the 185 models Armani put out in his Beijing fashion show last June, two thirds were Asian and this year, Eastern influences are dominating the silhouettes of spring/ summer 2013 with kimono sleeves and obi belts the details to watch out for. Red – the Chinese colour of luck – is also making a return both to the high street and the catwalk. Put simply, Chinese dominance is having a direct effect on our wardrobes.

Unfolding Trend

Miuccia Prada created clearly defined folds that harked back to intricate origami shapes, Dries Van Noten had the girls draped in ornate silk robes with delicate embroidery. Meanwhile Haider Ackermann’s minimalist aesthetic recalled pure white samurai robe tops and a top knot that made you think of the warrior going out to protect the realm. The love affair with the east is deep, from Karl Lagerfeld staging a show for Fendi on the Great Wall in 2007 to designers eager to listen to every word of their most important customers.

“Five years ago, Chinese girls were all buying major brand names with a logo. But they have become far more discerning in their tastes,” says Dora Fung, New York editor of Vogue China, who worked on the title’s launch in 2005.

“They have the Burberry trench, the Hermès Birkin and the Fendi Baguette. Now it’s about buying unique pieces. Jewellery purchases don’t just stop at Cartier, these girls want exquisite vintage pieces that have significant value, like an 18th-century bracelet that is worth a lot more and has individuality.” That means a hunt for a unique piece at Grays Antique Market in Mayfair rather than a diamond Rolex. The emphasis is now on cool as well as luxe.

London’s cachet as the home of quirky individualism cannot be bought. British-based labels are gaining a global platform thanks to the Chinese consumer’s desire to carve a more singular identity. Women’s clothing from the Fifties to the Seventies was functional and generally limited to blue, grey and khaki. The first ever fashion show in China took place in 1979 (in contrast, “fashion parades” started in Paris couture salons in the 1800s).

China’s young women are now striving to stand apart from the logo-heavy shoppers on Beijing’s high streets; Mary Katrantzou, Christopher Kane, Roksanda Ilincic and Erdem are the labels of choice. In fact, money pouring in from the East has allowed these relatively small designers to expand with incredible speed. The ultimate reflection of China’s love of London’s aesthetic is illustrated by the number of emerging designers who have chosen to train here; Ping He and Huishan Zhang being just two upcoming names.

Newcomer Ping He is revered in northern China but also looks to London for inspiration and as a platform to launch her career. She studied Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood religiously when she was a fashion student. “It was the alternative subcultures, like the punk scene, The Smiths and David Bowie that I was always fascinated by. London is a hothouse for street style and individualism and I think the Chinese woman is now ready for this.”

Fashion is devoured with relish by these young Chinese professional women, but it’s also the social statement

I speak to Yoyo Yao, a young xiaozi (person with a good income) from Beijing, who works for her family’s estate agent business. Her favourite London stores are Selfridges, Stella McCartney and Topshop. “I love street-style websites for inspiration – it’s where I get the most ideas and where I know I’ll see something interesting and unique,” she says. Her style icons vary from The Hills’ Whitney Port to Kate Moss.

But the xiaozi’s tastes are evolving. Social media has made them desire something beyond the traditional heritage luxury goods – individual identity. Their smartphones connect them instantly, via style blogs and Weibo (China’s Twitter), with women of a similar generation across the globe. Street-style sites have become an obsession, and their style heroes are all clothes horses, think Edie Campbell and Alexa Chung.

Ping He seems to embody this very woman; the woman she designs for. “The Chinese woman has a true inner strength, and they are starting to find their character, starting to understand their body and style. They’ve matured and it is wonderful.”

But for Ping He, and those girls in Chanel, London remains the global style capital. “For me, it will always be the world’s creative centre,” she adds. “Chinese designers are forever drawn to this wonderful, contradictory place that welcomes us with open arms.” And for the rest of us, this Chinese passion for London fashion is a huge compliment; after all, our capital city has a cool that all the renminbi in the world can’t buy.

Words: Emma Strenner

Picture credit: Rex Features

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