As editor of Vogue China, Angelica Cheung is the most influential woman in fashion right now. Harriet Quick meets her for Stylist
"It’s nice that people say that I am one of the most powerful women in fashion,” says Angelica Cheung from her Vogue office in Beijing, humming with 45 staff and dotted with Philippe Starck for Kartell ‘Ghost’ chairs. “But I don’t think that way. It is to do with the influence of the magazine. China is such a big market with so many women who are just waking up to fashion and secondly, it is to do with the fact that we set a totally new bar with Vogue, the pace, the attitude, the fashion and, to a lesser extent, because we have become a spokesperson for what Chinese women like.
Within her eight years as editor-in-chief of Vogue China, Cheung has grown a readership of 1.06 million women (Chinese magazines do not undergo audited circulation as they do in the UK so there are no exact sales figures to date). The September 2005 launch issue featuring cover star Du Juan, the first Chinese supermodel, was a sell out and went into reprint twice. And over the years Cheung has scored many more successes and firsts championing Chinese models (Du Juan, Liu Wen) and designers (Huishan Zhang – see page 122 – and Uma Wang) who have since achieved global success. As luxury brand advertising has increased, Vogue China’s thumping issues might contain 300 pages of editorial (by comparison British Vogue’s March 2012 edition contained 150). And Cheung produces 16 issues a year – four special collections issues on top of the monthly magazine to keep up with the demand for advertising.
Yes, I shout, yes I sometimes scream – I think fast and talk fast. But once people start dealing with me they realise I’m very logical and clear
“I’m trying to finish three issues at present – that’s 1,000 pages before I go on holiday for Chinese New Year on 10 February,” says the 45-year-old mother of one who was raised in Beijing during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and obtained a degree in law and English language and literature from Peking University, before cutting her journalistic teeth on an English language newspaper in Hong Kong. That’s where she met her English husband, Mark, who was editing the newspaper’s weekend supplement at the time.
“I’m going to Thailand to a small resort with three other families with children of the same age – I want to do nothing!” she laughs knowing her inbox will be bleeping regularly. After her holiday, Cheung will be off to the international collections in Milan and Paris cementing relationships with luxury brands and designers hungry for her insight into the burgeoning Chinese market.
Curating the lap of luxury
And the Chinese fashion industry is building at incredible pace. Global management consultant McKinsey & Company stated in its latest Consumer Insight Report that “spending by Chinese consumers on luxury products now exceeds that of any other country. Having leapt past Japan, China now accounts for over one-quarter of the total global luxury market. And despite China’s current economic slowdown, the nation’s share of global luxury spending will continue to soar, to more than one-third by 2015.” These figures point to how Vogue China’s influence will grow although, of course, it is not the only luxury title in its market – Elle China and Cosmopolitan China are direct competitors.
With her chic asymmetric haircut, rapid talk and ready laugh, Cheung has become a front row doyenne alongside the other formidable editors of Vogue – Alexandra Shulman of British Vogue, Anna Wintour of Vogue US, Franca Sozzani of Vogue Italia and Emmanuelle Alt of Vogue Paris. They make quite a picture – with dress styles, manner, and entourages as different as they can be. But, over the years Cheung has been accepted into the inner circle, and into the complex matrix of creative relationships with an A-list of photographers, stylists and agents that gives Vogue its legendary beauty and clout.
She is also ready to support new talent and is something of an Anglophile. When global shopping club luxup.com (where I now work as editorial director) invited her to co-host a dinner for young Anglo Chinese designer Huishan Zhang at Harry’s Bar during last September’s London Fashion Week, she immediately agreed.
“She may look cool but she is full of care,” says Zhang, who trained at Central St Martins. “My impression of Angelica is that she is always very clear with her goals. She always keeps her promise and she wears Prada too! Vogue China is the first Vogue to write about me and it’s incredible to receive such support.” Cheung was also one of the first to promote Uma Wang (leading to her showing at Milan Fashion Week) and is credited with her rapid rise.
Back when Cheung was hired as editor (previously she was editor of Elle China and prior to that Marie Claire Hong Kong) China as a luxury market was just emerging. I remember clearly Cheung visiting the British Vogue offices prior to the launch, taking time with each department editor to understand how we worked, how we handled budgets.
She processed information as quick as a flash. I also remember Cheung arriving at a Jean Paul Gaultier couture show on a rainy evening in Paris, remarkably full of beans (she had just flown in) and ready for a good chit chat over a glass of wine. There’s a conviviality about Cheung and a strong sense of ‘reality’ that comes from her journalist background.
“I was a new cookie. Although I had edited Elle and Marie Claire I had to prove I could lead a big title, but I was never intimidated.
I suppose traditionally editors came from a fashionista background – I was in business before journalism
The projects have become bigger and I have much better relationships with the fashion world but I don’t think that I have changed that much. Francesco Sozzani (Franca Sozzani’s photographer son) came to shoot for us and he later came to a dinner with Franca that I was hosting for Marc Jacobs. He commented to his mother that finally, here was the nicest Vogue editor!” Cheung is clearly delighted with the compliment. “I suppose traditionally editors came from a fashionista background – I was in business [Cheung previously worked in investment banking for Goldman Sachs] before journalism so over the years I think I have come to know who I am and I also love the job. In some ways, I don’t take myself so seriously and I feel my role is to educate readers and I want them to be women I believe in.
“Yes, I shout, yes I sometimes scream – I think fast and talk fast. But once people start dealing with me they realise I’m very logical and clear – I don’t feel as though I’ve changed that much. I know more fashion, more people, maybe I dress differently – but I think my style has remained the same.”
Cheung’s chic fail-safes include neat dresses (Jason Wu, Prada, pieces from Tory Burch and Chanel jackets), smart little trench coats and medium height heels. Nothing too shouty. She lays out her weekly wardrobe on a Sunday evening, tempering it to the needs of the day – come the weekend she, like most mothers of energetic six-yearolds, is in jeans, T-shirts and sweaters running round the park. “I’m not in that phase where I lust after the latest trend – my wardrobe does not need to change that much so I just buy a few pieces every season. I’m not too loud, I don’t like it when everyone looks at me and I’m not craving for that – I try to look decent and nice. I don’t want photographers chasing after me – that’s for stylists and young editors.”
When Vogue launched in China, only a small elite sector of the country even knew the brand Vogue. Everything had to be built from scratch. What did it represent? What did it stand for? How did it create a readership? How would it compete with a slew of well-known titles already up and running? As Cheung explains, numerous titles in the country were made up of a large percentage of syndicated content, unhappily fused with local low budget content creating unbalanced magazines. Syndicated shoots featured fashion that was not available or indeed did simply not hit the nerve in terms of communication and aspiration. Condé Nast International’s chairman Jonathan Newhouse and Cheung decided to go all out for original content.
“In order to create a passion for a new magazine we had to offer something different,” says Cheung. The investment and the risk paid off. “With Chinese women being so smart and open minded, I thought they would get it.”
Initially, a lot of research and education went into the editorial – every reference to any designer or cultural shift had to be explained to an audience who have no clue what the Sixties represented in Britain, or Woodstock in the Seventies, or rave culture in the Eighties. The cultural history is entirely different, with totally alien reference points to the Chinese audience; readers would have remembered their mothers wearing Mao suits.
“What might be a page feature in British Vogue would be a five- to six-page feature in Vogue China so we would have the space to educate,” Cheung explains. “Readers could tell so much effort had gone into our stories.”
In 2013, sophisticated Chinese women in first tier cities now know their Haider Ackermann from their Balmain and aspire to a more individualistic code of dress. And as second, third and fourth tier cities rapidly develop with massive shopping malls and new businesses there are leagues of fresh fashion fans not far behind. Luxury brands such as Prada, McQueen, Louis Vuitton, Dolce and Gabbana and Balenciaga are investing multimillions in expanding their retail outlets through China and building customer loyalty.
The ebbs and flows of the luxury market are watched like a hawk by the business world at large and because businesses are hard to establish in China, and because of the stiff laws on censorship, Vogue China has to navigate a careful path both serving its advertisers and readers. From the point of fashion education Cheung is now delivering more soul to the readers of Vogue China – reflecting their lives in and beyond fashion. As a mother, and a working woman, she is evangelical about imparting emotional intelligence as well as glamour.
“My daughter who is six already has a sense of style. But I also want her to be optimistic, to have a habit of thinking in a positive way and be able to find a solution rather than complaining. I want her to be loving – I need her to make friends – if you are loving, people will be attracted to you and I want her to have courage when she faces change. When I had Hayley, it really made me focus on these values. This is basically the Vogue woman – I want my readers and myself to become this woman. I try, I’m not perfect!”
Picture credits: Rex Features and Getty Images