No longer “Made-in-China”: The Rise of Chinese Designer Brands and “Guochao” Originality

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In September 2021, Chinese designer Rui Zhou was awarded the LVMH Karl Lagerfeld Special Jury Prize. As one of the only three recipients, Zhou directs the spotlight on the emerging young designers in China. In recent years, Chinese designer brands are gaining domestic and international popularity. Young, independent Chinese designers challenge the “Made in China” stereotype, communicate bold aesthetics and design, and lead a new “Guochao” (国潮,literally, national trend) in the Chinese fashion world today.

Chinese designer brands: Rui Autumn/Winter 2022
Source: RUI’s official website, Rui Autumn/Winter 2022

Though designer brands are not mainstream in China, they were very well-received by Millennials and Gen-Z in top-tier cities, who “want to express their personalities and differentiate themselves,” says Chen Peng, one of the rising designers. According to our Fashion Industry report, younger generations, who value innovation and personalization, are shaping the future of the luxury market in China. Especially, they do value the “created-in-China” originality– Gen Z looks forward to seeing brands incorporating Chinese cultural elements into their product designs.

A wave of Chinese designer brands also earned international recognition- from Guo Pei’s yellow gown worn by Rihanna the Met Gala as early as 2015, to younger designers like Rui Zhou and Chen Xuzhi making it to international prizes and catching the attention of celebrities like Lady Gaga and Blackpink. They’ve also initiated collaborations with internationally-known brands: Angel Chen’s color palette became part of the Canada Goose jacket; Zara collaborated with Susan Fang for their Chinese New Year collection… More and more fashion brands are teaming up with Chinese designers.

Rihanna wearing chinese fashion designer Guo Pei’s yellow gown
Source: Getty Images, Rihanna wearing Guo Pei’s yellow gown at 2015 Met Gala

Young Designers Revolutionizing the Chinese Fashion Market

Chinese designers are revolutionizing the Chinese fashion market- and many of them have progressive views that challenge social taboos and re-interpret the young generation’s dreams. Many emerging Chinese designers studied abroad, thus their garments are usually a fusion of Chinese cultural elements and Western modern designs. Their ideologies stirred the “Guochao” pride and are welcomed by young Chinese consumers. Western consumers also empathize with the trend, allowing Chinese designer brands to expand on a global scale.

Private Policy

Established in 2015, Private Policy, is a genderless clothing brand by Parsons graduates Haoran Li and Siying Qu. They wish to match their audience’s “free spirit” with their clothing design. Their campaigns often address emerging sociopolitical issues- whether Chinese or global- like Asian stereotypes, LGBTQ rights, racial discrimination, and environmental pollution.

Chinese designer brands: Private policy
Source: Vogue Runway, Private Policy Fall 2021 Ready-to-Wear

PRONOUNCE

PRONOUNCE is a menswear label established by Yushan Li and Jun Zhou in 2015. After graduating from Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion, the two collaborated to create a clothing line that blends Eastern and Western style, blurring the line between the two worlds. The designers take classic European pieces- like the Italian tailored suit or trench coat- and twist them with futuristic colors, patterns, and fabric. The brand also pushes the boundary between genders – casting female models in runway shows. “The feedback we got was that they felt they could share pieces with their partner, boyfriend, or girlfriend,” he says, “and we were so inspired by that. The gender sharing idea, we thought, ‘that is so Pronounce.’”

chinese fashion designers: Pronounce Fall/Winter
Source: London Fashion Week, Pronounce Fall/Winter 2022 Collection

Mukzin

Mukzin is launched by Kate Han and his husband George Feng in 2014. Kate wants to renew the traditional Chinese garment in “a modern, irreverent way”. “For example, I’d give a qipao sportswear detailing and a diagonal zip that can be opened to reveal shorts or leggings.” Their collections often reflect Chinese traditional culture and history through patterns and prints, as well as mixing them with trendy styles, making it “traditional yet rebellious”. Mukzin also commits to improving workers’ conditions and maximizing animal welfare. 

Chinese designer brands: Muzkin’s commitment to worker welfare
Source: Muzkin’s Official Website, Muzkin’s commitment to worker welfare

Challenges Moving Forwards

Despite the prospect of Chinese designer brands, they still face challenges moving forwards. First, independent designers only occupy a small fraction of the fashion market. There are few estimates about the market size- but the 2019 report by retail firm iziRetail and fashion trade show organiser Ontimeshow estimated a market value of about RMB 90 billion, around 5.8 percent of the total market. Designer brands are still primarily received by wealthy young urbanites residing in top-tier cities. The expansion of designer labels, then, would probably focus on attracting more consumer segments by exploring new marketing, advertising, and pricing strategies.

Striving balance between design & business

Many designer brands start with small teams- usually the designers themselves- and face challenges with distribution, cash flow, and inventory. Pauline Su, a long-term advisor to the Chinese Fashion Association, observed that some brands are unable to deliver even small orders after attending fashion trade shows. “Designer brands need the support of a complete supply chain to accommodate their small orders and multiple categories so that they can make deliveries on time.” However, because factories usually have specific minimum order quantities, a small order – like 200 pieces of garments- required different equipment and higher production costs. Even for brands who didn’t lack financial resources, there were challenges with finding suppliers. For instance, it took Shangxia three years to build a sound craftsman network that understands its design ideologies and makes quality products. Indeed, it’ll be challenging for designer brands to support their designs with mature commercial teams and supplier networks that meet consumer demands.

In addition, the lack of intellectual property (IP) protection in the Chinese fashion market troubles many designers. Due to the low production cost in China, designs are easily plagiarized. For instance, designer Lü Yan and her brand COMME MOI accused a Shenzhen-based fashion group of copying her design, but the group denied and countersued her for infringement. Small designer brands are prone to be caught in vulnerable positions in those accusations and will have to incorporate and identify more “unique” elements to register for trademarks. Still, despite the reforms Chinese fashion market is doing to protect designer IPs- like using e-commerce platforms’ IP enforcement technology- there’s a long way to fight for original designs in China.

Chinese / Western fashion- or both?

Many “Chinese” designer brands fell into controversy because they were often founded abroad as well as targeted an international audience. Private Policy is one such example. The founders- Haoran Li and Siying Qu – were born in China and received their education from the Parsons School of Design. They founded their brand in New York and their primary market is the U.S.; it was not until 2020 did Li started exploring business opportunities in Shanghai. Private Policy is nevertheless identified as part of “Guochao” by Chinese netizens. Netizens readily adopted the brand, praised its design ideologies and took pride in it.

Another example would be Shanghai Tang, whose designs appeal to Westerners who love Chinese culture. Because of its main consumer segment, its representation of “Chinese” chic conforms to the Western gaze. Should these brands be labeled as truly “Chinese”? It becomes unclear as to how to define the “nationality” of a brand- or do brands have a national identity at all?

Creative approaches for growth: The Hopeful Future

Despite the challenges, the Chinese designer brand market has huge potential. The rise of Chinese designers coincides with the current appetite for designer labels in China, which approximately accounts for over 45% of the world’s luxury market by 2025, according to a report by Bain & Co.

Designers are taking different approaches to growth in domestic and international markets. Brands like Feng Chen Wang and Angel Chen are launching collaborations with internationally renowned brands such as Converse and Canada Goose, a win-win strategy for both parties and consumers. For designer brands, collaborations offer them opportunities to elevate their reputations and reach more consumer segments. On the other hand, global brands may “rejuvenate their image, convey originality — a core expectation of younger Chinese audiences — and also to resonate with growing national pride” by partnering with rising Chinese designer brands, according to Laurence Lim Dally, MD of Cherry Blossoms International Branding.

Digitalization is another strategy embraced by growing designer brands, including Muzkin who sells on digital platforms only. With fashion being one of China’s biggest e-commerce categories, the brand rides on the benefits provided by e-commerce giant, Tmall: “Tmall helps us accumulate consumer data and understand who our consumers are across different regions in China,” says co-founder George Feng. Digital platforms also enable the brands to directly communicate with consumers, understand their complaints, refine their product lines, and strengthen consumer loyalty.

The rise of Chinese designer brands in a nutshell:

  • More and more Chinese Independent Designer Brands are on the rise- both domestically and globally.
  • Young Chinese designers fuse their understanding of the Chinese culture and their international education to design and innovate. Many brands are rebellious and forward-looking, seeking to revolutionize consumers’ perception of “Made-in-China” products.
  • Though designer brands currently occupy a niche market, they have great potential for expansion. However, brands need to solve challenges such as lacking sound supplier and distribution network, as well as the loose IP framework in China.
  • Designers may expand their businesses by creatively collaborating with well-known brands, cutting costs by digital sales, and doing consumer research to understand needs.


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