First used by British polo players in the 19th century and popularized by the French tennis champion René Lacoste in the early 20th century, the polo shirt has become a classic for men worldwide. This symbol of “sport chic” or “casual chic” is well rooted in China too. Statistically, it is difficult to evaluate the popularity of this garment and a number of sales generated. However, one notices easily that this apparel has been adopted at all steps of the social ladder and that it still enjoys a real potential on the polo shirts market in China.
The polo shirts market in China, a modern, formal and light garment broadly adopted during the Chinese summer
What do Chinese people think about this apparel that combines the shirt collar with the simplicity of a tee-shirt? This question was first asked to a young graduate from a prestigious university in Beijing, now employed by a big State company:
“For me, it is the ideal garment for summer. The polo-shirt is formal enough to be worn in the office and at the same time light enough to bear the warmest days while being modern. I am not its only fan. Many young Chinese prefer the polo shirt to a simple tee-shirt that is too informal, and we also wear it to go out with friends.”
Polo shirts for every price
A plethora of versions of the polo shirt was indeed designed to fit every taste and every budget. Therefore, several famous foreign brands are present on luxury and high-end segments, while a myriad of small producers proposes cheaper offers. The late-comers seem to have succeeded in attracting a majority of buyers.
“I can find well-made polo shirts for a hundred Yuan [around 13 Euros]”, the young graduate says. “For richer people, there is the offer from fashion houses like Ralph Lauren, but their products are far more expensive, and few people wear it, at least around me. Students and people with lower income settle for a better-priced polo shirt, because the offer is very broad.”
The polo shirts market in China evolved from exporter to producer
Indeed, writing “polo shirt market in China” on Google leads to dozens of announces from e-commerce websites, among which the wholesale platform Alibaba.com and its B2C variant Aliexpress.com (both being part of the number one Chinese e-commerce Alibaba Group Holding Limited). As the first textile exporter worldwide, China is an expert in polo shirt manufacturing. The market study company Research and Markets evaluated that Chinese exports of tee-shirts and polo shirts would go beyond the four billion dollars mark as early as 2006, thanks to the work of more than 2,000 employees in this sector (source:businesswire).
But step by step, the polo shirts market in China evolved from exporter to producer. Some famous Chinese fashion designers were even seduced by the garment and selected it for their Men and Women’s collections. Today, the polo shirt stands on catwalks and appears in brands like Shanghai Tang, which is seen as one of the greatest actors of China’s luxury, Bosideng or even Septwolves, the 2013’s best sold fashion brand for men.
Double-edged success for foreign brands
Foreign brands are also well implanted on the polo shirt market, even though their high-end offer is mainly addressed to the upper middle class. The name of some iconic brands such as Hugo Boss or Ralph Lauren, which proposes a line fully dedicated to the polo shirt, is well known for Chinese people. But the American manufacturer was a victim of its own success: the polo shirt may be one of the most popular pieces of its collection among Chinese men, but it is also one of the most copied. It is partly for this reason that the company decided, from 2010, to reduce the number of middle-end retailers in China and to reposition its brand toward the luxury segment, while keeping the Polo line in its flagship stores.
Facing the same problem of counterfeiting at an even larger scale since Lacoste is one of the three most copied brands worldwide; the French company, however, follows the opposite strategy to market its famous polo shirt in China. In 2009, the chief executive José Luis Duran was thinking about dedicating 30% of the company’s investments to the Chinese market with the opening of some 80 stores. More recently, Lacoste successfully furthered its expansion on the digital level: according to Thiery Guibert, the successor of J. L. Duran, “Lacoste is enjoying a very strong growth potential.” For the new leader, instead of going deeper in the fashion market, the brand must strengthen in the segment of sports apparel such as golf and tennis (source: abonnes.lemonde.fr).
This decision is taken at the right moment: golf, as well as sports like horse riding and polo, is gaining growing enthusiasm from the Chinese upper class. Recently, China was the special guest at the Hublot Polo Gold Cup in Switzerland, a form of recognition for its young players that learning polo in brand new clubs: Tianjin’s club is only five years old and Beijing’s one, the biggest of the country, is just six. Regarding horse riding, the first club opened in Shanghai ten years ago, but the city now counts 19 clubs and another hundred opened in Beijing in one decade only. Finally, statistics are contradicting to determine the exact number of golf players in China, but one thing is certain: this number is growing. The Wall Street Journal calculates that it could reach 900,000 people in 2020 (source: wsj.com).
Anyhow, whether upper-class Chinese play polo, golf or ride horses, they will not miss the opportunity to dress accordingly in high-end polo shirts.
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