Angelica Cheung, the Chanel-frocked editor of Vogue China, has a problem her counterparts would sell their designer wardrobes for: too much advertising to fit in the glossy.
“I have to sit down at a desk to flip through it,” she says. “It is going to get very difficult to read. It’s too heavy. Maybe it will have to be two magazines in future.”
In the US, Vogue’s chunky September issue is fashion’s lodestar; so successful it spawned its own documentary. In China every month’s edition is a glossy, advert-packed, doorstopper: testament to the explosion of the high-end fashion industry.
As the latest wealth report logs 960,000 millionaires in China, the expanding ranks of the super-rich are seeking ways to confirm their status and indulge a newfound taste for consumption.
High-end brands are happy to assist. The ubiquitous Louis Vuitton boutiques have been joined by Loewe and Balmain. Burberry plans to expand from 57 to 100 stores within five years. Hermès has even launched its own China-specific sub-brand, Shang Xia.
The management consultancy McKinsey predicts that, as middle-class consumers acquire the designer habit too, within four years China will become the world’s largest luxury market, worth $27bn (£16bn), up from $10bn in 2009. .
Add in purchases overseas, by Chinese tourists avoiding the country’s sky-high luxury taxes, and the figures are staggering. Chinese consumers will buy more than 44% of the world’s luxury goods by 2020, forecasts CLSA Asia-Pacific, the brokerage and investment group.
That ratio is all the more remarkable given that high-end brands emerged only in the 1990s. Cheung says Vogue China requires more “education” pages than its sister titles, to make up for the missing years and unravel the western references. “In China [the 1960s] was the Cultural Revolution. You need to explain swinging London, Mary Quant, the Beatles and why these people made a difference. If you don’t explain, they’re just clothes.”
According to Pierre Gervois, from China Elite Focus, a Shanghai marketing agency “Buying abroad is a strong trend for wealthy Chinese. Luxury travel clubs such as the Shanghai Travelers’ Club send every month small groups of Chinese shoppers who have prepared carefully their shopping itinerary. If they go to NYC, for example, they will have planned in advance their stops at Piaget, Ralph Lauren, Graff, Begdorf Goodman, and have their platinum credit card ready!”. Certainly, the fashion industry is putting down roots in popular culture. China has its own Project Runway – called Creative Sky, with Cheung as a judge. And it has its own take on The Devil Wears Prada, with the fashion romance Colour Me Love.
Even now fewer than 2% of the population buys top-end brands, says Zhu Mingxia of Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics. “The next decade will be the golden era for luxury.”
Beauty products and accessories account for a much larger slice of the market than in the west, and more of the customers are male; according to the American accessories marketer Coach Retail International, men account for 45% of China’s $1.2bn luxury handbag market.
Prada shoulder bags and Gucci clutches are essential props for many businessmen. And if they are not carrying their own status symbol, young men may wield one on behalf of a girlfriend.
Buying a partner an expensive handbag establishes you as husband material; carrying it for her is also appreciated, so it is not uncommon to see burly young men gallantly toting pink or diamante-studded bags.
Many of these new consumers are executives and entrepreneurs, keen to show they have made it, or the offspring of wealthy families. Others, however, are the aspirational: “Secretaries who live on instant noodles for six months to pay for their LV handbag … it’s a way of saying, ‘I have become part of this world,’ ” said Paul French of the retail consultancy Access Asia.
Cynics joke that “the three Cs – the corrupt, the criminal and the concubines” are among the heaviest spenders. A gold watch or expensive handbag not only show appreciation to a helpful official or acquiescent mistress; they are also tradable assets and less traceable than cash.
Brands see they must fight to retain an aura, justifying their price tags as their popularity increases.
Shops are springing up not only in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in unglamorous provincial cities such as Hefei and Shijiazhuang. With minimal rents (developers believe prestige brands attract other clients), there is little to stop their relentless multiplication, even when customers are thin on the ground.
“Every mall in Beijing has a Versace, and every year there’s another mall,” said Miao Wong, managing director of a record company, as she eyed the designer-clad crowd at a recent Burberry party in the capital. Two or three years ago she too shopped for high-end, western labels; these days she prefers local designers such as Vega Wang.
She may be rare among her peers, but officials also appear to think fashion is better when it keeps a lower profile. Beijing recently banned billboards promoting “hedonistic and high-end lifestyles”, underlining concern about overt displays of wealth in an increasingly unequal society.
One day later a minister indicated plans to cut luxury taxes. The message to brands and customers alike: consumption is fine, just don’t make it too conspicuous.
Source: Article by Tania Branigan & Lin Yi, The Guardian