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Chinese shun foreign brands

Catwalks canceled, showrooms closed, stores shuttered: the pandemic has led to massive disruption across the fashion industry. Even in China, which has coped with the pandemic better than many countries, multi-brand store buyers have been forced to place orders online, rather than in the showroom. And they don’t like it much.

All this has led many Chinese fashion buyers to order more conservatively this year or ignore international brands and opt for local Chinese labels.

Olivia Chen, head of Assemble by Réel, a high-end store in Shanghai’s centrally-located Réel Mall, says that virtual ordering makes her feel like something is missing. “In a showroom, you’re immersed in an environment that conveys the season’s atmosphere. We can use a variety of sensory clues to gain insight into the story the designer wants to convey,” says Chen. “These elements create a certain kind of atmosphere, one that has a lasting and powerful influence. Images and other materials related to remote purchases can evoke some of that feeling, but it can’t achieve a high degree of resonance.”

Chen emphasises the difference between an image of a product and the product in real life, whether it’s in the weight of the fabric or the way the fabric moves on the body.

Eric Young, head of high-profile designer store Le Monde de SHC in Shanghai, agrees. “Many times you have no choice but to judge a product from a photo or small picture, but even with Zoom, the imaging quality of different showrooms is actually very different,” he says. In Paris, he points out, a whole series of brands can be viewed in the space of a day. By contrast, online ordering is a long repetitive process of frustration. “In the end, one grows numb to viewing things online,” he says.

More buyers would prefer to make the long trip to Europe for a more immersive experience — it would let them buy more boldly, explore new hot brands and interact with designer brands on a more personal level. Frustrated that they can’t travel, some buyers have come up with alternative solutions: from the AW21 season, Shanghai buyer store Eth0s set up a small showroom for 15 foreign brands including Geoffrey B. Small, Marc Le Bihan and Antonio Marras.

Chen also notes that extra materials are being provided to improve the online experience. “The main change since the pandemic started is that brands are providing auxiliary materials before a Zoom meeting, including introductions to a line, lookbooks and fabric samples,” she says.

As Chen notes, a shift to online ordering already predated the pandemic to some extent. “Actually a lot of brands started doing online ordering before this,” agrees Jony, manager of Chengdu buyer store Clap. “But it’s a plan B at best. Physical ordering is still extremely necessary.”

Like many Chinese buyers, Le Monde de SHC’s Eric Young is reluctant to take a risk with new foreign brands that he cannot physically touch and see for himself. That problem has encouraged buyers to play safe, making safer purchases. “It’s also an opportunity for local designers. As long as the lines they launch are good enough, they’ll definitely have a higher chance of getting orders than they would have before the pandemic. Shanghai Fashion Week this past April was more active than it’s ever been,” he says.

At Eth0s, another leading Shanghai store, head Chen Fei has struggled to find the right Chinese brands that match his outlook. “We have been very committed to finding domestic brands, and we’ve met some good designers, but… we want a brand that shares our world view,” he explains.

Chen Fei has not played safe, looking for bold special pieces to excite his customers. “Everyone was quite frustrated because of the lockdown, and we wanted to stimulate the pleasure they get from consuming. And we wanted customers to be happier.”

Chen Fei argues that the brands, rather than store buyers such as himself, have played it safer. “One thing that got more conservative was their style designs; another was their business decisions,” he says.

In Chengdu, Clap has reduced its budget for foreign designer brands by 30 to 50 per cent — instead, Clap has bought local high-impact brands. Fashion pieces with strong graphics are often bestsellers, says Jony. “Such styles may excite customers more easily, because when you’re not sure about the line itself or the fabric, the easiest way to decide what you’re going to buy is through graphic design.”

Olivia Chen of Assemble by Réel believes that if an effective purchasing programme is maintained, sales can be guaranteed. Post-pandemic, Assemble has maintained a sell-out rate of around 85 per cent.

The current situation has some time to run yet. Even the most optimistic forecasts do not predict normal travel resuming before the beginning of 2022. That means at least another season or two of ordering online.

With that in mind, Chen Fei believes brands should find better ways of presenting every detail of their clothes, especially more high-priced products. “If we can’t see the brand information clearly, it’s possible we’ll consider reducing our order, but where the information is clear, we feel quite confident about placing an order. For example, Rick Owens is very good — they have a representative in China and will try to provide very complete information. For example, if a style has five fabrics they’ll do their best to provide samples. We’ve bought from them for a long time. We even know the body shape of the model the brand uses, so there won’t be any big deviations in our orders.”

Foreign showrooms are looking to enter the Chinese market. At Shanghai Fashion Week in April, Antwerp agency Up Next brought a number of brands, including Casablanca, Botter and Sweetlimejuice.

Fresh design ideas and exciting new brands remain a driving force for the most fashion-forward stores. While easy-to-wear brands at attractive price points are likely to sell well in China, as in any market, the new generation of buyer-led stores are also serving the tastes of some increasingly sophisticated customers. “A lot of female consumers have gotten really niche in their tastes, and wear the clothes really well, better even than the brand’s own styling,” says Chen Fei. “They wear the clothes in ways the brand didn’t expect them to.”


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