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For a long time it has been a rather one-sided exchange, but could European consumers finally be starting to embrace Chinese luxury? “There’s a growing audience for Chinese brands – it’s more lifestyle and homeware products at the moment, but that could change,” says HSBC analyst Antoine Belge.
At the Eyes On Talent awards in Trieste, Italy, which aims to connect labels with new designers, two of the main category winners were young and Chinese: Xiao Li, a student at the Royal College of Art and Percy Lau of St Martins. This is just the latest example of a trend for China cultivating its own design talent.
Designer Huishan Zhang, who splits his time between China and London, received British Fashion Council “Newgen” backing to show at February’s London Fashion Week. Zhang’s collection is stocked in Browns Fashion in London and Joyce in Hong Kong, and has just been taken on by Neiman Marcus. “His clothes are beautiful,” says Ken Downing, the store’s senior vice-president and fashion director, adding that he is scouting for more Chinese designers for Neiman Marcus’s new Chinese ecommerce site.
Zhang’s collections – his feminine cocktail dresses, tailored evening jackets and pants in opulent silks – are inspired by the designer’s split influences (he was born in China, interned at Dior in Paris and studied fashion at Central St Martins).
“I want to create something new and adventurous,” says Zhang. “To really push the boundaries, combining eastern and western influence. There’s a new generation of Chinese luxury consumers emerging – like me, they’ve been educated in Europe, they travel and live internationally, and yet they still have a strong sense of their Chinese roots.”
Chinese designers are also infiltrating the Paris fashion scene, expanding into Europe while attempting to increase their prestige in the Chinese market. Shandong-born, Paris-based Laurence Xu showed during July’s couture week and Taiwan-based Shiatzy Chen shows in the French capital too.
Other Chinese brands eyeing European expansion include Stella Luna. In December the brand – one of China’s biggest luxury footwear companies – opened its first European store on Boulevard St Germain in Paris, and there are plans to open stores in London, Milan and Venice over the next five years.
These developments explain the interest from European luxury groups in buying labels that already have a strong Chinese following, such as Kering’s purchase last December of Qeelin. Shang Xia, the luxury brand collaboration between Hermès and designer Jiang Qiong, is also set to open its first international flagship store in Paris this September. “It’s partly a defensive move – Chinese luxury consumers currently favour European luxury brands but as their economy and culture develops they might switch allegiance to homegrown brands,” says HSBC’s Belge.
The reasons for a Chinese luxury brand – European backed or otherwise – opening in a European capital are straightforward. According to research by Global Blue, Chinese nationals accounted for 40 per cent of French tax-free sales in 2011 alone and the average tax-free transaction for a Chinese consumer in London in 2012 was £1,164.
“Having a store alongside prestigious European luxury brands enhances a sense of global prestige among visiting Chinese tourists,” says Milton Pedraza, chief executive of consumer researcher the Luxury Institute.
Zhang wants to change the perception of Chinese-produced goods. “The reputation for cheap production was driven by demand from western brands wanting lower-priced goods but China has a long history of craftsmanship and creating high quality, luxury products,” he says.
“Huishan Zhang is a primary example of the shift; his collection’s couture detailing is a world away from cheap mass-produced items we have associated with China in the past,” says Laura Larbalestier, buying director at Browns.
“Huishan’s appeal goes beyond the fact that he’s Chinese,” she continues. “His clothes appeal to a large group of clients looking for something more unusual.”