Last season, cashmere empire Erdos announced the launch of their cashmere scholarship at Shanghai Fashion Week. This season, the winners, Shanghai-based duo Shushu/Tong, closed the event with their collaborative collection.
“We are really grateful to be chosen as the winners,” Liushi Lei exclaims from his base in Shanghai. “This award not only gives us financial support but also the opportunity to work with one of the finest yarn suppliers in the market.”
For more than 30 years, the Erdos group has been manufacturing cashmere from its base, Ordos, Inner Mongolia. Helmed by Jane Wang, China’s own ‘cashmere princess’ and daughter of the founder, the company has other investments, including biochemicals and real estate. According to Bryan Wang, brand director of diffusion line 1436, they are on a mission to make cashmere cool within the industry, and an exciting by-product of this also means supporting emerging talent
“We want to make a luxury baby-cashmere brand from China because the best quality cashmere is here," Wang explains proudly. “It’s the reason why the company started in the beginning. Cashmere is also no longer what people imagine and has lots of possibilities.” With 1436 the top performing brand of the group’s four lines, it seems to be working.
Two years previously the seed for this scholarship was sown when 1346 collaborated with the designer, Uma Wang, their first attempt to appeal to a younger, millennial consumer. Securing a talent like Wang, who shows at Paris Fashion Week, was a coup that did not go unnoticed by Shanghai Fashion Week, and the collection debuted at its youthful Labelhood platform in October 2016.
The collaboration, pairing Uma’s exquisite designs with the quality baby cashmere, was well received by industry and critics alike. “We have a very particular and spectacular DNA, it’s the best of the best,” 1436’s director says, referring to the quality of the baby white cashmere: 500 goats will only produce 500 kilos with only .2% of the delicate white raw material meeting the brand standards.
While international expansion plans are afoot (they already have 37 stores in China and 2 in Japan), for now, the brand is mostly focused on battling the growing importance of social. With 47 percent of Chinese consumers preferring to stay online rather than offline - according to Mintel’s China March 2017 findings - it’s hardly surprising Erdos are eager to stand out.
“Our challenge is we are not Instagrammable," the brand director reveals. "We are not making very dramatic silhouettes, and this is an issue. How can you tell quality from the smartphone? So this season we wanted to create more noise.”
Wang also paints a troubling picture of the current knitwear industry. "There is a real shortage of designers working within the sector. As the leader of the knitting industry, we are actually worried about the talent. No one is using knitwear and if they do, they don’t have much access to the technical side. So we wondered what we can do to push young designers’ interest in knitwear?’
Thus the 1436 x Labelhood Baby Cashmere Scholarship was born. So, what did the scholarship involve this season? “Well, we provide all the financial and technical aspect of the knitwear. We invited Shushu/Tong to Inner Mongolia; they spoke to the head of our technical department; we opened our archive and our library so they could select stitches and colours, and so on,” Wang explains.
Shushu/tong’s Lei agrees that the scholarship could change the industry and escalate the plight of knitwear. “Working with an advanced production capability like Erdos meant we learned a wide range of different techniques. Knitwear is definitely an area we want to explore and this scholarship let us move it to the next level.”
Insiders like Echo Zhang, buying director of the Balancing, a new concept store from the Bailian Group, agrees this collection was a step up for the brand. “Obviously the knitwear plays a more important role this season but I was happy to see how seamlessly it was integrated into the collection," Zhang assess, adding, "the knitwear makes the whole collection even more complete.”
As one of the industry’s veterans, Uma Wang is impressed by this next step from 1436, explaining that that bigger brands need to be more supportive of the young creatives. “It’s beneficial for both the production house and the designers to be working together, " she says. "Having access to productions houses’ cutting edge technology for creating garments, along with their years of experience and professionalism, goes a long way in developing the collections and careers of young designers.”
With plans already in place for next season such as expanding to five finalists, and a public-facing exhibition and judging system, the group is also thinking of amplification around the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, (“why can’t cashmere be sporty or performative?”). If Erdos can’t entice a younger generation by making cashmere cool, who can?