Like many up and coming designers in China, Shanghai-based designer Ying Pei looked to reputable institutions in the west to study fashion, where more often, a conceptual design approach is favoured. “Studying at the London College of Fashion for five years changed the way I see the world,” says Pei. “It taught me how to take my first steps as a designer and use my imagination to bring ordinary objects to life.”
After graduating in 2013, she followed her instincts and established her womenswear label back home in Shanghai. “I launched the brand in Shanghai because the city is one of my biggest inspirations,” she explains, adding: “I believe its bustling environment and rich fashion heritage make a good match of the brand’s DNA.”
Encouraged by her studies abroad and a return to familiar terrain, she carved out a brand identity based on poetic storytelling. A concept still core to the brand, her latest SS’19 collection draws inspiration from the delicate nuances of sisterhood, exploring the relationship between English artist, Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf.
Pei goes on to outline how basing the label in Shanghai means production is efficient and costs are low, given its proximity to manufacturers and resources across China. But despite the production benefits and the advantage of being in a market she can navigate, Pei reveals the label’s sales growth is relatively slow (30 percent season on season) since launching in 2014.
Vincent Djen, co-founder of FashionEx, a Shanghai-based incubator for startup fashion brands, suggests a label’s slow growth can be attributed to limiting target markets too early on: “Often, Chinese designers launch their fashion businesses with only a local audience in mind, so when they start planning a global strategy, they have to adjust what they’ve currently built to fit the demands of an international audience in a hurry.”
“Having the appropriate marketing material to support sales and finding the right PR media partners are crucial to penetrating international markets”
He explains that it can then take time for brands to catch up to strategies which operate comparatively differently in the west, including marketing, social media, and sales. “Having the appropriate marketing material to support sales, and finding the right PR media partners are crucial to penetrating international markets.”
With only Chinese-based stockists – including Labelhood and Heaven in Shanghai and SoWhat in Chengdu – Pei reveals she is keen to grow her brand globally and land international retailers like Lane Crawford and Harvey Nichols. In the last four years, she’s been working towards this expansion by focusing on improving the brand’s supply chain management and product development. “I am currently fine-tuning my collections to broaden my clientele reach, and cater more to European consumers,” she adds.
Interestingly, she earmarks the UK and Spain as her next points of interest. While the UK makes sense, considering she’s lived in the region and thus has a relative understanding of the consumer, Spain, on the other hand, seems an unexpected target. Pei simply explains she feels both markets will be particularly receptive to her designs: “I believe Spain and the UK benefit from an influx of tourist spending, and open-minded consumers who welcome and support independent brands.”
Although Pei is optimistic, Djen warns that in order to be relevant to international consumers, Chinese designers need to be mindful of a number of challenges. He states fit and sizing must be carefully considered, as this can vary greatly from designs for consumers on the mainland. “They must also assess delivery times, as issues can often arise for long-haul transportation,” he says.
Despite the numerous obstacles ahead, it seems Pei still hopes to meet the demands of global consumers. Aside from developing her product and supply chain, she earmarks label branding and marketing to align all aspects of the business. Djen suggests in doing so, she might well find success: “For any consumer, fashion is about expressing self-identity and looking great while doing so. If Chinese designers can communicate this through their products and story via the proper channels, they can definitely be successful.”