Lei Liushu and Jiang Yutong burst onto the fashion scene in 2015 after graduating from London College of Fashion. They launched Shushu/Tong and have since mastered the genre of girly, anime fashion with a directional edge; think babydoll dresses and asymmetrical two-pieces that balance ruffles and bows with shiny zippers and straps. The designers, friends for years, work collaboratively - coming up with ideas together which Lei (known as Shushu) develops, leaving Jiang (the Tong of the partnership) to focus on business development and expansion. This has proved a winning formula, earning an enviable list of global stockists, award nominations and a number of hardcore fangirls from around the world.
According to Lei, their latest collection shown at Shanghai Fashion Week packed even more punch, showcasing a new, darker muse: “Pieces were more deconstructed this time, with raw edges and our signature check was hand-painted by me. It was a bloody love story…But, you know, this is the real world - it doesn’t always end well.” As well as opening up about failed love, Lei is also frank about their fortuitous timing: “We went back to China at just the right time.”
She continues, “When we came back here [Shanghai] there were only a few boutique stores but suddenly there was this explosion of retailers. This all happened in the past few years...Also so many traditional shopping malls changed direction - like Galeries Lafayette, SKMP and Bailian. Now they are all have sections for small brands.” Shushu/Tong’s appeal is still decidedly niche - they are currently stocked in 10 domestic cities). However, Chinese buyers are now on the hunt for something special, which is what the brand’s quirky aesthetic provides. Lei explains, “In the first few seasons we had top cities. Last season we had more and more buyers making orders from small cities, ones you’ve probably never heard of like Wenzhou.”
As part of navigating this dynamic retail environment, the duo is currently gearing up for their latest venture: opening a store on China’s biggest e-tail platform, Tmall. In what seems like an obvious next step, they will join a growing number of independent designers selling on the platform. And while Chinese e-commerce will always be dominated by platforms, Adam Knight, co-founder of digital agency Tong Digital, believes a more hybrid approach to the market is more bankable.
“For niche, designer brands the mass appeal of such marketplaces is irrelevant,” Knight says. He suggests selling on an official social commerce store on WeChat or the platform RED as they offer the best of both worlds to smaller, more boutique brands. “On the one hand, they get to leverage the technology, payment integrations and user base of an established player, but also ultimately control the design of that store, pricing and customer service,” Knight continues. Indeed, this allows brands to keep control of their valuable data – a factor also overlooked in Instagram’s new Checkout feature.
In fact, according to Knight, Instagram (despite being blocked in China) has a sizeable user base on the mainland: “Estimates range from 2.6 to 3.7 million. This is not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and expats living in the US, UK and elsewhere.” Surprisingly, Lei confirms this, stating that the social platform impacts on sales slightly more than local ones like Weibo. “We were found on there by Ssense, for example, but surprisingly it’s also helping in the Chinese market too. Some designers don’t use it but we think it’s really important.” he adds. Come July, when the Tmall store launches with Labelhood, the results of the duo’s balancing act will no doubt make for interesting insights. If recent indications are anything to go by, they are definitely on the right track.