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Main Image: Courtesy Particle Fever

What's Behind Tmall's China Day?

As China Day expands at New York Fashion Week, ORDRE investigates Tmall’s showcase of mainland China's entrepreneurial designers.

Taking place during New York Fashion Week, Alibaba’s Tmall, in partnership with China’s leading entertainment company Suntchi, and supported by ORDRE, presented the second instalment of China Day, a platform showcasing the design capabilities and entrepreneurship of the country's domestic fashion industry.

China Day provides selected designers with the opportunity to present their collections to the discerning fashion public across a number of tech platforms facilitated by ORDRE, including 360-degree assets for see-now-buy-now initiatives on Tmall, online promotion to a curated network of retailers and support via the showroom app and touch-screens.

Featuring physical showrooms and runway shows, this season the event expanded to include a day of talks and a pop-up market for emerging designers. In a decade when local talent continues to be repackaged and rebranded, the new term coined by Tmall this time is ‘China Cool.’

The three brands included BoF 500 member Angel Chen, lifestyle brand JNBY (Just Naturally Be Yourself) and athleisure brand Particle Fever, with shows taking place off-site in New York’s West Village. Angel Chen was eager to point out that she was invited to showcase as opposed to going through any “selection process” and is adamant to develop US market “as much as she can.” Her colourful concept-driven streetwear has already found favour with retailers like Urban Outfitters and H.Lorenzo.

The advisory board included Steven Kolb — chief executive of the CFDA and LV Xiaolei — deputy-general of the Shanghai Fashion Week committee - as well as Carol Lim and Humberto Leon. While the final choice of runway brands might seem arbitrary, what it does illustrate — as highlighted by Jessica Liu at a press conference last week — is it neatly caters for three key consumer groups identified by Tmall as luxury spenders: Millennials, loyal and middle class.

Chen, whose collections will have now appeared on the runways of all the big four fashion weeks, as well as at Shanghai Fashion Week, appeared most interested in reaching online audiences. “What pushed our decision to join this China Day was the advanced technology provided by Tmall,” she told ORDRE. “It includes Live Streaming as well as see-now-buy-now capabilities. This brings us more opportunities on both showcasing and online business.”

A desire to reach US audiences specifically is also of interest, perhaps more so to the other two brands. JNBY, owned by the JNBY Group, have previously opened stores in New York and Seattle but to limited success. Headquartered in Hangzhou, the home of Alibaba, JNBY Group recently moved into the homeware section, enabling it to complete their portfolio and unify brand concept — thus a re-entry into the US market seems likely. Particle Fever, high-end sportswear stocked by Lane Crawford and backed by Alibaba, has also recently been quite vocal about its interest in the US.

“This is the latest step in China maturing as cultural power, following decades in the shadows as the factory of the world.”

While the unlikely trio serves Tmall’s demographics, perhaps more notably what they have in common is a strong visual appeal often lacking in Chinese brands looking to export. Paul Fang, chief executive of Suntchi, explains: “In recent years Chinese designers have been striving in building brands with a point of view. The Chinese market itself has become more conscious and interested in quality and design rather than simply chasing big names.”

This visual brand-building is what mainland China as a continent has been doing for the last few years via a range of international collaborations. As insiders know, a collaboration with a US entity was not a surprise. “This appears to be the latest step in the maturation of China as cultural or soft power following decades in the shadows as the factory of the world,” says Andrew Thacker, director of Kantana, a creative digital agency based in London and Beijing. “We have seen this with Vip.com and JD.com's tie-ups in London so a collaboration in New York was to be expected.”

The cache of showing in a Western fashion capital has long been leveraged by designers on the mainland from Xander Zhou to Uma Wang, yet, what is different now is the why. As Thacker continues, “while emerging Chinese fashion brands want the clout and recognition of the international stage, they are ultimately interested in the Chinese consumer right now, not the international consumer — they already have the fastest growing fashion market at home.”

Herein hints at what might be the real reason for the creation of a China Day: a marketing exercise for consumers back home. Moreover, it is access to this growing domestic market in China which Western brands are increasingly attempting to access and decipher. Fang’s closing words reveal an exciting new prospect and may tantalise many in the American market: “Also in the works, through our partnership with the CFDA, is an exchange program, a platform where American designers have the opportunity to get to know the Chinese market.”

It’s an opportunity to be appreciated and further proof that the industry is consolidating its pivot East-wards. Yet, as Thacker cautions: “The fulcrum has been heading east for years, though the US and European markets, and in future Africa, may have something to say about where it ultimately settles.” With Shanghai Fashion Week soon to follow, for now, the industry is keeping a keen eye on China.