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China's Prodigal Graduates Return Home

A fast-changing world order brings confident Chinese graduates back home.

Haizhen Wang was one of the first Chinese designers to leave the mainland and start up a fashion business in the West in 2010. He was closely followed by the likes of Masha Ma, and Yang Du a few years later. Since then, London, alongside the other fashion capitals, has become base to a host of Chinese designers including Huishan Zhang, Yang Li, Feng Chen Wang, Xu Zhi and Samuel Guì Yang, among others.

Now, times and trends have changed, and Chinese graduates are returning back home to set up their lines on the mainland as the allure of domestic customers and their spending-power increases exponentially. “London might have more advantages, but you have to think about where is your biggest market and how to open up that market,” says Haizhen Wang, who six years after starting his brand, has jumped ship and is currently based between Shanghai and Huaqiao.

This comes at a time when the pivot East is reaffirmed by the recent State of Fashion 2019 report, created by the Business of Fashion in partnership with McKinsey and Co, which predicts for the first time in centuries that Greater China will “overtake the US as the world’s largest fashion market next year” — some figures report this has already happened. Additionally, the growing influence of social media and acceptance of emerging markets means it makes little difference where a brand is based nowadays. Factors like global political uncertainty, Brexit and its potential implications, and Trump’s anti-Chinese sentiments also make the mainland more attractive as a business base.

According to Lu Min, founder of the label Studio P.I., educator and sustainable design entrepreneur, one of the biggest factors is money — now less of a problem for the new generation. “Unlike in my generation, graduates have the support to stay there [after graduating], but setting up in China is much easier,” she says. “You are familiar with the culture, there’s a huge consumer market here and then you also have the means of funding a business — this simply means they [graduates] come back.” She also suggests that while some designers continue to maintain businesses abroad, (or use bi-location models where a Western fashion capital is an outpost to a production base in China,) she feels the time has passed. “It’s just too difficult now...it’s a liberal world and there’s no such power structure to support and drive a business — there’s little help for designer to break out, and this is true for any nationality.”

“Normally Chinese businesses are looking for rapid expansion. This is just the Chinese way — they have little patience for slow growth”

Rehn-Shyuarn Ong

Rehn-Shyuarn Ong, strategic consultant to Chinese luxury e-commerce companies, believes that Chinese designers on the whole are still “figuring out their global positioning, and this means [they’re] still experimenting.” What better place to experiment than in a market they intuitively understand, where disposable income is set to double over this decade, according to research by McKinsey. “Obviously they are better connected here,” she continues, “And normally Chinese businesses are looking for rapid expansion. This is just the Chinese way — they have little patience for slow growth.”

David Hadida, managing director of Tranoï Showroom, who is a regular at Shanghai Fashion Week, agrees that China is now the most dynamic market for a young fashion entrepreneurs. “As new Chinese consumers are getting increasingly conscious and proud of their identity, these designers understand the logic in targeting their own market,” says Hadida. “It makes sense that they return home.”

Audrey Wang is one such recent graduate taking advantage of a shift towards her domestic market. An alumnus of London’s Royal College of Art, she returned in 2017 to set up her colourful, experimental womenswear brand Aubruino based between neighbouring cities of Shanghai and Nanjing. Showing 52 SKUs in Tube Showroom during Shanghai Fashion Week, the brand quietly picked up five local stockists, and a steady base to grow — a healthy result for an emerging designer in any market.

“China has more opportunities than London for young artists and designers,” Aubruino’s founder says. “There’s a lot of projects to get involved. Materials and productions costs is much more affordable than in the UK. For example I pay approximately a third of what I would normally pay in London for a similar studio.” However, it’s not all straightforward for the returning graduates and Wang adds: “Before, there was less competition, but recently a lot of graduates are rushing to start their own fashion brands. China has a very special market that requires strategies different to what we are taught in Europe… But it’s not the education what yields the success,” she summaries confidently, “rather the willingness to adjust to the market.”

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