Nana: Fashion has infinite possibilities, and new power is born from it. As a carrier of culture and times, fashion encompasses everything. From trendy to traditional culture, from celebrities, idols to everyone’s daily life, and from West to East, it is our discourse, our power, our time. Through Asian Voice, we hope to spread the local Asian fashion culture to the world by moving cross languages and borders.
In this issue, we welcome LABELHOOD, a Chinese buyer platform that focuses on local designer brands. LABELHOOD starts with the establishment of the first store to promote Chinese designs, and now has gradually become a designer incubation platform, providing resources and a stage for Chinese designer brands to showcase and promoted them to the world. It has unearthed more than 300 Chinese independent designer brands, including SHUSHU/TONG, Uma Wang, Angel Chen, and other innovative brands.
To help and incubate local designers and give them more opportunities to be seen by fashion lovers, LABELHOOD started a yearly fashion week to support them cost-effectively. Now, it has become a part of Shanghai Fashion Week. Extending a market with annual sales of nearly $3 billion in size, LABELHOOD has become a platform that many local designers aspire to join.
This time, we welcome the buying director, Jill from LABELHOOD to talk about how to select brands and designers, opportunities and challenges for Chinese designers, the fashion market, advices for brands, and so on.
Such a huge Chinese market has attracted much attention from the fashion industry in recent years, how is the current situation and how will it develop in the future, this interview may give us some ideas. If you are interested in Chinese fashion, certainly, you don’t want to miss this.
Nana: Could you please introduce yourself as the buying director of LABELHOOD to us first?
Jill: I’m British Chinese. I was born in Kunming, Yunnan province in China, and I grew up in the south of England. I studied economics at the London School of Economics. Before I joined LABELHOOD as buying director, I’ve worked as a management consultant in London as well as a buyer. I also had my own store in Shanghai, but I sold that.
My role at LABELHOOD is buying director which means that I choose which brands we work with and what products we sell in our stores offline and online.
Nana: What motivated you join LABELHOOD?
Jill: The thing that motivated me to join LABELHOOD was its mission to support Chinese designers, which I’m really passionate about personally. The really interesting thing that’s been happening the last few years, has been the explosion of young Chinese designers. So that’s something that I’ve wanted to be more involved with.
And that’s something that LABELHOOD has been also passionately doing since 2009.
Nana: So, the members of brand team will research the designer brands in China, and you will check and made the final decision.
Jill: Yes, so we’re always on the lookout for new talents. We find them in lots of different ways. Not just during Shanghai Fashion Week, but also through some social media, and designers always approach us as well.
Nana: LABELHOOD is already well known internationally than I though before. Since 5 years ago I’ve saw some articles writing about LABELHOOD in Japan already. LABELHOOD is kind of the innovation in China fashion market that time.
Jill: Very interesting. Japan has been a driver of innovation, especially in fashion since the 80s. There are so many designers that I admire from Japan. Now in China, there’s a similar explosion in young talent, similar to what was happening in Japan in the 80s and 90s.
Nana: I’m always thinking that Japanese fashion is not the moment. Japan has many good fashion trends and designers but in these few years, everyone is talking about Chinese fashion. Such as comparing Shanghai fashion week to Tokyo fashion week.
Jill: I’ve been Tokyo fashion week. But I think the tricky thing with Tokyo Fashion Week is that it’s not in one week. Obviously, I don’t live in Japan, so if I’m visiting Tokyo, I can’t stay sadly for a whole month. I can’t see everything! It’s quite difficult to choose when to go.
But Shanghai, especially LABELHOOD, we don’t call it fashion week, we call it LABELHOOD fashion festival, but it’s very much focused in one week. So it’s a good time to be in Shanghai.
Nana: What kind of experience do you want to bring to customers when they are shopping from LABELHOOD ?
Jill: I want LABELHOOD to be a place where customers feel inspired, but also feel at home so it’s a mix of balancing the familiar with the new. We want our stores to be a destination, when customers come we want them to leave feeling fulfilled like they’ve eaten a meal for their soul, even if they don’t buy anything.
Nana: How do you select them, and what are some important factors for you to decide?
Jill: I don’t think there’s a magic formula to why we select a brand. It’s very instinctual love. But I think it’s important that it’s a team decision. The buyers as well as the sales team, all have to be on board and agree on a brand.
I do think one of the most important things though, is for designers to have a strong identity. Secondly, the brand values are quite important. So whether we will work well with that team, or whether LABELHOOD shares a similar vision to how we grow the brand together.
Nana: What do you think are the biggest opportunities and challenges for emerging Chinese designers and brands?
Jill: The biggest opportunity is the size of the Chinese market. It is huge. And also the openness of consumers, especially Gen Z, love to buy local designers, which is something that has happened in the last three to five years.
I think the challenges are that it’s still very much an emerging market. A lot of the framework isn’t in place yet. For instance, I think China’s still lacked big retailers who can nurture young designers investors, who can understand how to work with younger designers. For instance, you know, England is a much smaller market than China but actually, there’s quite a lot of quite established retailers there.
For a young brand in China, it’s more difficult to build your stockists, it’s more difficult to build a business to represent a very established retail network. But it’s all changing, it’s all happening now.
I think the other challenge is that a lot of Chinese designers are very young so often they just graduate. When you see new brands for instance, in Japan, the designers typically have a lot more work experience. It’s also because there aren’t that many established brands in China. So again, it all goes back to the fact that I think the entire fashion industry is still in a nascent stage.
Nana: As you said before, besides select store, LABELHOOD also holds fashion week as well, why did LABELHOOD decide to hold it?
Jill: I think when we first opened the store, we felt there wasn’t really a platform for young designers to present their collections in China. So we established our fashion festival to give designers an opportunity to showcase their work to a wider audience in China, as well as a chance to engage with the growing fashion community in China. That’s the main reason. It gives them a bigger voice.
Nana: Before this fashion festival, are there few places for Chinese brands to share their designs, besides Shanghai Fashion Week?
Jill: We are now part of Shanghai Fashion Week though, I think it’s true that Shanghai Fashion Week and LABEDLHOOD were one of the main way for a young brand to showcase their presentations within China.
Also, we also concern many independent designers’ limited budget, so we wanted a cost effective way as well.
Nana: It is important for new brands, since they don’t have that much investment, mass media bases. Tokyo fashion week also needs to pay a lot in order to join. Only one out of 100 brands can be joined it for free. Besides that you also needs to pay for the cost like stylists, photographers, etc. Thank you so much for sharing!
Next, is it possible for you to share some most challenging experiences recent year for the store?
Jill: I think probably the biggest challenge we faced was when Shanghai lockdown first in 2020 and then obviously this year in 2022. We had to work very fast. For example, we had less than a month to move our fashion festival entirely online, but also to figure out how to serve our customers digitally and survive during that time.
Since the customer in China is digitally native, very willing to shop online. So we didn’t feel that there was a huge resistance to buying online. Our digital business actually grew very quickly during the last few years during COVID trying pandemic.
But what it means is that it challenges us to create an even more unique experience offline, because if it’s so easy to shop online, how can we make sure that there’s a real reason for customers to also visit our students, our offline stores?
We’ve been doing more events. We’ve been doing more collaborations and thinking about how we make that entire retail journey more of an experience.
Nana: Do you have any advices for our readers who want to have their own career in fashion industry?
Jill: I would give the same advice that I give to our brands, which is to have a strong point of view. Because as buyers, we are storytellers, but instead of words we use products. How can we make the story interesting to our customers, how can we surprise and engage the customer.
Also I think that you need to stay true to your vision that you are building, and spend time to nurture that vision instead of following trends.
Because I think trends don’t last but having a strong identity is everlasting. So I think that’s the most important thing to have that point of view.
Nana: Sometimes we’ll try to keep following the trends and create some similar product the same times. For instance, in Japan, streetwear is the recent trend, many Japanese brands followed it but what if the trend is over?
Jill: Brands and retailers often get distracted by trends. But you really have to know exactly what your identity is, what you’re trying to say to the customers from the very beginning. You need to stay true to that.
I think the most successful designers are recognizable even ten years, Twenty years, thirty years after they started their collections, such as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, etc., they are recognizable instantly regardless of what’s fashionable.
You need to stay true to your vision that you are building, and spend time to nurture that vision instead of following trends.