Sep 3, 2020 - Economy

The fashion world looks to China

Illustration of a needle ball with the Chinese flag on it.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The fashion industry is reeling from the stunning blow dealt by a global pandemic that closed stores, largely ended international travel, and caused consumer demand for its products to shrivel.

  • All paths to recovery lead through China.

Driving the news: Paris men's fashion week was entirely virtual this year, and Louis Vuitton didn't show anything at all. Instead, the venerable French couture house put on a blockbuster show in Shanghai in August, featuring designer Virgil Abloh's new menswear collection alongside older pieces that were already available in stores.

  • By the numbers: The show attracted 84,000 viewers on Vuitton's website — but that number was dwarfed by the number of people who watched it live in China. It received 68 million viewers on WeBo, 18 million on Douyin, 8 million on Tencent, and millions more on other platforms.
  • Louis Vuitton shops in Shanghai, Taiwan, China, and Korea all had their biggest sales weekend in history following the show, reports Fashion United's Kristopher Fraser.

Be smart: Vuitton's Shanghai extravaganza marks a decisive shift from the fashion-week shows of 2019 and earlier, where a relative handful of influential magazine editors and department-store buyers were given an advance look at styles that wouldn't be readily available for another six months.

  • The fashion brands of tomorrow will instead use Fashion Week shows to communicate with and sell to their customers directly, often via digital channels.

What they're saying: "Department store chains are going bankrupt in the USA, and multi-brand boutiques in Europe are seeing their supplies reduced," says Bernstein luxury-goods analyst Luca Solca.

  • The fewer middlemen involved, the less grey-market activity there is, and the more control brands have over how their goods are presented and sold. See Nike, for instance, which recently slashed the number of retailers selling its shoes. No more Jordans on Zappos.
  • Margins are also higher when brands sell direct to consumers — something that is the norm in China, if not historically in Europe and the USA.

How it works: China has become the most knowledgeable and sophisticated fashion market in the world — as well as the one with the greatest sheer number of consumers. It has a dizzying proliferation of style tribes and cultures, as well as a fast-growing set of domestic brands helmed by Chinese designers trained in London or New York or Antwerp.

  • China isn't just about mass manufacturing any more. It has become the place the fashion world goes to find the most subtle and exacting artisans, not just in clothes but also in adjacent areas like tattoos.

The bottom line: Fashion industry association Altagamma now expects Chinese consumers to account for 50% of the global luxury market as soon as 2025. With international travel severely curtailed for the time being, they're going to have to do that shopping largely at home.

  • The world's fashion houses are going to have to meet those all-important consumers where they are.
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