HCH in Shanghai stocks more than 70 brands by independent designers from China and abroad. (Photo: China Daily)
Independent fashion labels are experiencing significant growth as domestic consumers turn to buyers' shops, and emerging Chinese designers continue their rise on the global scene.
Having worked with many designers since her days as a brand agent for a host of Chinese brands such as Exception, Hu Chunhui learned that it is not simply the physical designs that matter when it comes to fashion.
Rather, the stories that designers want to tell are just as, if not more important, to the label.
Eager to champion the voices and stories of designers, Hu opened HCH, a fashion buyers' shop, in 2012. It is a move she has not regretted. Today, Hu owns seven stores in Wuhan in Central China's Hubei province and Shanghai that stock more than 70 brands by independent designers from China and abroad.
Over the past two years, Hu has also actively promoted emerging designers by helping them set up showrooms at Shanghai Fashion Week to attract potential partners.
"When I first decided to open a buyers' shop there were no similar stores in the market. Today, there are thousands of such businesses across the nation," says Hu, a Wuhan native. "That's how fast the industry is growing."
The concept of a fashion buyers' shop is believed to have originated in Europe around the 1950s when small stores started to stock fashion products by independent designers. Today, this concept is no longer limited to small boutique stores - even the major industry players such as Galeries Lafayette and Lane Crawford have adopted this focus of featuring the relatively more obscure, independent designers.
In 2017, the famous Paris-based fashion buyers' shop Colette caused a stir when it announced that it was exiting the market after 20 years of operations. Many people within the industry saw this as a sign that the buyers' shop concept in Europe was on its last legs. This notion was reinforced when renowned London-based buyers' shop Browns was acquired by e-commerce company Farfetch, while 10 Corso Como, another famous buyers' store, appeared to be on the decline.
The story of buyers' shops in China, however, has been different. Since the first buyers' shop in China opened in 1996, this business concept appears to have only become more popular through the years. According to the 2017 Autumn Winter Shanghai Fashion Week Big Data Report released by UnionPay Advisers, the number of domestic buyers' shops in the country increased from 1,636 in 2015 to 3,781 in 2017.
Meanwhile, the MODE exhibition - it is a showcase of creations by independent designers for buyers during the Shanghai Fashion Week - had just nine showrooms when it first launched in 2015. This year, the event featured 28 showrooms that hosted 427 brands.
Factors behind the rise
Industry insiders have pointed out that the rise of the buyers' shop in China can be attributed to factors such as the growing interest in domestic designers who have in recent years been garnering much attention on the international stage.
This growing interest has in turn led to media outlets, department stores and brand agents channeling more attention toward emerging designers. Another reason is the change in consumer behavior.
"I started this business because I was obsessed with the story behind designers. But I did so also because I noticed that consumers were no longer chasing only the luxury or mass-market brands. They were getting more and more interested in independent designers as well," says Hu.
Qiu Qingying, who runs four buyers' shops called Fashion on Top in Shanghai, Fo Shan, Sydney and Melbourne, shared the same observation. Her Shanghai store, which opened in Xintiandi in 2017, rakes in about 550,000 yuan ($82,042) in sales per month.
"Consumer's growing recognition of emerging Chinese designers has been the key reason why buyers' shops are doing well today. Many young and well-educated consumers who draw a high income and value individualism visit my stores. These people care more about the quality and design instead of the brand name," says Qiu.
"For a buyers' shop, the key to success is having a clear sense of the style it wants to showcase. Another key factor is being aware of how consumers' tastes are changing," she adds.
Ida Peterson, the director of buyers' at Browns, says that she placed orders from 10 local brands during her visit to MODE this March. She also plans to cooperate with another 10 brands during the next MODE event later this year.
"The maturity of Shanghai Fashion Week, especially the MODE and its showrooms, really inspired me. The city will soon become an important stop for international buyers because the standards of emerging designers are high as many of them have learned the craft overseas," she explains.
While buyers' shops have emerging designers to thank for their burgeoning sales figures, the stores themselves also have a part to play in a designer's success, notes Hu.
"Young designers have limited channels, funds and experience when it comes to marketing their brand. As such, they need the support from buyers' shops. Most importantly, the buyers' shops provide a platform for consumers to meet with the designers and learn about their stories," Hu says.
The road ahead
While the future of buyers' shops in China appears to be full of promise, Hu says that the lack of regulations, the complex market, price control and rife plagiarism could prove to be stumbling blocks.
According to Hu, some buyers' shops tend to "break the rules" and lower the prices of products without consultation with the designers. There are even those that resort to promoting counterfeits to raise their profits.
"Although the competition between buyers' shops is heating up, there are only so many talented designers at the moment. The demand is overwhelming supply," explains Hu.
The standards that buyers adhere to also have to be unified if the market is to grow further, said Liang Jie, who has worked in the fashion industry for almost a decade.
"A buyers' shop must have a high threshold for quality and pride itself on championing creative designs. It cannot only care about profits," Hu says.