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On China transcript: Fashion and style

updated 10:51 PM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
  • "On China" heads to Shanghai, where we meet the designers and retailers who are redefining Chinese fashion
  • Host Kristie Lu Stout tackles the rise of home-grown designers and the influence of China's First Lady Peng Liyuan
  • We also hit the runway at Shanghai Fashion Week to get a front-row glimpse of China's talent

Editor's note: This month's episode of On China with Kristie Lu Stout is on fashion and style and airs for the first time on Wednesday, November 20, 6:30 pm HKT. For all viewing times please click here.

Shanghai (CNN) -- This month, "On China" heads to Shanghai, where we meet the designers and retailers who are helping redefine what it means to be "Made In China."

In this half-hour, host Kristie Lu Stout tackles everything from the influence of China's First Lady Peng Liyuan, to whether Chinese designers will ever be able to compete on the international stage with brands like Chanel, Prada, or Burberry. We also hit the runway at Shanghai Fashion Week to get a front row glimpse of leaders in Chinese home-grown design.

READ: Meet the people making 'made in China' cool

Kristie Lu Stout: Chris Chang, Hung Huang, and Andrew Keith, welcome to On China. Now we are in Shanghai, which is arguably the fashion capital of China. How would you describe the sense of style here?

Hung Huang: I think it's very dynamic. I think, Shanghai is a bit like Paris. People dress. People really put out, and they really dress, which makes the city very beautiful.

Chris Chang: Yes, China is so big that actually different regions of the country have different mentality for way of dressing. I find that people in the north, they're more daring. They like to buy statement pieces. They're not so much in tune with what's in trend, what is trendy now, but they like the one-off pieces, the statement pieces. Whereas people in Shanghai and down south, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, people there are more in tune with what's happening on the global stage, what is the trend now, and they follow that closely. So it's a little bit different, I think, from the north to the south.

Andrew Keith: It's an interesting point. One of the things we're finding in Shanghai is that whilst there's an understanding of what's happening internationally, what's exciting is that people are wanting to express their own individuality.

On China: China's first lady
On China: Designed in China
On China: fashion and corruption

Chris Chang: Very much.

Andrew Keith: And so they're really looking for points of difference. They're looking for brands. They're looking for designers that are new...

Chris Chang: Exactly.

Andrew Keith: ...that are exciting and that are bringing something new to the market. And that's what we're experiencing with the new store that we've opened in Shanghai.

Kristie Lu Stout: And how big is the business? I mean just how big is the appetite for fashion in China?

Andrew Keith: Oh, I think that the appetite for fashion in China is limitless. I mean, the energy and the passion that the youth in China are showing in terms of their desire to dress and to be able to show themselves is great. And I think that there are really limitless possibilities here.

Kristie Lu Stout: And something has been in the headlines recently --- the anti-corruption crackdown. How is it affecting luxury brands and luxury fashion companies in China?

Andrew Keith: From Lane Crawford's perspective, where we have over 500 brands, what we're seeing is that there's not really any effect on our business at all. In actual fact, we're seeing positive growth. And I think that's because we are selling brands that are not ubiquitous. They're brands that are relatively tight in terms of their distribution, so people are coming to Lane Crawford to see new brands.

Hung Huang: So if you're gonna have an anti-corruption campaign, you're gonna have a little bit down on the gifting side of it, which doesn't mean that fashion will take a hit, you know. And so, actually, as a small, sort of, business operator focusing on local design, we have enjoyed a growth in, actually, our business, because people are now paying more attention on just enjoying fashion rather than using it as a way to get connection, or that kind of "Bling" emphasis is gone.

Chris Chang: My customers are buying for their own pleasure. My customers are not buying as gifts to other people. So actually it's been great for my business. And also the fact that now they're staying a little bit away from luxury. It means really a maturation of taste. People that are buying into luxury really enjoy luxury for what it is --- the heritage, the craftsmanship. And while the other group that are buying my stuff and things from Lane Crawford and BNC, they're really fashion lovers. They understand fashion. They wanna be unique and individual. So my customers are built on that base where they understand fashion. They've worn Chanel in the past, they've worn Pradas in the past, but now they want something individual and just more fun and beautiful.

Chris Chang
Chris Chang
Hung Huang
Hung Huang
Andrew Keith
Andrew Keith

Kristie Lu Stout: So it's the rise of the individual in terms of fashion sense in China?

Chris Chang: Definitely.

Kristie Lu Stout: What does "Made in China" mean for fashion consumers today in China? "Made & Designed in China" I should say?

Hung Huang: if you're Chinese, and you have been exposed to Western design and luxury goods, you do become curious as to what Chinese designers are doing, not necessarily always in terms of luxury, but in terms of fashion, in terms of industrial design. There is that natural curiosity because, I think for most Chinese there is a great eagerness to rediscover Chinese culture in many ways, in food, in fashion, in lifestyle. Because they have experienced all the wonders that Europeans and Americans have imported into China. And this actually prompted them to be more curious about themselves. So for me, the growth of BNC is really closely tied to a self-discovery that is going on in contemporary Chinese culture right now.

Chris Chang: I think "Made in China" right now, to the world, it means novelty. Because China has turned from factory of the world, to market of the world. And now everybody wants to see what it is as innovators of the world. So right now it's a novelty for the world to look into what Chinese designers are doing. But I think, there's a saying in Chinese, that it takes 3 generations of wealth to know how to live and to eat, so it doesn't take one day to upturn, to turnover, the negative images of "Made in China" that people had in the past. But I think it's coming along. And I think with stores like Lane Crawford and BNC carrying Chinese designers, that's like putting their endorsement on what the new "Made in China" means.

Andrew Keith: I think to Chris' point. For me it's not so much "Made in China" anymore. It's about "Created in China". And it's about China driving innovation. What's exciting is to see this generation, Chris and a number of other Chinese designers, really looking at how they can innovate on a global stage. And by mining the depth of what culture can offer China, looking at that being married together with manufacturing capabilities, together with a commercial acumen. And that's something, with Lane Crawford, we've been working with a number of Chinese designers, marrying commercial ability with design and innovative ability, to produce collections and products, which are going to really resonate with today's modern consumers. And we're very excited, because in our store here in Shanghai, we're actually showcasing the work of 3 very talented new generation of Chinese designers. And to Huang's point, what's very exciting is to see how those designers are actually resonating commercially. So, we're already reordering on those designer collections based on the appetite and desire for the Chinese consumers to actually buy in to the visions of these new generations of talent.

China's Fashion Industry

Hung Huang: Most Chinese want to have something that's classical Chinese, but has modern contemporary relevance to our lives. I mean, the actual very skin-tight Qi Pao wear you see in restaurants, which in the Western mind, that's Chinese fashion. It's actually not what today's Chinese want to wear anymore. We want that to be refitted for modern life, for movement, for talking to people, for out there having fun, and things like that. So designers like Chris are really relevant to us today, simply because they've taken something that is very classical and they've done something with it, you know. They modernized it. They made it relevant.

Kristie Lu Stout: Chris, tell me more about your reference points as a designer. What inspires you?

Chris Chang: I love minority costumes. When I travel to places like Yunnan, Xinjiang, Xizang (Tibet), places like that, I feel right at home. The way they piece everything together, the way they throw jewelry on, I feel like I was here before. So that's always very inspirational to me, the minority costumes. And also, the progression from doing one collection to the next. It's always very natural to me. What I'm doing now and how it should be carried into the next collection, I always feel like there's too much I want to say in this collection, so I'm going to save it and then reinterpret that in the next season.

Kristie Lu Stout: Let's talk about the young emerging Chinese designers today. How well trained are they? Where do they go for an education in China?

Hung Huang: A lot of them go to Central Saint Martin. There are some now beginning to go to Parsons.

Kristie Lu Stout: So they all go overseas?

Hung Huang: Overseas. And there are some that are local graduates. The issue with Chinese education is that it is super-technically focused on manufacturing. You know, if you're trained in China as a fashion designer, most likely you are most familiar with the manufacturing process versus the design process.

Kristie Lu Stout: Chris you were a judge on a show, Reality TV show called "My Style," which was China's answer to "Project Runway".

Chris Chang: Yes and I was very critical. Very mean. (Laughs) Very nasty!

Kristie Lu Stout: Which was good. You were constructive! What kind of impact do you think it made not just on the young designers on the show, but all the designers across China who were watching it?

Chris Chang: I think the message that I was trying to get to everybody it that, you can't be a designer just because you love fashion or just because you like to buy fashion. It's a tough industry. Deadline is the most, the utmost, important thing that we were taught at Parsons. If you've missed the deadline, you've missed the season. If fabric missed delivery, then you've missed the season. Going back to education, I think it's absolutely necessary for designers to have seen more, to have spent some time abroad, because this broadens their horizon. And this gives them a sense of how competitive it really is out there.

Kristie Lu Stout: So in China, how do you market to the fashion consumer and how is it different from the West?

Andrew Keith: I think one of the critical things in China is to be able to tell brilliant stories, and to be able to put things into context, so that the customers understand what brands mean, what designers' visions are, where they're coming from in terms of being able to share that. Because a lot of it is new to the market, and so people are going through that sense of discovery, which is incredibly exciting, to be able to help that process, to help shape and be able to form people's discoveries of their own personal style and also all the great product that the world has to offer. So from a marketing point of view, it's about being able to drive the story-telling, being able to put things into context and being able to explain why these products or these designers are important for you to know about.

Kristie Lu Stout: Now, outside looking in, arguably one of the biggest taste-makers in China is Peng Liyuan, the first lady of China. But really, how much influence has she had on fashion and style in China?

Hung Huang: Because China is an authoritarian society, so anyone in her position carries huge amount of influence. Now, I have worked in promoting Chinese designers since 2005. I have to say, what she did in one moment stepping out of plane in Russia, wearing Chinese-designed goods has probably 5 times what I've been trying to do for the past 10 years, in terms of influence, because she is who she is, in China. And all of a sudden, she put Chinese design on the map.

Kristie Lu Stout: She's been compared to in terms of the style stakes, Kate Middleton or Michelle Obama. But, correct me if I'm wrong here, has she been on the cover of a major fashion magazine in China?

Hung Huang: I think if she wants to be she can be on all of them, but I don't think she wants to be. (Laughs)

Kristie Lu Stout: Yah, why not?

Andrew Keith: I think her influence is global despite the fact that she doesn't need to necessarily go on the cover of a magazine. I think that you know, What she's able to do, in terms of being able to showcasing Chinese design on a global stage is actually unique. Very few people I think have the ability that she does to be able to do that. So, you know, I don't think she's positioning herself necessarily as a fashion icon. What she's positioning herself as, is as a supporter of what's happening from a commercial and industry perspective here in China. And that's very different to wanting to be on the cover of a fashion magazine necessarily.

Hung Huang: I totally agree.

China's style and the world

Kristie Lu Stout: Even if they are big names inside China or certain market segments here, they're not known overseas. So what do they need to know? So what's the advice for them to really take that next step?

Andrew Keith: Well I think from a Lane Crawford perspective, what's been interesting is to see the evolution of, you know, as Huang was saying, the creative design process, together with an understanding of the business side as well. So the understanding that it's critical that you meet your deliveries, that it is critical that your production is right, that your quality is correct, that your merchandising to a price point, that you can see your collection hanging in a store with other designers as well. Because it's not just about your collection. It's about how a retailer can create a total offer.

Hung Huang: On top of that, I think they need to grow up from the Chinese way of doing business, which is all about connection. It's not about sales figures. It's not about building a sophisticated operation so you can deal with Lane Crawford and BNC and perhaps a buyer who might go to your showroom and buy from you, or Colette in Paris. You know, they need to design their function, so that, because Chinese designers are so used to the Chinese way of doing things. It's that, if I want Lane Crawford to buy from me, I'll do the relationship thing. I'll sent lots of samples, and I'll send cookies. I don't know, you know. (laughs). It's like this, have tea, relation-building and that sort of thing. But if they want to graduate to an international level and a professional level, they can't do that anymore. What we want is for you to deliver on time, for you to know what you're delivering, for you to be giving us quality products. It doesn't matter! All retailers want the same thing. And the more retailers that want your thing, the better it is. If China is gonna really take a bow on the international stage of design, Chinese designers need to step out of that shell and understand how to deal with people on a more professional level.

Kristie Lu Stout: I'm hearing some great takeaway points for young Chinese designers or brands that want to make it big. You have to be persistent, you have to have a story to tell, but what are the keys to success again for brands, Chinese fashion brands, to make that big leap on the international stage. What do you advise?

Andrew Keith: I think have a very compelling point of view. Be able to look at your perspective in the context of a global fashion story. Because, whilst China has some really, fantastically creative designers, what's going to be important is the fact that they can differentiate themselves on a global platform. And that the message and what they're creating through their product stands on its own two feet.

Chris Chang: Yes, I think a very unique language, a unique point of view is so important, is the most crucial for taking Chinese designers globally. It's that what you're doing has a very special language on its own, a very special point of view on its own, that everyone can accept and everyone finds refreshing. I think having a unique point of view is an absolute must. On top of that, of course, a very sound financial background, backing, is also important to bring someone from a studio into a major brand. And that takes big money, big assets, and a big partnership with somebody.

Kristie Lu Stout: Do you think there will be a Chinese fashion brand one day that will rival Prada, Chanel, Burberry? Could that really happen soon?

Andrew Keith: I'd like to think that we're only a matter of years away from that happening. I think that you have manufacturing, you have the heritage, you have great education, you have people really, sort of, driving. You've got a huge interest commercially in terms of what's happening in this part of the world. So, you've got all the ingredients together to make that happen, and I think it's just a matter of time.

Hung Huang: The fact that China went through a huge, very fast pace of growth, to some extent has influenced our designers, the young ones. They want to be famous tomorrow. They want to be that brand that you're talking about tomorrow. They want to be on the world stage, be the next Prada, be the next Karl Lagerfeld. It's not going to happen. It will happen in a couple of years, but it's going to go to a designer who is mature. Who has developed their own language, who has commercially learned how to deal with international corporations and retailers and such-and-such. Who is responsible to their investors.

Chris Chang: And the other important thing is for us as designers, we have to think. I think the focus has to be on how to be good designers instead of good Chinese designers. I think referencing back to history and detail, all that can be burdensome. And it's not global, and it's a globalization of countries now. So I think it's more important for us designers to become good working designers, producing on time, getting things to the store on time, having our marketing strategies down pat. All that is more important than being a good Chinese designer.

Kristie Lu Stout: And with that, Chris Chang, Hung Huang and Andrew Keith, thank you so much for joining me to talk about China's ever-evolving, ever-maturing fashion industry. I really enjoyed that. Thank you.

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