Hu Bing: the dapper diplomat exporting British style to China
It's the final day of men's fashion week in London, and a crowd has gathered inside the Old Sorting Office, a former industrial site, to watch models work the runway.
Dylan Jones, the editor of style bible GQ, sits on the front row, just a few seats down from David Gandy, one of the world's most sought-after male models, perhaps most recognized when wearing only a pair of briefs.
Yet among the British fashion-savvy, it's a Chinese celebrity who turns the most heads.
Wearing golden sneakers and a white suit, Hu Bing carries himself with the confidence and grace you'd expect from China's top male model, who just happens to be a former Olympic rower, a part-time singer and one of China's best-known actors.
Hu, now 45, has worked for Cartier, Dunhill, Gucci, and Ferragamo, among others, and now he's working for the British Fashion Council (BFC) — the body that promotes British fashion internationally.
As its first international style ambassador, Hu will champion British fashion in his homeland and beyond.
"The Chinese like British brands, but they don't say 'British fashion,'" he says. "They just say 'European fashion.' Sometimes they mix up London, Paris, and Milan, when the fashion is all totally different."
Indeed, Hu has a challenge on his hands.
In the most recent World Luxury Index, French and Italian fashion brands, led by Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Gucci, dominated the list of the most sought-after luxury fashion labels in China. Burberry was the only British brand in the Top 10.
"I need to do a lot of work," Hu says. "I have a responsibility to present London fashion as London fashion."
He knows that London has a reputation for the tailoring of Saville Row and the timeless Burberry trench coat, but Hu believes the USP of British fashion comes from its whimsy.
"London is more easygoing and more fun," he says. "Designers are more afraid in Asia — and in New York and Paris. But in London people really just enjoy themselves. They feel confidant. That is the difference."
"I've been to many different cities for Fashion Week — Milan, Paris, New York City. But London is the most amazing city for me right now. In five years I want London Fashion Week to be number one."
Menswear in China
Like a model balancing in her stilettos, luxury brands in China occasionally wobble.
In 2014 the once bullish Chinese luxury market posted its first year of negative growth, shrinking by 1% according to Bain & Co. And in the year leading to April 2015, Prada closed 16 stores in China, while Armani shut five.
China's economy may be slowing down, but the British Fashion Council have still made a clever play by drafting Hu as its suited and booted fashion envoy.
Despite the broader picture, sales of menswear in China actually climbed 7% last year, according to Euromonitor, and menswear now accounts for a larger chunk of apparel sales than womenswear.
Euromonitor forecasts that China — currently the fifth largest market for luxury menswear globally — will climb to second, behind the United States, by 2017.
The number of Chinese press and buyers attending men's fashion week (officially known as London Collections: Men) has nearly doubled since the first showcase in 2012.
The market slant towards menswear is driven partly by China's "One-Child Policy" and cultural values that stress the primacy of men over women. Chinese men are increasingly concerned with image and, owing to rising incomes, more likely to trade up the fashion ladder.
Hu also sees it as a matter of playing catch-up with China's women.
"In China, the lady's closet is almost full," he says. "But men, before they had no clothes, so now they need to buy a lot. They want to dress up and shine."
And when they do, the British Fashion Council is betting that China's men will look to Hu for inspiration. After all: he has 10 million followers on China's microblogging site Weibo.
"We are thrilled that Hu Bing has become an International Ambassador for London Collections Men, as his enormous influence, knowledge of the Chinese market and enthusiasm for fashion makes him a perfect choice," Dylan Jones, the chair of LCM, said when announcing the selection earlier this spring. "Having an International Ambassador in China is key to the development of London Collections Men."
As part of that development, Hu will educate British fashion houses about the immense and varied Chinese market and counter what he sees as bizarre stereotypes.
"I'm here in Europe and I'm surprised that everybody is saying that Chinese people are too serious and not funny," he says. "It's not true. Chinese are interested in new things, and are traveling everywhere in the world."
Their bold, international tastes come through in the Chinese designers showing in London. You can't call them pedestrian. Take designer Sean Suen, who, on June 15, sent male models down the runway wearing high-fashion aprons and metallic, open-toed sandals.
Hu says that the smartest brands won't try their luck when opening new stores, but will invest the time to conduct longer searches. "You need to know the real China," he says, pointing out that what's "real" changes with the wind. "Every three months you need to update your marketing information. Things happen too fast in China."
He also points out that just as fashion varies from London to Paris to Milan, it also varies within China's biggest fashion hubs Shanghai and Beijing.
Hu says Shanghai is comparable Tokyo, where people are more likely to keep it simple and conform, while Beijing is akin to anything-goes New York.
"In Shanghai, the look is really Japanese. They like to do one thing. It's never four, five, or six. But in Beijing it's like one to ten — it's total freedom."