“Sometimes Business Has Its Bright Side”
Established in Beijing three years ago with a singular focus on stocking and promoting the work of China’s up-and-coming designers, Dong Liang Studios (栋梁) – which has expanded from a tiny 20 square meter location in Wudaoying hutong to a second location in Shanghai and a third set to open this month in Beijing — has developed a reputation as a go-to boutique for fashion-forward Chinese and expats alike. Catering to growing demand for less mainstream designers and labels among the new generation of Chinese fashion lovers, Dong Liang is an important player in the emerging multi-brand boutique scene we’re seeing in China’s major cities.
Along with Beijing shops Triple-Major and Brand New China, and Shanghai compatriots Alter, Le Lutin, THE VILLA and The Olive Shoppe, Dong Liang is helping to take the Chinese fashion scene to the next level, offering fashion-forward urbanites the chance to get their hands on labels that would’ve been impossible to find anywhere near mainland China just a few years ago.
Recently, Jing Daily Shanghai correspondent Erica Ji caught up with Tasha at Dong Liang’s location on Fumin Lu (an emerging hotspot of cutting-edge Chinese design) to discuss the differences between the Shanghai and Beijing, some of her favorite home-grown Chinese designer brands, and the particularities of the local market. Interview translated from the original Mandarin Chinese.
Jing Daily (JD): Earlier, we were talking about how Dong Liang’s Beijing locations stock many Shanghai designers, while its Shanghai location stocks Beijing designers. Aside from the fact that Shanghainese customers are generally more westernized, what would you say sets Beijing and Shanghai apart?
Tasha (T): First off, the stores are different in terms of size and space. Our Beijing store in Wudaoying hutong is pretty small, so we can’t stock the same number of designers we can in Shanghai. I think the biggest difference between the cities, though, is that Shanghai is more mature. Shanghai consumers are more clear about what they want and don’t want. They’re more individualistic in terms of how they think. So it’s a bit harder to sell them something than it is when you’re dealing with a customer in Beijing, because you really have to convince them that the item has added value, that it’s something new and unique. Compared to the Beijing market, people in Shanghai pay more attention to materials and fit, and really prefer silk and fine fabrics.
Another difference is that our Shanghai store is more lively. Since our Beijing store is quite small, we can’t have a lot of crossover activities within the shop, but we’ve got a dedicated area for that in Shanghai. This month we’ll open our second store in Beijing, though, that’ll be about double the size of our first, so we should be able to hold some art exhibitions and try out some new concepts there.
JD: We know that Dong Liang recently hosted a pop-up shop here in Shanghai in collaboration with The Olive Shoppe, and at the moment you’ve got a Nina Ricci “L’Air du Temps” fragrance exhibition going on. Can you say a little about your exhibitions and activities?
T: We have been holding special activities pretty often. We’ve done, I think, five or six since we opened. One thing we really want to do with Dong Liang is wrap lifestyle and culture up in what we do. Like our collaboration with The Olive Shoppe. They hand-pick international designers while we’re a store that specializes in Chinese fashion designers — this is a perfect match. With things like our current Nina Ricci exhibition, we’re trying things that are a little more commercial, working in a few commercial elements. Sometimes business has its bright sides, like being able to bring together brand culture, history and stores.
JD: Can you tell us what you’ve got planned for your next activity?
T: Next up we’re thinking of doing a combination exhibition and charity event. That’ll launch some time in September or October. We’ve invited a dozen designers to do a work based on a theme, and will invite a celebrity ambassador to take part as well. This activity will be a collaboration with the site Buy42, which is an online charity shop and NGO. When the exhibition kicks off we’ll sell the items created by the designers online, with all the proceeds going to support a village primary school library.
JD: Shanghai has more and more designer boutiques. In addition to Dong Liang, there are plenty that specialize in international brands. Now that you’re facing tougher competition and a more westernized consumer base, what do you see as Dong Liang’s competitive advantage?
T: First off, I don’t think we’re really in competition with them. That said, I do think the competitive environment in China’s fashion and apparel market has been among the most intense. If we really take a closer look at China’s fashion environment, there are the mass-market brands inside the malls, the fast fashion brands, and the big names. Most consumers will generally get everyday items at places like H&M or Zara, and occasionally buy a handbag or shoes from a luxury brand to reward themselves. But this is a major opportunity for us because these people are also interested in finding new things. For that, Shanghai’s designer boutiques, multi-brand boutiques, are really great. They reflect the personalities of their owners. For our part, we try to tailor what we sell to the demands of the public, which makes our store very fluid and three-dimensional. We don’t just sell one type of clothing, one type of style.
JD: Based on what we’ve seen in the store today, it seems like Liu Qingyang’s (刘清扬) designs are really popular with customers here. Would you say she’s your best-selling designer?
T: She’s one of our best-selling designer brands. Her brand image and fabric design are really unique. [Actress] Fan Bingbing has worn some of her pieces at different activities. Actually, this January one of Liu Qingyang’s designs was on the cover of Vogue China, which was a first for an independent Chinese designer. The visual impact of her work is really strong, really recognizable.
JD: How do you decide which designers to include in your store? Do you plan to add more to your roster soon?
T: We do. In our Beijing and Shanghai stores we have about 20 designers, and we want to stay around this number. We adjust who we stock on a regular basis. If we’re not happy with the consistency or development of a given designer, we’ll make adjustments. We are also always on the lookout for new designers. We tend to decide on which designers we want to look at more closely about six months before we decide to work with him or her. We want to make sure he or she is the right person. We also keep a close eye on Chinese designers who are graduating at design schools abroad.
JD: Currently Dong Liang mostly focuses on its physical stores, but do you have plans to expand your presence online?
T: We’re going to keep concentrating on our stores. The stores are our strength. If we do expand our presence online, we won’t do it in a traditional way. At the moment, we want the store to be our image and reflect our personality. Right now we will continue to put all of our energy into Beijing and Shanghai. We don’t rule out expanding into some other cities next year, but currently we’re not thinking too much about that. Our Shanghai location has only been open a year and we’re still a young brand. We’re a respected brand, but we’re really too young to think that far ahead.
JD: What’s the hardest part about operating this shop?
T: I think it’s focusing on the small stuff. You’ve got to look at all the details and make them your priority. For example, which corner to put certain items in, what kind of flowers to put in the shop, making sure the windows are nice and clean, that the tables are neat. These are small things, and for some people they’re not that important, but you’ve got to make them important.
JD: You used to work in marketing. What made you decide to quit that and start working at Dong Liang?
T: It wasn’t a tough decision. Every girl likes beautiful clothes. In my last job, I used to talk with Chinese fashion designers a lot, and one day I suddenly decided I wanted to do my dream job rather than working in a different field for the next five or ten years. I don’t exactly know what the future holds, but I feel like what I’m doing now is really exciting.