2009 Wrap-Up: Chinese Jewelry, Fashion Brands Awaken

Home-Grown Brands, Creating Everything From Sporting Goods To Jewelry, Have Their Eyes Set On International Markets

Chinese fashion houses like JNBY have, over the past 10 or 15 years, quickly established reputations for world-class design and quality.

Chinese fashion houses like JNBY have, over the past 10 or 15 years, quickly established reputations for world-class design and quality.

While foreign luxury brands maintained their comfortable lead in China throughout 2009, even cementing it further in smaller or more remote interior cities, developments in 2009 have shown that home-grown brands are confident that they’ll not only grab more market share on their home turf in coming years, they’ll also gain popularity overseas.

From sporting goods maker Li Ning opening the company’s first American branch, to luxury collaborations between German designer Michael Michalsky and sports clothier Dongxiang, to Warren Buffet’s high-profile endorsement of suitmaker Trands, to Qeelin’s new “east meets west” jade collections, 2009 was a year of global momentum for some of China’s more ambitious brands.

As we wrote earlier this year,

Home-grown Chinese luxury brands have been in the news lately, with articles focusing on how their “Chinese flavor” is transitioning from a liability into a selling point. As Chinese consumers have opened up to global brands — and increasingly taken them for granted in some cosmopolitan centers — a space has opened up in the Chinese luxury market for domestic luxury brands.

These luxury brands, which are following the lead of Hong Kong fashion brands like Shanghai Tang and designers like Swire, are starting to incorporate traditional Chinese cultural aspects into a more globalized luxury style, creating an appealing Sino-Global market segment. As these Mainland brands start to pick up steam and compete on a broader scale, eventually spreading into overseas markets, it’s likely that Chinese luxury brands will develop a clout on par with their French or Italian counterparts in time.They just need to figure out their marketing and growth strategy, and need to fully get over the hump of Chinese luxury consumers often looking down at domestic brands and products.

Ironically, it is the Chinese consumer that may prove these brands’ biggest obstacle in 2010. If home-grown brands, particularly in the luxury segment, want to raise their brand visibility (and the capital required for overseas jaunts), they’ll have to convince domestic buyers of their quality and value — not as easy as it sounds, as Chinese consumers have gotten used to most domestic brands competing on price alone, with a requisite sacrifice of durability, material quality, or design.

However, some brands, like the aforementioned jewelry house Qeelin, may have a head start on others. As we wrote this fall, by fusing traditional and modern materials that Chinese buyers are particularly fond of, Qeelin may have found Chinese luxury buyers’ weak spot: for certain materials, like rare jadeite, high price equals high quality, and as such, a Qeelin jadeite necklace should be seen by Chinese buyers as an attractive investment:

[W]hat many observers of China’s jewelry market rarely notice is the country’s growing demand for traditional Chinese materials like jade. Jade, coveted in China for thousands of years, and its much rarer cousin jadeite, are making a comeback among women of China’s “me generation” in top tier cities who are looking to differentiate their style and set them apart from less discriminating conspicuous consumers.

As these younger women increasingly want to be seen less as “brand slaves” and more fashion-forward, jade is shaking off its stodgy reputation and, hewn by up-and-coming designers, is taking a dramatic, more youthful turn. The mix of Western and Chinese style in the new jade and (to a lesser extent) jadeite jewelry being produced by Mainland brands indicates that the future of Chinese luxury might resemble a more seamless blending of Western and traditional Chinese style.

In 2010, look for more Chinese brands to hit the spotlight, particularly in the jewelry and haute couture spaces. While sports brands like Li Ning won’t be able to compete with Nike or Adidas on the world stage for years (although they’re more optimistic), and Trands won’t make a dent in the dominance of Ferragamo or YSL, the unique design and materials used by companies like Swire, Liwai, Qeelin, JNBY and others gives them a natural leg up on major global competitors.

While it’s unlikely that a significant number of wealthy Japanese, European or American luxury fans will be covered in jadeite or swathed in haute couture inspired by the traditional qipao for a while, keep an eye out for China’s ambitious, motivated brands in the year ahead.


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Fashion, Market Analysis