In China, the Chinese counterfeit industry reportedly costs foreign firms up to an estimated $20 billion a year in lost profits. However, people may not realize that the “copy and paste” industry itself is evolving, as a group of shanzhai fashion designers gives the term counterfeit new meaning.
The word “shanzhai” comes from Guangdong dialect and was originally used to describe the copycat phenomenon in the IT industry. Adapted for the fashion context, a shanzhai designer is someone who redesigns a piece that is not necessarily an exact copy of the real product, like many counterfeit factories would do. They offer customers a taste of luxury at cut-rate prices. An original Dior J’adios white embroidered T-shirt might run you $1000 dollars. But a shanzhai could make you a similar top for less than $50.
More recently, shanzhai designers have been taking advantage of the new digital economy to transform their businesses in ways that brands could get some tips from.
SupChina recently did an interview with Sara Liao, an academic originally from Guangxi, China, who has spent the past two years researching the industry and interviewing designers for her dissertation on shanzhai culture. It’s an interview worth reading in its entirety. But here are a few key points by Liao that we took away from it:
1. Being digital savvy is more important than training
“Generally, these women designers are the post-1980s generation, which means they are often the one child in the family and are part of the generation that has a lot of knowledge about the internet and social media. Most of them don’t have any professional training in fashion design; a lot of them just claim that they began this work because they really love sharing their experiences with fashion.”
2. Invite your customers to make some decisions
“A consumer might recommend her favorite styles or looks of the current season, and then the designer will set up a poll on social media that features some of these highly prized products and invite her social media followers to vote for one or two.”
3. Empower your customer with product knowledge
“They not only produce physical products such as clothes and accessories, but also create information, content, and knowledge that add to the circulation of their fashion experience among their fans.”
4. Invite your customers to become your best marketing channel
“Some women designers give some cash bonuses or discounts to encourage their consumers to post their selfies. These consumers love to do so because then they can comment and provide some feedback for the designer; they like to see the woman improve over time.”
5.Be extra cautious about a design’s copyright
“Some designers are pushing the boundaries by putting the logos on the products or using the copyrighted images from the original brand. That might get them into trouble — if they use the original logo or trademarks of the original brand, Taobao will monitor it, take off those products, and either give a warning to the shop or completely shut it down.”
What Are the Take-aways for Brands?
It’s not clear that emerging of shanzhai designers are disrupting the luxury fashion industry, because a shanzhai’s customers don’t necessarily fit the demographic profile that luxury brands target. But it’s worth noting the agile and responsive customer-centric approach that those shanzhai designers are taking. The creative insights they offer are invaluable for brands looking to win the heart of the Chinese consumer.