“Industrial Commercial Workwear as Fashion”
Last week, Jing Daily had the opportunity to speak to Ben Walters, founder of Ospop, a retro-hip company that makes “Liberation Shoe” (解放鞋)-inspired sneakers and bags. Upon moving to Shanghai in 2003, during a period of constant construction throughout the city, Walters became fascinated by the simple rubber-soled shoes worn by laborers all over the city. Working with a design team, he created Ospop, a line of shoes and bags that are both manufactured in and and representative of China.
Ospop has found success in rebranding the workwear shoe to foreign markets, with historically roughly 75 percent of the company’s business coming from the US and 25 percent from Europe. More recently, however, Ospop has turned their attention towards China’s domestic market. While it’s early on in Ospop’s foray into the China market, Ben Walters discussed his branding strategies and goals, as well as the changing perception of fashion in China, as it transitions from the overdone towards the understated.
Jing Daily: We were hoping you could give us a little more background about how you came to be interested in the company itself, because obviously the Liberation Shoe has been around for a long time. What drew you to that particular shoe?
Ben Walters: OsPop was actually an idea I had that pre-dated my arrival in China. It’s re-purposing industrial commercial workwear as fashion with a bit of a twist. Even before I left New York, so 2000 – 2001, when you turned on the travel channel, the five prime-time shows were about food, and when you turned on the Food Network, the five prime-time shows were about travel. People were really tapping into this idea of using food as a vehicle to introduce less familiar cultures. So my very very broad and wide-eyed vision for Ospop was, and I guess still remains, this idea about creating a consumer fashion brand that not only creates and produces great consumerables but also shares things about less familiar cultures. So that was sort of the broad concept before I arrived to China.
The more I got into it, the more passionate I was about the brand concept and what we were creating. This idea about creating a brand which was original, something that was different from what other people were doing. So I started working on the clothes, and again the style aesthetic for the line when I started working with designers was this clean line simple design, very utilitarian in nature, crosses a very broad market spectrum for the consumer.
Obviously, it didn’t take long for me to spot the jiefang xie (liberation shoe), they’re everywhere. I’m still living in the same place as I was when I moved here, which is in Xujiahui (Shanghai), so in 2003, Xujiahui really was like the southwest corner of the city, in terms of what would be considered downtown, and just after my arrival, so many of the low lying buildings were knocked down and made way for larger and more modern residential areas, as well as a bunch of big office buildings and retail. So when I got here, construction was really almost on every side. With the influx of workers, obviously I saw that shoe, I saw a dozen people wearing the shoe at any given moment.
JD: We’ve covered a lot of different Chinese retro brands in the past, so we’re really interested to hear what takes Ospop apart from those other brands (i.e. Feiyue, Huili). We’d be interested to hear what your branding message is and why it’s different from the other brands.
BW: For starters, those are brands who’ve taken an existing brand that has heritage here in China. What we’re trying to do is to create something new and different. From a branding perspective, I think there are two angles, again the first one I’ve been focusing on for the first three years of our development has been about selling our brand into foreign markets. And so for that, it’s about sharing less familiar ideas about China that aren’t covered by Western or foreign news media. So we run an art initiative, for example, we covered a lesser-known artist who traveled across China’s 37th north parallel, taking essentially an image of himself around the landscape. I thought this was really interesting just from the standpoint that everything you see about China is population density, business development, but obviously it’s a huge country as well with lots of interesting and beautiful topography. So this idea about using art to try to tap into maybe some Western interests to show aspects of China. It’s sharing aspects of life in China and sort of tapping into this idea of a good day’s work for a fair day’s pay, which I think is something again, that quite universally recognized and an idea that people can relate certainly and hopefully embrace as well.
Ospop is [an acronym for] “One Small Point of Pride.” We all know people in life who carry themselves with far too much pride and we know people who don’t take enough pride in what they do, so Ospop is looking at the Chinese population. It’s not a government thing, it’s not really even an economic thing, it’s so much this idea that life in China right now is pretty good for people. The standard of living is increasing, levels of education is increasing, what people are doing in terms of their leisure time is expanding in interests — so it’s this idea that while maybe North America and Europe, which again has been our target markets for the last three years, has been struggling a little bit and maybe the story that they see of China is one about a threatening government or the monster economy, more than a billion people here whose lives are improving, their heads are down, working hard, and I think that’s the story that everyone can embrace, particularly with a capitalist sentiment because life here is getting good.
We’ve just entered the domestic market, and that is a lot more simple to break down because we’re just getting started but the China work development thing is an incredible story. This idea that work development plays such a huge role here, there are huge fashion brands that have made their mark and legacy based on this idea of industrial workwear as fashion — Levi’s, Dickie’s, Cat — and these are brands that are having success here in China. Obviously taking more stylized items from their collections to market to this populace, but why not? Why shouldn’t China have a brand of its own? Certainly its work story is a great story right now, and so what I’m interested to see is if that’s something that some segment of the market is willing to embrace.
JD: In terms of the domestic market, going on with your marketing strategy, Ospop recently launched a China webshop on Taobao, can you talk about that a little bit?
BW: From a marketing strategy, obviously my target consumer in the West is in their 20s and 30s, we have a lot of customers in their 40s and several in their 60s and 70s, because the shoes are really quite comfortable. But I think, in terms of a strategy coming into the China market, we’re looking younger. We’re looking at the ba-ling-hou (八零后, post-80s) population. Obviously, they’re on Taobao. They spend probably more time than they should on Taobao, so I thought that was a really logical choice for us, in terms of setting up a shop in a platform where our consumer shops and a place where they’re comfortable transacting business and it’s easy for them. Obviously there are challenges that come along on Taobao, but that was the reason we decided for Taobao.
We’re not actively looking for consumers on Taobao today, but again, this is all very new for us. But in terms of how we do we drive awareness for the brand, right now we’re working with this online creative collective called NeochaEdge, so I came up with this idea to do a poster design contest to help us redesign our “Proudly Made in China” poster, which is a couple weeks in now, generating some decent results for us. I’ve got other things lined up as well, in terms of reaching out, particularly to the design community, because one, I think that they’re influential and two, the brand has been essentially me, in terms of its creation, and I’d love to enlist more Chinese talent to help us in our future development.
JD: Let’s go back to your ‘Proudly Made in China’ campaign.
BW: That’s been a major marketing platform for us, globally, since [last] summer. When I launched the brand in 2007, the world was very China curious and excited and eager about the China story. After the buzz faded after the Olympics, particularly in Western press the bent on China become more decidedly negative. And so I felt it was important to, opposed to suggesting to China “take better hold of the China story,” in terms of our marketing, that’s where the “Proudly Made in China” came in. And again, “Proudly Made in China” is about people, it’s about the people who are working hard and whose lives are improving.
JD: In terms of talking to people in China, friends or otherwise, has the reception to that message has been pretty good? What sense have you gotten from that, bouncing it off of friends and acquaintances? You don’t hear any Chinese companies saying what you’re saying.
BW: Those that are familiar with the brand, it’s been great. About three weeks ago I received an email from an overseas Chinese student studying at Columbia, who wrote me a note, essentially [saying] “your shoes kick ass and you make me really proud to be a Chinese person.” So I think in certain circles we’re starting to get some penetration that should step up significantly here over the course of the next several months.
The idea of industrial commercial workwear as fashion is one where definitely it raises some eyebrows with people. Like “it’s great for trying, but you’re out of your skull.” Just because this place is really still so much about conspicuous consumption at worst, and certainly more about stylized fashion in general. In terms of the “Proudly Made in China,” I don’t have touchpoints yet to answer the question, in terms of what the Chinese population who doesn’t know me know about the brand. If you look at the makeup of our Facebook page fanbase, and use that as some sort of a barometer, it looks like there’s a healthy amount of Chinese or overseas Chinese people. And we do sell a fair bit of product to people with seemingly Chinese names.
JD: It certainly seems like you’re in the right city, because it seems like Shanghai’s usually the sort of barometer, especially for younger people.
BW: One thing I would notice, having nothing to do with Ospop, is this idea where I say women, though maybe it goes for men too — though I don’t look as closely — but young women who are working, this idea of understated fashion, I think, is one that caught my eye maybe six months ago and it’s growing, which I think is great. I appreciate understated fashion, particularly when it comes to, say, professional women. So that’s something that’s definitely changing quickly here and that’s a really positive sign for us just in terms of people’s changing fashion taste. Fashion taste can change quickly in some areas and they’ll be open to other areas as well.
The Jing Daily team would like to thank Ben Walters for taking the time to speak with us. Be sure to check out Ospop at http://www.ospop.com/ and, for more information about Ospop’s “Proudly Made in China” poster campaign, head over to NeochaEDGE.