Once the land of ubiquitous Louis Vuitton bags, China is now a place where the wealthy are undergoing a shift in fashion sense, moving away from the big brands of yesteryear and toward niche designers, snapping up clothes and accessories from a growing crop of concept stores and boutiques that speak to the individual among the masses.
Mostly nestled in the twisting, narrow lanes of the hutongs of the city’s ancient Gulou district, concept stores such as Hong Kong’s INK Beijing, the most recent addition to a small but growing number of high-end multi-brand concept and design stores that includes Wuhao and S.T.A.R.S., are offering customers unique, quality brands from China around the globe, and a new shopping experience that emphasizes original designs and ideas, tailored to individual tastes.
“There is a certain Chinese consumer that has become disinterested and disillusioned in China’s soulless mall culture and is seeking something more unique,” says Alice McInerney, a China-based journalist and co-founder of AnyShopStyle.com, a website that presents an edited selection of Chinese and international designers. “Not only in regards to product selection, but also in setting and in atmosphere. These places are the perfect antidote,” she says.
It’s difficult to judge the success of such places on numbers, as fashion industry businesses often decline requests for sales numbers or specific customer profiles. Wuhao declined to answer any business-related questions, and attempts to contact INK Beijing with similar questions went unanswered. But the success of the concept boutique store itself is apparent in the multitude of smaller studios and boutiques cropping up in the Gulou area with the same idea, albeit with slightly smaller price tags. Numerous hip, urban boutiques such as Triple-Major, a popular store among the Gulou boutique set, sell a variety of labels from Japan, South Korea, Europe and the United States, and span a wide range of styles, from hip hop to skater to folk to funky to a mix of everything—and the layout of the shop is just as important as what’s on the racks.
“They all offer a very specific perspective,” says McInerney. “[The central theme of a concept store] is something they all do extremely well.”
This shift in the consumer tastes of the wealthy, from LV to niche brands, began about three years ago, and began changing in earnest about a year and a half ago, says Shaun Rein, founder of the Shanghai-based Chinese luxury market research group, China Market Research. “It’s less about bling and more about experiencing something,” he says. A trend, he says, that is at least somewhat linked to Beijing’s heavy pollution last winter and growing health concerns.
“I know it sounds crazy,” says Rein. “But a lot of customers told us ‘who cares what I buy if the water and air is going to kill us?’ So at this level, they are really starting to think about what’s important in life. And who they are, and how they are going to express themselves.”
This, compounded by president Xi Jinping’s continued crackdown on corruption, means that brands that signify conspicuous consumption and gift-giving, such as LV or Omega are likely going to see rough times ahead, he says. “It means brands can’t … just be high-priced and showy,” he says. “They have to start targeting more individual consumers.”
Which is precisely what these hutong boutiques do. Though at the moment these concept stores dotted around the hutongs are new and unique, like anything trendy in China, too much too fast can spell problems. “I think the existing spaces all have a very strong point of view,” says McInerney. “Of course, if the trend continues with less high caliber stores entering the fray, this could dilute the hutong experience, rendering it less special.”