How Celebrity Brands Can Build Durable Businesses In China

On the weekend of this year’s 520 Day, Justin Bieber’s Drew House returned to China for its first offline event since the pandemic. Fans in Shanghai flocked to the flower shop-themed pop-up to take pictures with the art installation of giant roses and shop the collection of smiley-emblazoned streetwear.

The same weekend, Chinese actor Bai Jingting’s Goodbai brand officially opened its first offline store in Shanghai. Fans queued around the block to explore the artsy new store and snag pieces from the Shanghai Yanqing Road limited series, which quickly sold out.

Drew House celebrated 520 with an “infinite love flower shop” pop-up store in Shanghai. Photo: Drew House

More celebrities, both global and local, are creating their own brands and introducing them to the Chinese market. And many of these labels have been well-received, some even landing on a list of top fashion IPs by Fashion Exchange and CBNData based on sales, search engine prevalence and social media popularity. Last year, Rihanna’s Fenty ranked fifth, while Drew House and Goodbai took seventh and ninth place, respectively.

But is harnessing star power a surefire way to global expansion? Below is a look at the opportunities and challenges of launching celebrity labels in China, and what it takes to keep them hot, even after a celebrity’s shine dulls.

Fandom culture fuels celebrity brand growth

A ready-made audience provides celebrity-founded businesses with an advantage when they debut. This is particularly true in China, where the size of the fan economy reached $694.9 billion in 2021 (4.94 trillion RMB) and is expected to surpass $903 billion (6.42 trillion RMB) this year, according to investment research firm EqualOcean.

Chinese consumers who are actively engaged with fandom culture make the greatest brand advocates, says Kim Leitzes, Managing Director APAC at Launchmetrics.

“By associating themselves with a celebrity’s brand, fans feel a deeper sense of belonging, actively engaging in purchasing the endorsed products, attending brand events, participating in limited edition releases, and promoting the brand across various channels,” Leitzes says. “This dedicated support from fans amplifies the brand’s reach, generates hype, and ultimately translates into sales as fans influence their peers’ purchasing decisions.” 

Take Drew House, for example. When the clothing line, co-founded by stylist Ryan Good and designer Gianpiero D’Alessandro, landed on Alibaba’s Tmall in March this year, the inventory of more than 1,000 products sold out in just one second.

Founded in 2018, Drew House unveiled its first-ever physical pop-up in Hong Kong in 2019 and has since inked partnerships with the likes of Crocs. Further harnessing its celebrity clout, the fashion label has been spotted on Asian celebrities such as TFBoys’ Wang Yuan and Blackpink’s Lisa, expanding its awareness with local consumers.

Chinese celebrities Wang Yuan and Chris Lee wear pieces from Drew House. Photo: Drew House

Another case in point is Fenty Beauty, which leverages Rihanna’s stardom to market products. The day after the singer’s 2023 Super Bowl show, searches for Fenty Beauty on Tmall Global doubled compared to the day before, while the setting powder featured in her performance became the brand’s best-selling item on its online flagship store.

The cosmetics and skincare label made its debut on the Alibaba cross-border platform in 2019, with the goal of promoting its “beauty for all” mission in China. According to Hazel Diliziya, a cultural and marketing consultant at Cherry Blossoms Intercultural Branding, Chinese consumers embrace Fenty Beauty mainly because it localizes its value proposition — as demonstrated by its appointment of pop star Wang Ju as a spokesperson for Fenty Face. 

In 2019, Fenty Beauty appointed pop star Wang Ju and singer Fan Chengcheng as spokespeople. Photo: Fenty Beauty

“This tanned-skin, full-figured female celebrity not only matches the brand’s image perfectly but also represents the Chinese people’s interpretation of diversity,” says Diliziya.  

Celebrity status alone not enough to sell products

However, relying on star power alone, whether it be the founder or other endorsers, can backfire. When Gen Z idol Ouyang Nana debuted her lifestyle brand Nabi in November last year, Chinese netizens were quick to criticize its high prices and poor designs. Meanwhile, singer Justin Huang’s streetwear label TwoEx2 was shuttered just two years after its launch due to similar consumer complaints.

“We’ve very often seen backlashes against these idols using merchandise to ‘rip off’ fans,” says Cherry Blossom Intercultural Branding founder Laurence Lim. “These brands are nothing serious and don’t have long-term planning; they are created to make short-term profits out of the short-living fame these idols have.”

The fluctuating popularity of celebrity founders — or worse, controversies involving them — can be another obstacle to brand development. Following Kanye West’s anti-Semetic remarks in October last year, Adidas terminated its partnership with the American rapper and discontinued its joint Yeezy line, stripping West of his billionaire title and incurring a net loss of $540 million in Q4 2022.

“Issues around a tainted celebrity make it challenging for any big business to back up or inject funds into these celebrity brands, because the person who makes it successful might very well become the reason it fails,” Lim adds. 

High-quality products, localized messaging keys to longevity 

Yet, with the right products and a dedicated fan base, it’s not impossible for tarnished brands to stage a comeback in China. Even when local starlet Fan Bingbing was fined for tax evasion in 2018 — limiting her acting projects and public exposure — her beauty brand Fan Beauty Secret managed to launch new products, rack up millions in sales during shopping festivals, and eventually reboot its social media accounts and e-commerce flagship stores in 2021.

“Chinese consumers have become increasingly rational after the pandemic and focus more on quality than before. Providing stable, high-quality products is fundamental to the brand’s longevity,” Diliziya says.

In other words, celebrity brands must establish a distinct identity separate from their founders. 

“Encourage customer engagement through local strategies and personalized marketing initiatives, listen to feedback, and establish a sense of community around the brand to foster long-term relationships that extend beyond any individual celebrity,” Leitzes says.

The appetite for celebrity IP remains strong in China. Those that want to evolve beyond merchandise and become serious fashion and beauty players must ultimately turn fans of the celebrity entrepreneurs into fans of the brands themselves.


Fashion, Influencers, Market Analysis