Millennials and Gen-Z consumers have captured the imagination of the fashion and luxury industry like nothing else this year. What we know is they like experiences; they don’t particularly identify with brands but prefer a smattering of styles that exhibit their taste; and they want to feel a spiritual connection to the things they buy and wear.
A report by Bain & Company indicated that this group would make up 45 percent of the personal luxury goods market by 2025. The same report urged brands to rethink their strategies and adapt to a “millennial state of mind,” which is more of a “psychographic phenomenon” rather than a purely demographic one since it’s increasingly influencing all generations.
At 23, Chinese collector and curator Michael Xufu Huang is a young style icon within the art world who embodies some of the qualities we have written about here related to the post-90s generation. While being serious about art—he’s the co-founder of the M Woods museum in Beijing, where the first show he curated, “Heart of the Tin Man,” opened this summer—Michael also tends to get attention for his idiosyncratic fashion choices, which he displays at art fairs and gallery openings around the world.
Michael’s attitudes about fashion and style are similar to those he exhibits towards collecting and curating. He prefers to discover an unknown designer like he delights in finding a new artist. It’s less about the name than about sharing an experience and a sense of discovery.
We talked with Michael recently to discuss his personal style, the social element of luxury, and the connection between art, fashion and tech.
Jing Daily: The meaning of luxury is changing, and it means something totally different for millennials than it did for older generations. What does luxury mean today?
Michael: Luxury means leisure. I think luxury is not just a product. You can afford to have something that values your—I wouldn’t say your insight—but your emotional and spiritual engagement. China’s a great example. Before there was no luxury because everyone was working so hard—living to support a family. Luxury is growing fast because everyone has extra money that can be used to make themselves happy in different ways: buying products, seeing movies, activities, vacation. This is all luxury.
Are millennials breaking free from the tradition of their parents and grandparents?
Yes. They care more about the luxury to be themselves. They have the spiritual need to learn about things, to see art. The new generation is really hungry for culture and for spiritual meaning, to open their eyes to all things: plays, movies, concerts, music, art. So that’s why I think our exhibition, “Heart of the Tin Man,” has had a lot of young visitors. It reflects on how the luxury market works in China: the younger generation has the power to be themselves.
How do you like to express yourself sartorially? Do you pay attention to brands?
I think for me, maybe because I’m in the art world, I like to wear things that are very unique. You might see me wearing pajamas or a bathrobe. I don’t want to follow trends, but to set trends. Now, I have other friends wearing bathrobes too. I guess it’s very connected to buying the work of emerging artists. You want to find talent and really promote them. I want to do the same with fashion. I really want to make people want to ask, ‘Where is it from?’
What are your shopping habits like? Do you shop in stores, use online apps, both?
For basic things, I just go to Zara or Calvin Klein, basic places. That I can even do online. But if I go to events, I like to dress more unique. I’ll shop at Dover Street Market, because I can really find pieces that are only produced in maybe 10 or 20 pieces. I have used online apps but more for basic things. Like T-shirts. But if it’s a designer piece, I have to try it in person.
Is there a social element to luxury?
Yes. When I go to Argentina, I want to find things that are unique. I talk to designers because I want to interact with them. That’s important. That’s why most of my clothes shopping is offline because I like that social experience. If I like the designer I like to keep a relationship with them. Especially luxury clothing. If I really like the brand, I’m more likely to become friends with the designer. It’s like you’re dating someone. I don’t go and become friends with everyone.
Fashion designers have increasingly been entering the world of art, staging exhibitions, working with artists (like Raf Simons and Sterling Ruby), and staging experiential events. Do you like to attend those kinds of experiential luxury events? Did you go to the recent Gucci exhibition in Beijing curated by A Magazine Curated By?
[Gucci dresses] me for fun events. And I’ve been to their exhibitions. I think what they’re trying to do is more interesting than most brands. I don’t like the kinds of exhibitions where brands want to make themselves look artsy, but it’s not good art. I was watching a video today where a brand invited celebrities to see an exhibition. They asked them to comment on the art. There were a lot of awkward pauses. It was painful.
Is there a connection to you between art, fashion and tech?
Art and fashion are very creative industries. Artists are fashion designers are art collectors. People get inspiration from artists. Young designer friends ask me to recommend artists. The Met has done so many great costume exhibitions. Designers themselves are like artists. I think the new Gucci is doing a great job, because every piece is unique in some way. They still have a lot of soul and not everyone can pull it off. You have to have a certain kind of attitude to pull it off.
What’s a recent instance where you got excited about the intersection of art, fashion and tech?
In our show we have this VR piece that talks about a new shopping experience. In the future, if there’s more technology you can virtually see it on you. The VR work is by Institute for New Feelings. I saw them at Ballroom Marfa and I thought it was interesting how they comment on consumerism and how the brands have fabricated a story and created a belief behind a product.