In Shanghai for one night to celebrate the opening of his flagship store at the Jing An Kerry Centre, Sir Paul Smith presented a talk on his eponymous brand’s marketing strategies and China expansion to a group of journalists and fans. Touching largely on the topic of individuality, the designer highlighted the necessary steps he felt must be taken in order for a brand to be successful. “In China, 15 years ago there must have been just three to four shops selling luxury items,” Smith posits, “Today there are many brands, all fishing from the same pond.”
Smith highlighted a need to be intelligent about branding and to show a point of view in order to gain customer loyalty. With stores in 73 countries, Smith strongly feels that commercial success must be balanced with uniqueness and artistry that goes beyond fashion. He cited the example of his store concepts, which are often individualistic and location-inspired. “Each shop space is completely individual, from the ‘pink box’ in LA to the bright corner store in Jing An,” the designer said. “Inside the stores are interesting walls and unique furniture that people like to take photos with. This often increases the conversation around Paul Smith the brand.”
Since starting his clothing business on just 600 pounds, Smith has grown his independent company throughout the world, not in the least throughout China—where there are now Paul Smith stores in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chengdu—with plans for further expansion.
In China, Paul Smith partners with ImagineX, a brand retail management company with over 21 years in the business. Their partnership began roughly one and a half years ago, with the signing of a five + five-year exclusive franchise and distribution agreement. Today, ImagineX runs five standalone Paul Smith stores in Hong Kong along with the above-mentioned mainland locations. Says ImagineX Executive Director Alice Wong, “Business is like a marriage. We speak the same language as Paul Smith and understand how they want to seriously grow the brand carefully in China.”
Wong details how the plan is to grow the brand to 25 stores in five years, with the first phase to anchor main cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and fashion-savvy Chengdu. Talking about the Chinese consumer, she notes that while those in first-tier cities are definitely becoming more sophisticated shoppers, second-tier cities hold newer customers. “What is most important,” she says, “ is for brands now to be as savvy as their customers. In the past, store assistants had to know their merchandise in order to educate customers, but today, it is more to stand on par with them.” She is particularly impressed by the boldness of Chinese men to wear the bright colors and prints that Paul Smith is known for.
While she acknowledges that shopping overseas might be more affordable for the traveling Chinese population, she believes any local business would be beneficial for the overall brand. Furthermore, “we cannot forget the emotional connection experienced when shopping. That’s when you can have something in the store right away. Customers may not be able to get these pieces if they wait to shop overseas.”
Wong was also impressed with the tech-savvy nature of the Chinese shopper, something she says has also been to Paul Smith’s benefit. The brand’s Weibo account includes weekly content to increase customer engagement, and Sir Paul Smith himself personally takes charge of his own Instagram account. When it comes to creating noise both online and offline for the brand, it seems the strategy is as varied and as colorful as the clothes.