Independent Chinese designers want to avoid getting lumped together with the cheap goods that are still largely associated with the “Made in China” phrase in the West. Helping make this differentiation much clearer is a handful of platforms designed to support small-scale designers, creating a space for industry professionals to collaborate and address issues encircling a fashion scene that’s developing at top speed.
One of the newest is Uncover Lab, which debuted at Beijing Design Week in the fall. An undertaking by a team of longtime supporters of indie creatives and sustainability initiatives in China, Uncover Lab aims to create a space for exploring issues for the future of fashion and giving designers a chance to discuss ways in which they can improve the cycle.
The collective has notable names in China’s fashion scene on board, including ffiXXed Studios, which is making waves in Japan and has done collections for Opening Ceremony and Lane Crawford, as well as NEEMIC, a high-end clothing brand that has been at the forefront of eco-friendly fashion efforts in China, bringing style-minded consumers clothing made with natural and organic-certified fabrics.
Uncover’s founders are Markus M. Schneider, founder of Beijing-based multi-brand shop for local designers The Product Republic, Stephanie Lawson, the designer behind new premium performance denim brand Zodiac Active, fashion consultant and designer Kevin Tallon of Capitale Nord, as well as NEEMIC co-founder Hans Martin Galliker.
Uncover serves as a “showcase and hub to connect brands and designers with a broader audience among media, retailers, and consumers,” and it comes at a time when China’s fashion industry is exploding. Galliker speculates that there are five to 10 times as many designers in China now compared to when he first started NEEMIC in 2011. (He emphasizes, though, that the real numbers depend on how one defines a brand. “There are tons of new brands, many being only available on Taobao, some really independent and some just a new outlet for big fashion companies where this fact is not being made transparent,” he said.)
Of course, many designers may have convenient access to factories in China to do small-scale production or low-quality mass production, but to make a long-term bid for a quality, sustainable brand makes the process more complicated, which is part of what indie fashion platforms attempt to explore. The industry is also faced with the fact that there are more high-end local labels that threaten international luxury brands, not to mention technology and social media are quickly changing the way consumers view fashion, and the rise of e-commerce is paving the way for innovative business models.
It’s not the first platform to try to bring these ideas together. Galliker also led in the creation of the similar “Beijing Fashion Collective” in 2013. There is also, of course, numerous online and offline sales platforms for supporting up and coming designers in China, such as Xinlelu, Yetang, and D2C, which gives newcomers a chance at a direct to consumer model, but many of them don’t go much further beyond offering sales and marketing support.
“The challenges for indie fashion designers are tremendous,” Galliker said. “There is just so much to take care of, from sourcing to creation, sales, distribution, and customer care, with an increasing trend towards e-commerce and automatization along the whole supply chain. To cope with those challenges, indie brands can either invest in growing their organization or they can unite with other indie designers. That offers ways to share experiences, sourcing together, and presenting themselves together to be better heard in the market as a good alternative to fast fashion and imported luxury brands.”
Galliker said he always felt like there was a gap in the market for a platform like Uncover. “Designers were not collaborating enough because they were just so busy with realizing their vision,” he said. “Also, society doesn’t give them any successful example of a loose collection of brands.”
But he does give a lot of credit to another new platform in China that serves to give designers advice for every piece of the fashion puzzle, from manufacturing, to sales, to production, and sourcing. YCO Foundation, founded by Fan Yang, gives members access to a system that allows buyers and designers to communicate directly, provides a library of fabric sources, offers opportunities for collaboration, and gives users access to a WeChat blog that provides inspiration and interviews with designers doing quality work. They also have an offline showroom, Coda, that gives a space for 10 select designers for an off-schedule event at Shanghai Fashion Week.
It’s this type of holistic, integrated support that helps designers build a good foundation in the industry, where there’s a temptation to move quickly. Many designers fizzle out after one or two years, while others go big, with some getting international recognition after just two seasons. YCO’s focus is producing brands that uphold the “Designed in China” name. “We believe the future of Chinese fashion business belongs to good products, which means not only good design, but also good quality, good delivery, and good pricing,” Fan said.
With just a year behind them, YCO’s B2B system, which is similar to platforms like New York City’s Joor or Le New Black in Paris, was recently officially adopted by Shanghai Fashion Week.
Going forward, the Uncover organizers, meanwhile, are working on plans for a second, expanded project, and in the process of defining criteria that keeps incoming designers to the platform at a high caliber, which is all too critical for a team that wants to set itself apart in an increasingly saturated industry.