With the luxury market in China becoming increasingly competitive, one tried-and-tested approach for many brands to boost sales is celebrity endorsement. With a reach of tens of millions on their social media accounts, local stars and fashion icons such as Shu Qi or Zhou Xun have the power to catapult a niche brand or individual product to overnight success. Recently, it was reported that Fan Bingbing helped drive RMB 450 million in sales in 2013 on China’s most popular C2C platform, Taobao.
Yet, access to the A-list is increasingly controlled by an even smaller minority: the celebrity stylists. Five years ago, the job of a stylist barely existed in China, but as Chinese stars began to make appearances at international red carpet events such as the Cannes Film Festival or The Met Ball, the previously Western notion of hiring a celebrity stylist also became de rigueur. Today, the most successful stylists wield enormous influence in China’s fashion industry; some, such as Lucia Liu and Leaf Greener have become fashion icons in their own right. In Paris, we caught up with one of the most influential celebrity stylists in China right now, Mix Wei, to learn more about what goes into dressing the country’s biggest stars.
At age 29, Wei is the fashion director at Madame Figaro China, and has worked for many of China’s biggest celebrities, such as Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Shu Qi, Li Bingbing, Sun Li, Na Ying, Zhang Yuqi and Michelle Reis. Read the interview below to hear his views on how he got into the business, how he puts together the looks, and why communication is the most important skill a celebrity stylist can have.
Talk us through how you got into celebrity styling.
I studied luxury business management at Milan’s Istituto Europea di Design, but I have always had an instinct and sensitivity for fashion. I don’t think you need to study fashion [to be a celebrity stylist], an innate sense of style is more important.
After I graduated, I worked my way up at Madame Figaro, where I eventually became Fashion Director. As part of my job, I was meeting a lot of high-profile celebrities. They trusted my taste and we would talk a lot about style and fashion. It was then a natural transition to help them with styling.
Many celebrity stylists in China are also fashion editors. Why is that?
The industry is still very young in China, so for most of us, we built up styling experience working as fashion editors. It’s also a good way to make connections with potential clients. However, I think as the industry matures, this will change and there will be less overlap between the celebrity stylists and the fashion stylists. It’s really two separate disciplines. In the West, there’s a much clearer divide.
What was your breakthrough moment as a celebrity stylist?
Dressing Zhang Yuqi in Ulyana Sergeenko at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was the first time a Chinese celebrity had worn Ulyana Sergeenko and it received a lot of press coverage.
Who has more input when it comes to a look—the celebrity, the stylist or the designer?
That depends on the celebrity. For more established stars such as Gong Li, who already have their own unique taste and style, there is very little for a stylist to add. [Gong Li] already knows how to look good and what suits her. As a stylist, my job is to help her maintain her style credentials. For other celebrities such as Na Ying, I had a more influential role. We started working together on [singing reality TV show], The Voice, which was when people first began to pay attention to her as a fashion icon. Before that, she wasn’t really known for her style. Afterwards, brands such as Louis Vuitton would invite her to their shows during Fashion Week and approach her for sponsorship. That was really validation for me as a stylist. I think [stylists] are much more valuable when it comes to artists who do not yet have an established style. We can help define their image and positioning and find the designers that most suit them.
Of course, we are always approached by different brands but I would not use a brand unless I was sure the look was right for my client.
Which celebrities are the most influential in driving sales?
It is difficult to say because every celebrity is different. For instance, Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi are the most influential in driving sales at an international level, whereas Na Ying has become extremely visible and influential in China through her role [as a judge] on The Voice. When she wore a Givenchy dress on the show, people would go to the stores afterwards asking to buy the same one. At the end of the day, I think as long as the celebrity finds a style that suits them and looks good, it will influence sales.
Do you think today’s celebrities in China understand the importance of stylists for their public image?
A small proportion do but most still don’t. There aren’t enough high-profile events to make it a necessity [to employ a celebrity stylist]. Fan Bingbing was really the one who first paved the way for the industry. When she started attending fashions shows and events such as Cannes, other celebrities saw the way in which her outfits helped raise her profile internationally and it inspired them to pay more attention to their fashion choices. She helped bridge the gap between the celebrity world and fashion world in China. Previously, people used to just wear labels for the sake of it, without giving it much thought. Now they see fashion as a form of expression, as a way to gain attention.
Fan Bingbing became famous internationally for her extravagant outfit choices. When it comes to red carpet events, is it more about looking good or being noticed?
When nobody knows you, you need to stand out. It’s the same in Hollywood. Look at Lady Gaga. Not every outfit she wears is nice but it gives her an identity.
What are some of the key challenges of your job as a celebrity stylist?
Communication is the biggest one. It is the most important skill to have as a celebrity stylist. Styling celebrities is not the same as styling fashion models. With celebrities, the “styling” part comes second. Communication and building trust comes first. If she doesn’t trust you, it doesn’t matter how good your styling is.
Those who are good at celebrity styling might not be good at fashion styling and vice versa. An outfit can look completely different on a celebrity versus a model. Models are trained to be clothes horses whereas celebrities have imperfections and insecurities. You need to understand her and her flaws, how to dress her in way that flatters her figure. Many editors have egos and want perfection in everything. But the celebrity’s needs should come first.
Do you think it is important for Chinese celebrities to support Chinese designers?
Absolutely. Whenever a Chinese celebrity attends an international event, they are normally very keen to represent aspects of their heritage in their style, as long as it does not interfere too much with the overall look. As stylists, we are always looking for a Chinese designer that can be represented [at these events]. If the designs are strong, celebrities are, in my experience, always very willing to help promote and support local designers but so far, we haven’t found [a designer] that is particularly suitable. It still needs some time.
At the moment, celebrities can help promote local brands such as Chictopia and Christopher Bu in China and at local red carpet events but not really on the international stage. It is not enough to just to market these designers in China. I want to see these celebrities wear Chinese designers to high-profile international events such as the Oscars or The Met Ball, where the whole world is watching.
A number of celebrity stylists in China have gone on to launch their own collections. Do you think you will do something similar?
No, as I didn’t study fashion design. I think I am better suited to seeking out talented designers and giving them a platform rather than doing the actual creating.
This interview was translated from Chinese.
Jillian Xin is the founder of XINLELU.COM, a website dedicated to introducing hard-to-find indie labels to the Chinese market. Since launching in 2012, it has amassed a loyal coterie of sophisticated shoppers and now has two brick-and-mortar locations in Shanghai.