Why Streetwear Brand A-COLD-WALL* Tapped JD.com for China Expansion

The playing field for launching luxury online in China is vast and varied. From apps like WeChat or Little Red Book, and short video platforms Douyin to Kuaishou, there’s a platform and an audience there that will suit your brand’s needs. This week, emerging British menswear brand A-COLD-WALL* launches a digital film at Milan Fashion Week. It does so just as it cements its partnership with JD.com, dropping AW20 collection with the e-commerce giant in November. 

The onset of COVID-19 meant that China’s digital landscape had to expand exponentially, incorporating new and daring ways to capture Chinese consumers’ interests. Though many still view this as a two-horse race — Tmall with its Luxury Pavilion versus JD.com and partner Farfetch — JD.com has been seriously upping its fashion credentials since January. 

So far, its scoops this year include Zegna, Coach, Balmain, Yohji Yamamoto, and a number of new names from Farfetch China, such as the UK designers Nicholas Kirkwood and Roksanda Ilincic. The collaboration with London-based A-COLD-WALL*, founded by the articulate designer Samuel Ross, began when the brand won JD.com’s sponsored BFC/GQ Designer Menswear Fund, and has culminated in the brand joining the platform.

This latest sign-up points to a trend: e-commerce companies seeking out specialized luxury and experimental designers to nurture, which then go on to satisfy Chinese consumers’ hunger for directional fashion. According to JD.com, customers have still shown a high demand for luxury products during COVID-19 and after. Kevin Jiang, president of international business at JD fashion and lifestyle, noted that “in just the first hour of June 1, we grew by 400 percent year-on-year and reached the sales of the whole day last year in just two hours.”

Founder of The Institute of Digital Fashion, Leanne Elliott-Young, also confirmed the strong sales, noting, “JD.com is flying high at the moment.” Indeed, the company’s logistics network has gained a lot of momentum during the lockdown, which is now being used to power luxury deliveries. “After the 618 Festival, with its record pandemic high spends of 400 percent, its audience has adapted seamlessly to a digital lockdown and beyond,” Elliott-Young adds. And, as much as fashion brands pin their hope for recovery on China, competing e-tail rivals are also looking to attract interactional talent and market them.

How to market A-Cold-Wall’s menswear to China

The pre-pandemic CIIE Blue paper from Deloitte-Secoo stated that online luxury purchases from male consumers had surpassed female ones and that 50 percent of those males were between the ages of 18 and 30. Therefore, while the strategy works for brands wanting to attract these male customers, JD.com also has much to gain by attracting a younger, more engaged demographic.

In this AW20 drop, Ross’s brand has transitioned from a pure artistic practice to offering his audience “tailored functionality.” And, by delivering “luxury for every day,” the brand is well suited to China’s adventurous luxury tastemakers. Jiang made the value of such a collaboration clear, explaining, “Young, male customers are a key customer base on JD, and we have carefully analyzed customers’ preferences to bring them the most stylish and hot-selling products. We believe the brand has strong potential in the Chinese market, especially with young consumers with a strong personal style.”

Photo: A-COLD-WALL*

When Ross won the GQ Fashion Award, he received “a deep dive into how they [JD.com] analyze metrics,” which evolved over 18 months (like other big data platforms, JD.com leverages its marketing tools to help brands precisely target potential customers.)

“The platform has a strong following in China and can meet consumer demands,” he continued. “So, it was about understanding the fundamentals of that platform and articulating the essence of the brand on the ground, which then married up with taking A-COLD-WALL* into a vast digital market. I have confidence in their positioning, too.”

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But it’s not easy to sell in China, even on established sales channels such as JD.com, especially without marketing outreach. Given that sales are not visible on JD.com’s platform, store followers can be taken as a metric of popularity. Another recent sign-up, By Far, which was “brought on to attract young females,” Jiang said, sold 65 percent of its products after just four days, and “about 90 percent of its products sold out after one month.” The brand currently has 30K store followers, and although A-COLD-WALL* only has 663 followers, it holds loads of untapped potential.

Yishu Wang, director at the boutique digital agency Half A World, explained that “customers usually get vouchers or discounts when following stores on JD.com. But if a brand already had some popularity internationally, being on platforms like JD.com can help with their sales in China.”

“It’s about how marketing can be more honest, immersive, and educational”

Fortunately, Ross is excellent at keeping consumers and audiences surprised. “We are moderately small and can be agile about how we go about re-merchandising weekly,” he told Jing Daily. “It’s about how marketing can be more honest, immersive, and educational, as well as, understanding the project, process, and materials in order to articulate the ideas that are behind it. It’s a more artistic approach to retail.”

Yet, the pandemic has not hindered his brand so far, he admitted. In fact, it has seen a huge uptake in trade, and wholesale partners have had their strongest season. His plan to mirror online and offline by working closer with JD to merchandise the correct products should only amplify these successes.

How JD.com helps operationally

The A-COLD-WALL* collaboration took the form of a first-party retail model, meaning buyers select and purchase products from the brand while it ships the products to JD’s warehouse to start selling. JD.com takes care of the operation of the store and customer service, and the brand provision ensures product authenticity.

The platform’s in-house luxury buyers have been to the UK to personally select products to offer online, initially this was a selection of best sellers and archive pieces. “We attach great importance to bringing more British luxury brands on JD.com,” Jiang clarified, “and we have a business development team in London dedicated to building partnerships with British brands.”

While JD.com has done much to create the “premium experience in the luxury industry” — from white glove delivery to offline product care service — Wang also stated that “they still have a long way to go to be seen as the platform for luxury at the pre-sale and during-sale phases.”

It remains to be seen if emerging British luxury brands are JD.com’s answer to marketing avant-garde menswear, but Ross said he is aware of “the importance of trusting the machine that is JD.com.” The e-tailer makes the process of store-launching simple and streamlined, and an integrated strategy driven by “cadenced and textured” insights offers niche menswear brands a consolidated route into the sophisticated China market. A-COLD-WALL* should reap the rewards.

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