“I Generally Stick To Making The Kinds Of Clothes That I Will Wear And Want To Wear”
One noteworthy highlight that stood out among the usual runway shows at the recently concluded Shanghai Fashion Week was a “Tao Fashion Show,” held by a group of six independent brands from the popular Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao. Though Taobao’s massive growth over the past nine years has been largely fueled by vendors stocking other people’s brands, more recently independent designers have leveraged the platform to build their own “virtual stores,” making them an increasingly influential force in China’s home-grown fashion industry. Between 2009 and 2011, independent Taobao-based Chinese brands in the women’s clothing segment increased their market share from 13 percent to 40 percent.
Among the brands selling their own designs via Taobao, one of the most successful and fast-growing is Front Row. Though still a relative newcomer to the fashion scene, the brand’s reputation has grown quickly among everyone from younger Chinese white-collar workers to international bloggers, and some of the company’s designs have been purchased by the British fast-fashion retailer Topshop. The brand’s growth has seen it outgrow its initial online shop, and later this month, Front Row will upgrade from a simple Taobao store to a full-featured e-commerce site at FrontRowShop.com.
The success of Front Row shows that Taobao, and other home-grown e-commerce platforms, is providing Chinese designers and brands a means to enter the playing field more easily than through expensive brick-and-mortar stores. At the same time, the likes of Sina Weibo and an ever-growing number of Pinterest clones are helping these designers reach a broader audience easily and cheaply. Recently, Jing Daily met with Front Row founder Wendy at her 700 square meter studio in Shanghai to get an exclusive look at her new collection and speak about her brand and future plans for the upcoming FrontRowShop.com. Interview translated from the original Chinese.
Jing Daily (JD): Can you tell us a little about how you created Front Row?
Wendy (W): My husband and I are big fashion lovers. For a long time we were keeping up with foreign designs, but a lot of times they weren’t available in China. Also, we had a hard time finding clothes that we really liked, so we decided to go into business for ourselves at a pretty young age. At the beginning, as buyers, we went overseas to look for some brands we could bring back and sell in the China market. Early on, we opened a physical store and business was good. But later, we saw there was a pretty big bottleneck, as it’s hard to get good designs through an agency. Also, I was looking for some designs that just weren’t available. So I decided to do it myself. We started making patterns and showing them to international and domestic customers, and got a good reaction to them. So I decided to build my own brand and sort of brazenly open my own factory.
The reason we called it “Front Row” is because we want to offer customers the most trendy and stylish, cutting-edge design.
JD: So what would you say is your strategy, in terms of brand positioning?
W: It’s probably most accurate to call Front Row “fast fashion,” distinct from a designer brand. We basically follow international trends and update our inventory almost every week. We mostly focus on apparel, but also stock handbags, shoes and accessories. Most of our customers are white-collar workers.
I generally stick to making the kinds of clothes that I will wear and want to wear, but also focus on keeping costs down. As a result, we have lots of repeat customers.
JD: We know that Topshop has purchased some of your designs. Could you tell us a little about how that happened?
W: One of our international customers is also a well-known fashion blogger, and she introduced Front Row to other fashion bloggers. Later, Topshop saw our designs and bought some of our products. At the moment, we’re also in negotiations with [the British online-only fashion & beauty store] ASOS.
JD: How do you make sure you’re consistent in updating your inventory every week?
W: In the early days, there was no real continuity in our designs. Now we follow set themes, such as the prints we use in the S/S 2012 collection. One other thing we’re doing is developing our own textiles. Although it’s relatively expensive, we think it’ll be really helpful to our development in the long run. Since Chinese factories are pretty slow when it comes to offering new fabrics, we think we have to do this ourselves to speed up the process.
JD: How does your team deal with the pressure to update every week?
W: I’m really the only person who controls the whole process, from design to pattern-making. Now I have three assistants and a very senior fabric master. Since I’m self-taught, I have to communicate a lot with the pattern maker. Making clothes is pretty complicated, but if you do something you enjoy, it’ll make you happy even though it’s tough. Now, we’ve moved into a larger office, so I’m going to bring in more staff.
JD: In the interest of keeping costs down, lots of fast fashion brands have quality control issues. How do you deal with this?
W: First off, we put a priority on controlling our inventory. Generally, we only make 40 or 50 pieces for the first run. Based on the sales we see on the first day of release, we’ll decide whether to continue making more. In order to make sure delivery speed is consistent, we’ll prepare enough fabric for around 200 pieces. Controlling inventory in this way helps us also control capital. At the same time, we have employees whose jobs are dedicated only to quality control. Developing our own textiles in the long term will help us even further with this.
JD: What’s next for Front Row?
W: This month, we’ll leave Taobao to launch our own e-commerce site. Early on, we sold through Taobao because it offered more traffic and is a good entry-level sales platform. But as a channel, Taobao still has some limitations. Currently, among consumers, Taobao’s seen as a platform for relatively cheap items. We want Front Row to be more high-end. So the new site will offer more premium collections. In the meantime, I will stock some relatively high-end foreign brands on the site. 2012 is going to be a critical year for us, and we hope to grow healthily and rapidly as the year goes on.
JD: From the beginning, Front Row’s marketing strategy has basically been word-of-mouth. What else are you doing to promote your brand?
W: For one thing, we’re very active on Sina Weibo, and we also make sure to reach out to opinion leaders in the Chinese fashion industry. We’re also working right now on collaborations with magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmo.