Luxury Streetwear Goes Mainstream in Label-thirsty China

Collaborations between luxury and streetwear brands have created a real kerfuffle among China’s young luxury consumers. Whether it’s Rimowa’s collaboration with Supreme, Jimmy Choo with Off-White, or Alexander Wang with Adidas, more and more luxury brands are stretching the limits of their old world heritage with ultra-hip but potentially far more ephemeral labels.

Despite the popularity of such crossover, it took many by surprise when Louis Vuitton named the founder of Off-White, Virgil Abloh, as the artistic director of its menswear collection. Chinese netizens were particularly vocal about the hire.

Some expressed regret that LV is delving into streetwear. “The alliance has been formed — LV and Balenciaga belong to the high-end streetwear club, while Chanel and Dior still stay true to their luxury roots,” wrote Sheryl Wu, 27, a senior analyst working on Wall Street.

“As someone who religiously follows street trends, the news makes me want to track Abloh’s next move,” wrote Michael Zhang, 24, a Beijing native who is studying in NYC. “I probably won’t buy his Louis Vuitton stuff because it’s not streetwear,” he said, because major luxury brands lack the authenticity he associates with streetwear.

For others, luxury brands and streetwear brands aren’t so different. Alex, a senior analyst working in the media industry, thinks Abloh brings a refreshing perspective to both industries. Quoting a previous interview where the designer talked about turning Off-White to a high-end streetwear brand, she said, “LV’s recent hire shows their willingness to target young consumers, but not to compromise its own perceived luxury value.” She said she first became interested in LV’s menswear when her idol, Liu Haoran, was invited to attend LV’s Paris fashion show.

Streetwear Lit by Youth in China

Such diverse responses from consumers show how hard the Chinese millennial may be to please. But Louis Vuitton obviously believes making the effort to reach them is worthwhile. In 2017, 28 percent of the brand’s revenue came from Asia. China is its core growth engine, and young Chinese consumers are its fuel. Much like their digital-native peers elsewhere, they have taken a stronger interest in streetwear brands.

According to the latest report from OFashion and Nielsen, from 2015 to 2017, the growth of streetwear consumption in China was 3.7 times higher than others, reaching 62 percent year on year.

Kris Wu in Rap of China. Photo: Sina Fashion

Todd Hessert, the founder of Globe Fashion Runway reasoned that the boom in interest comes from the influence of reality variety shows in China. Shows like The Rap of China, Street Dance of China, Hot Blood Dance Crew, and Running Men have pushed street fashion from the underground into the mass market

Many Chinese celebrities are now dressing in street brands popular in Europe and America, Hessert said, and Chinese millennials are following suit.

Well known celebrities in lesser-known streetwear labels have injected some much-needed novelty into the public’s fashion sense. The report also named actress Yang Mi, and young heart-throbs Kris Wu and Lu Han(known as ‘Little Fresh Meat’ in China) as trail blazers when it comes to the streetwear market in China. Their appearances in street wear brands in the airport, at press events, and on reality shows helped create a frenzy among fans who wanted to copy their looks.

A streetwear trend map in China. The vertical line shows how well recognized a brand is among die-hard fans, while the horizontal line shows how often it is mentioned.

Die-hard fans, who have been wearing streetwear since high school, have developed a deeper understanding of the stories and styles behind each label, and are high-frequency buyers. They account for 48 percent of the streetwear market share in China, and often spend as much as 60-80 percent of their disposable income on streetwear brands.

The mass market consumer, who recognizes the most well-known brands but are less interested in street culture, are more likely to encounter streetwear through collaborations between luxury and streetwear brands.

What’s Next?

As the boundaries between luxury and streetwear continue to blur, a new territory has been discovered in which to activate young Chinese consumer spending.

Hessert remains positive about the future of such crossovers. “Personally, I think this is positive energy. The fashion industry is itself a way of selling creativity. The cooperation between street brands and luxury brands helps achieve a better cultural collision between the two.”

Photo: Supreme/Weibo

Some Chinese consumers are not convinced. They criticize creative directors who devote their talents to maximizing revenue, and there’s a risk that a young, trend-conscious audience, will prefer to find lesser known, newer brands. They question whether such cross-overs can constitute a long-term strategy and if luxury brands can adapt to the speed at which street-wear evolves.

“Today’s millennials are much more volatile and looking for diversity,” said Louis Houdart, Founder of Creative Capital. “The cooperation with streetwear is a difficult and dangerous exercise for luxury brands. When the traditional slow speed of luxury brands meets with the speed of fast fashion, they risk diluting their brand image.”

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Consumer, Market Trends