Can this Brand Make Avant-Garde Mass in China?

To say Belgian designer Martin Margiela changed fashion is an understatement: He radicalized the principles upon which the industry operated while deconstructing its form. When looking back at the decades since the brand’s inception in 1989, it is safe to say the label took risks that few houses would dare today.

Margiela’s avant-garde approach provocatively tested and teased the fashion industry. His collections played with proportions and added protrusions, while his designs featured hems and seams turned inside-out and sideways, subverting the history of fashion. His Artisanal concept, which was based on one-of-a-kind, objects hand wrought from repurposed textiles or found objects, showed that luxury resides in the artisanship, not the material.

Today, the brand sits in the OTB stable (acquired in 2002), alongside Marni and Viktor & Rolf. Bold retail steps have resulted in it amassing 22 Maison Margiela freestanding stores worldwide and 35 shop-in-shops in 9 countries. 2019 figures, reported on this year, showed a sales increase of over 36 percent compared to 2018 for a total of 227.7 million dollars. This jump presumably came from the growth of its retail channels, online platforms, and its accessories collections.

Meanwhile, accessible collaborations, such as the contemporary MM6 line with The North Face, have widened the brand’s appeal collaboration and scored well in the Jing Daily Fashion Week Index. Now, as the house opens its third store in China, Jing Daily asks if the line can maintain its cool-factor by exploring the pros and cons of Margiela’s China strategy.

How Maison Margiela married avant-garde and mass-appeal 

Margiela is relatively low-key in markets like Europe and the US yet is heavily eyeing a China expansion post-coronavirus. Marketing Consultant Xinyao Qiu explained that the current situation makes it very difficult for luxury voices to be heard, as they simply get lost in the competitive market.

Given Margiela’s global reputation, this high-concept execution in China is expected, and Qiu has very high expectations of their campaigns. “The brand has a lot to talk about and share,” she said. “It was an early adopter with a clear vision, history, and archive that China probably missed in real-time.”

Margiela’s Chinese New Year campaign is a strong indicator of the care and nuance it takes in the China market. Six still-life images pay homage to the ancient Chinese folk tale “The Ten Bulls” by delicately evoking emotions such as love, celebration, and joy while embracing quintessentially Chinese design elements. It’s refined with not a celebrity in sight.

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Despite the subtle anonymity of this campaign approach, it managed to stand out on social media and has not gone unnoticed by netizens. Among its 54,000 followers, one commentator wrote: “MM is very serious about CNY.” Overall, it generated positive commentary along the lines of: “Looks cool and high-class.”

As Qiu stated, getting luxury marketing right in China is a balancing act. “Most brands don’t have the courage to be radical,” she said. “What Margiela conveys in their imagery and core direction is quite promising. So I hope for them to step outside of these conservative confines.”

Maintaining brand identity while reaching the masses is challenging for any niche luxury brand. But with a country as vast as China, this goal is even more of a conflict, especially once that mass appeal threatens loyalty.

Qiu suggested different ways of navigating different consumer fanbases such as drops inspired by Burberry’s limited-editions or outreach and student initiatives already strategized by Prada. Opening the house out through exhibitions with objects loaned from collections (as Chaumet did recently), could also satisfy disparate consumer groups.

Maison Margiela’s retail penetration and consumer expectation 

CEO Gianfranco Gianangeli has predicted that global retail will account for more than two-thirds of the brand’s business by 2024, and China’s role in this would, presumably, be significant. The brand opened a flagship on Tmall in October of 2019 that sells its most popular and well-recognized products.

Impressively, it has forged ahead with a physical retail China presence during COVID-19, opening new doors in Shanghai and Chengdu. In September of 2020, Maison Margiela opened a concept store in the Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li shopping center in Chengdu, followed by an opening in Shanghai’s Réel Department Store in December.

The store concept is designed by Dutch architect Studio Anne Holtrop and reflects the evolved visual language established by creative director John Galliano. Photo: Courtesy of Maison Margiela

The 2019 report, First Launch in Chengdu Brand Study, pinpointed the Southwestern city as the top choice for several retail openings last year, which is why the house plans to open a new concept boutique in Chengdu’s Yintai Centre on February 3, 2021.

Still, as Gianangeli told Jing Daily, there is room for even more growth on the Mainland. Very ambitions plans are afoot for several new store openings in China over the next two years as well as a focus on the development of key cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Nanjing.

These stores employ the evolved visual language that John Galliano established when joining the brand. “It’s been about six years now since John has been appointed Creative Director. He has thoroughly established his codes for the house while respecting the heritage. It was time to translate the new codes into an architectural frame for the collections and clients,” Gianangeli contined.

indeed, the stores are well-realized, yet consumers in China, especially those in top-tier cities, are spoiled in terms of store design. “I have read comments that people want bigger stores,” Qiu said. “That is linked to giving a better impression of being more ‘high-end.’” Over time, as consumers understand the brand’s DNA more, they will learn to appreciate that small can be beautiful.

How luxury brands execute KOL strategies without brand ambassadors 

The designer always held an unconventional stance with celebrities, and the brand has no official brand ambassador in China. However, it has engaged KOLs and influencers for store openings, such as the personality Xiaobai for its first Chengdu opening, and talents like Cherry Gun, Mia Kong, Feng Fan, and Michella Choi were in attendance at the brand’s Shanghai opening.

That indicates a strategy based on working with younger, trendier influencers and not bigger, commercial ones. But this tack has its issues. In such a big market, brands need to consider if they prefer commercial KOLs with big numbers (which could be inflated) or more independent bloggers who don’t have huge followings.

Qiu stated that Margiela’s careful approach is part of a “test and learn journey,” but it also has downsides. “Even though I appreciate this [method], if you are just working with industry experts who will not bring the mass result, you are at risk. In that sense, it’s very tricky.”

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The house’s identity is being amplified even further by Maison Margiela Replica, a perfume licensed to L’oreal. It has over 10,000 followers on Little Red Book, works with ambassador Chris Li, and has ranked in Tmall’s top-eight favorite niche perfume brands among young consumers.

“I’ve seen many collaborations promoting this perfume, so that’s promising. This is how many younger customers will have their first impression with the brand,” Qiu noted. “But will they then go on to have the consumption power of the mainline as the price point is so different? And will it meet the mass appeal built up by L’oreal?”

And, can the contentious brilliance of Galliano, appointed in 2014 and currently overseeing the design of all lines, resonate with China’s shoppers? Galliano is an undisputed genius and is “appreciated” in China for his talent. But the question is: Can Maison Margiela scale up while retaining its unconformist DNA?

For now, Maison Margiela’s differentiated aesthetic is working for the many fans of directional fashion in China. And as Qiu summarized, that could wind up being its saving grace. “In China, they will buy if you are a cool brand, but not if you are just another luxury brand,” she stated. “After a year, they will move on and say it to your face. That’s the market.”

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Fashion, Retail