An Inside Look At China's Influencer Economy With Fashion KOL Fil Xiaobai

    Fil Xiaobai shares her 12-year journey from styling to fashion influencing, as well as her insights for brands on choosing the right KOL.
    Fil Xiaobai shares her 12-year journey from styling to fashion influencing, as well as her insights for brands on choosing the right KOL. Illustration: Yvan Deng
      Published   in Lifestyle

    Fashion influencer and stylist Fil Xiaobai is next to be welcomed into the Jing Daily community of individuals shaping China’s booming luxury industry. These profiles highlight industry leaders who contribute to the national and global fashion communities, from creatives and influencers to business executives and entrepreneurs.

    "There are many fashion KOLs, but none of them are Fil." From anyone else, that self-description may come across as haughty. But for Fil Xiaobai, a Chinese millennial influencer with a decade's worth of experience, it is one borne out of confidence.

    Fil Xiaobai boasts over 7 million followers across major social media platforms. Photo: Weibo
    Fil Xiaobai boasts over 7 million followers across major social media platforms. Photo: Weibo

    In 2011, Fil was just a student majoring in English Translation at Chengdu Foreign Language School. She could not have imagined that her love of fashion and participation in a street style photography contest held by Hainan TV's Top Fashion would propel her towards becoming one of the country's top KOLs.

    “I was very serious about this [referring to the contest]. I didn’t want to wear those recognizable luxury brands in the competition. Instead, I preferred to find niche brands to express my fashion ideas. That was probably the main reason why I won the championship. I always know what to wear," Fil recalls.

    With her bold, decisive style choices, Fil won the competition and was invited to travel overseas for Fashion Week. And she was initially thrilled to attend — until she looked online. As netizens questioned her qualifications and the negative comments piled up, she quickly came to terms with the business of fashion: one must earn the public's recognition to secure a place in the industry.

    So the Chengdu native worked hard to establish her name and soon rose to fame by working as a stylist on the fashion reality program I, Supermodel. This, along with her role in the idol competition program Produce 101, laid the groundwork for her career as a celebrity stylist.

    But now, Fil considers herself more of a fashion KOL than anything else. Since starting her Weibo account in 2011, she has branched out to livestreaming to better engage with her followers, sharing her product suggestions and purchases from overseas boutiques. She has also grown an impressive portfolio of luxury clients, shooting with brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci.

    Fil Xiaobai appeared at a Chanel event earlier this month. Photo: Xiaohongshu
    Fil Xiaobai appeared at a Chanel event earlier this month. Photo: Xiaohongshu

    Labeled a "first-generation KOL," Fil has hustled to stay on top. When many other renowned content creators were suffering from burnout or hesitating to join emerging platforms, Fil buckled down and embraced the new trends. She grew her profile on various platforms including Douyin, Xiaohongshu, and Bilibili with consistent high-quality content, amassing over 7 million followers.

    As fashion influencers continue to play a key role in shaping trends and promoting luxury brands, Jing Daily talked to Fil to better understand the opportunities and obstacles in the industry.

    How would you describe a stylist as a profession? What distinguishes it from a fashion KOL?#

    High emotional intelligence, good taste, and the capacity to work hard. The barriers to becoming a stylist are high: it takes a lot of experience, especially for those types of stylists who lead trends, as well as talent. In contrast, the threshold for fashion KOLs is relatively low. Many individuals, even VIPs of numerous luxury labels, now share their outfits on social media channels which look no different from those of fashion bloggers.

    To excel in being a fashion KOL, you need to be recognizable and have additional vocations and skills. For example, I’m both a stylist and a fashion KOL. The two complement each other.

    Fil Xiaobai is known for her street style. Photo: Xiaohongshu
    Fil Xiaobai is known for her street style. Photo: Xiaohongshu

    What are the obstacles faced by today’s stylists?#

    Although stylists are invited to participate in many programs nowadays, many do not offer them enough creative freedom. For example, on a show, practically anyone can comment on a stylist's look. This may make the work extremely difficult, and too many opinions can stifle the talent's ideas.

    In recent years, I've seen that online comments aren't always kind to stylists. Many fans of a celebrities are not objective enough to comment on their outfits so we see a lot of extreme compliments or criticism. Without a thorough grasp of the underlying background or narrative behind a set of clothing, some people just want big-name brands and haute couture, which I think is a bad trend. Although the industry is expanding swiftly, the challenge is to figure out how to keep moving forward.

    What do you think of China's KOL industry?#

    I think the time this business developed the best was between 2016 and 2021, when the entire industry was flourishing. As more individuals flock to the KOL track to seize this opportunity, standing out becomes more challenging. I recommend that young people who want to become influencers first secure a job with a stable income and then give it a try as a hobby. This way, they don't have to compete for the public's attention and can instead focus on producing high-quality content that increases their market value.

    What do you think of livestreaming e-commerce? Would you consider joining?#

    Actually, few fashion KOLs want to sell products via livestreaming since we find it difficult to explicitly ask viewers to place orders like other sellers in the livestreaming room. I think this activity isn’t really in line with our identity. Instead, I may use my expertise to assist sellers by offering some helpful styling suggestions. Though I understand that livestreaming e-commerce is currently one of the most profitable industries and that many people will jump on this trend, I believe it is still necessary for KOLs to think clearly about their own direction instead of being swept by the current — it’s easy to lose yourself.

    Were there any drastic changes in China's fashion KOL industry after COVID-19?#

    After the pandemic, many KOLs focused on the domestic market. I must say that the home market is really large and that today’s youth were born at a good time; as long as you work hard on content, you can become a star.

    Speaking with many foreign bloggers, I realized that the Chinese market is much better than the global market. Foreign KOLs must compete with KOLs from all over the world and update very frequently, which necessitates a greater degree of ability. If they’re a little careless, they can be eliminated from this fierce competition. However, I feel that many people in China are not taking advantage of this environment which is a shame.

    What kind of KOLs are brands looking to work with?#

    First, KOLs should be free of any scandals, which is a major concern for many brands since they want the collaboration to receive positive feedback. The KOL's ability to sell is also an important criterion. This depends on whether they can produce content that captivates the audience and persuades them to pay for their recommended products.

    Now, as fashion brands collaborate more widely, influencers from every field have the opportunity to work with luxury names, including athletes and artists. Ultimately, it’s all about the quality of your content.

    This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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