If there were ever an unexpected rival to the endless purse collections of Hollywood celebrities like Victoria Beckham or Kim Kardashian, it would be that of Tao Liang. Known by his devoted online fans as “Mr. Bags,” the 23-year-old Columbia University graduate is a prolific blogger on China's top social media platforms, WeChat and Weibo, with a single mission: to share his handbag world to the masses.
He writes for more than 1.28 million followers on Weibo and WeChat altogether—enough to attract Fendi to invite him to their fashion shows and for Stella McCartney, Galeries Lafayette, and other big brands and department stores to collaborate with him. His posts are lengthy, informing the shopping-hungry Chinese nouveau riche with his almost encyclopedic knowledge on the latest trends and hottest styles.
Tao's parents both have backgrounds in finance and initially sent him to study that very subject in Los Angeles before he went on to Columbia to pursue a degree in international relations. In LA, he was soon spending as much time in the malls of Beverly Hills as in the college library. (Read: Tao shopped. A lot. Mr. Bags has about 100 bags to his name, and that number is only growing.)
When Jing Daily went to meet him, Tao came dressed in a simple black Philip Lim sweatshirt, a $17,000 Birkin bag on his arm. The Beijing native was preparing to go to the United States to attend the rewardStyle conference for bloggers in Dallas, then host an event at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, but in May, he plans to return to Beijing to set up his own studio and a team that will help his blog grow. His goals include going bilingual, growing his “Mr. Shoes” microblog, and exploring potential collaborations with Chinese designers. For a guy who tirelessly dedicates himself to blogging, Tao spoke energetically about how his education supports a shopping blog and where China's handbag buffs are headed.
I really wanted to do something I loved, and fashion is my passion. I do a lot of shopping every day online and offline. I figured that I know so much about handbags—I can call out the names of all the handbags, even the ones that are not as well known—and I thought I could do something online. Back then, there was no Weibo or WeChat, but there was Ren Ren (China's Facebook), and I posted a photo essay about bags that were really good, but not super-expensive.
My friends felt like all the girls would be crazy about it, so they just kept sharing it. And some of the posts received 10,000 and even 100,000 views, and I thought “Oh my god, it's going big.”
I started to do Weibo, and it went really well because I was really serious about all of the content. I was really serious about about choosing the bags that I recommended, and also I didn't cooperate with everyone. I only wanted to cooperate with the more legitimate brands.
I have a website, but I don't put a lot of effort into it. The difference between the Chinese and Western online world is that social media is growing so fast in China, much faster than the in the United States. For example, Instagram in the United States has captured the whole market for a long time. And the blog in the West is still a big deal, but in China, we had a passion for blogs for a year and then Weibo just totally took over the market.
The first time I went to Milan, I went with Fendi, and it was really magical that Fendi invited me to see the show in the front row. That was my first time at Fashion Week, so I was so excited and when I went there I met so many followers. I'd say that was a turning point in my career. At that time, I suddenly realized I really had influence. That's really exciting. I feel like my whole life is a dream coming true.
All of my girlfriends started to buy more bags than they did before, and then all of them blame me for always influencing them. Oh my god, all of them have a lot of bags. They're like, “I have to unfollow your public page because it's making my boyfriend crazy.”
This happened later on. It was really hard for U.S. brands to reach me, which actually helped me. If you have a lot of commercial collaborations when you're just starting out, it’s not a good thing. Your followers aren’t stupid. They know those are advertisements, and they’ll stop following you. But because I didn’t make those contacts early on, I had the chance to build up my following, and to know what I should be posting. So I had the chance to become quite mature regarding my content, and then it was only about a year ago that I started working with brands.
Sometimes, but usually only at certain times, like around Chinese New Year or Christmas. You still love the bags you buy yourself most. Those are the ones you really cherish. But I do love when brands give me bags, because I want to have as many as I can!
Once I had a stopover in Korea on the way back to Beijing, and the Korean customs official said, “Oh my god, you have 10 bags in your suitcase. Are you bringing these to sell?” And I said, “No, I’m a fashion blogger.” And her English wasn’t very good, but somehow she knew the word “blogger,” and she just let me go.
Chinese people are definitely really smart purchasers, but right now, things are changing a lot. Before, when I was just starting my WeChat channel, I was talking more about classic brands and the signature bags from different brands, but now I’m focusing more on new styles.
And the brands are changing too—sometimes a new designer joins a brand, and they totally change the style of a brand. So the classic styles are no longer that classic, and you don’t know if the new styles are going to become classics. And Chinese people have started to notice this, and have more purchasing power.
The classic styles are still popular, because there are a lot of luxury buyers who are beginners, and the natural place to start is with the classic styles. But very quickly, they’ll move on to buying new styles, new colors, and seasonal designs. Chinese people are still very smart when it comes to purchasing, but they’re also becoming more sophisticated consumers.
Because I studied international relations, my whole mindset involves thinking about different parties and how to satisfy everyone’s interests. Now, if a brand is pushing me really hard, I might think that this is not suitable content for my followers, and I might cancel it or try to move to something else. A brand might come to me and say “Style A is the one we’re really trying to promote in China this year.” If I don’t think style A is a perfect match for my followers, I’ll talk to the brand and tell them that in my experience, I think style B is going to be more popular in China. And they’ll really consider that, and all of them will switch to promoting style B, at least on my platform. And most of the time, I’m right.
I went to the U.S. Embassy to apply for my visa, and the visa officer asked me, “You studied international relations for six years and you’re telling me you want to be a fashion blogger?” But you know, fashion blogging is an industry. I think what I learned from my classes changed my mindset. You don’t need to use all the theories to work as a government official, but you can apply what’s useful to your own field. I studied negotiation and conflict resolution for my graduate studies, and that’s really useful when I’m negotiating with brands!
This interview was edited and condensed.