From a creative perspective, Chinese talent is now a strong force in the fashion industry, especially in recent years, as an increasing number of Chinese students have graduated from top global design schools.
Shushu/Tong is establishing itself in China and globally, counting over 50 stockists on the Mainland and 20 others worldwide.
Homegrown brands have an advantage in the local market as they know how to speak to their consumers. In contrast, global players often lack the tools and on-the-ground experts for affecting China’s landscape.
Crossing Shanghai’s most famous street, Nanjing West Road, or walking through the busy HKRI Taikoo Hui Plaza, you might spot a “Shushu/Tong girl” — the newest trending phrase on Chinese social media. The term is being used to describe loyal customers of the Shanghainese designer brand Shushu/Tong, whose designs are characterized by ruffles, bows, and other girlie-style tropes.
Indeed, the domestic label’s feminine avant-garde garments are making waves in China, particularly among local Gen-Z consumers who want unique pieces to express their individuality. Founded by the designer duo Liushu Lei and Yutong Jiang in 2015, the brand is now expanding its reach outside China. And with over 20 renowned global stockists, including Nordstrom, Ssense, and Dover Street Market, many are asking: Is this young Chinese company actually poised to go global?
Admittedly, the current environment for young independent labels in China is challenging. A ”Made in China” stigma of cheap Chinese products is still an association local netizens make. Therefore, young independent designers find it difficult to sell what many call “overpriced” garments.
In April, the celebrity anchor Li Jiaqi partnered with LABELHOOD during Shanghai Fashion Week to support emerging domestic brands. But even the popularity of China’s “lipstick king” failed to win over new fans for the young cohort. Viewers didn’t appreciate the overall style, with some even blaming him for promoting exaggeratedly expensive and “ugly” garments.
Nonetheless, the success of Shushu/Tong — as well as contemporaries like Angel Chen, Pronounce, and Feng Chen Wang — indicates that young, local consumers are distinguishing themselves through these rising Chinese designer brands, unlike the previous generations who preferred international names.
Therefore, with an increasing number of Gen-Z buyers turning to domestic labels, will emerging names soon threaten international niche names or even the big luxury names? Jing Daily analyzes both the opportunities and challenges Shushu/Tong faces as it attempts to expand globally.
Behind Shushu/Tong’s success in China
“It wasn’t easy in the beginning,” admits Lei, the Gen-Z co-founder of Shushu/Tong. When the brand launched in 2015, the girlish style preferred by the brand’s designers was not in vogue. However, the Shanghai duo persisted with their design concept, which helped them build a strong identity, high recognizability, and a unique style compared to other local competitors.
Since the beginning, the company has focused on engaging consumers in China, both online and off, through social media platforms, pop-up stores, innovative campaigns, and retail collaborations. Today, this blend of creativity and digital strategy is the key driver of its success.
Lei continues, saying that the support of local retailer LABELHOOD has been indispensable to their success. “They have two departments — buying and runway — with the latter offering great expertise to newcomers,” he says. Incubator platforms like these can provide resources and knowledge to small independent designers with fewer advantages than confirmed luxury houses and conglomerates.
The brand’s campaigns have also been vital, and it knew how to creatively leverage content on social media platforms with a limited budget. Its Spring 2021 campaign, called “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” launched in March, starred supermodel Ju Xiao Wen, and was shot by top photographer Zeng Wu.
This engaging partnership earned a lot of popularity online and was further amplified by a pop-up collaboration with LABELHOOD. This move, in turn, attracted visits from fashion KOLs @Hu Ban and @Fumin Girl, among others, and generated tremendous organic engagement on the platform Little Red Book.
Head of menswear and womenswear buying at Browns, Ida Petersson, reveals why the prestigious London retailer has seen Chinese labels like Shushu/Tong and Yuhan Wang succeed on their platform. “[They both] have a unique point of view to offer that helps them cut through the noise,” she says. That is even more important when brands start to expand into competitive global markets.
Now, as Shushu/Tong establishes itself in China, counting over 50 stockists on the Mainland, it is beginning to make a name for itself globally, too, in conjunction with more than 20 worldwide partners. According to Petersson, that is because “the brand stayed true to its DNA while being mindful of demand shifts for product types and price points in the market.”
Will local designers overtake global names in China?
Gen Zers are driving the rise of Guochao — a movement that celebrates local Chinese designers and is changing the luxury market, reaching 80 percent of post-95 born consumers. As such, domestic designers are particularly exploiting this movement after the Xinjiang cotton backlash. Now, local labels showing support towards homegrown cotton producers are receiving much appreciation from netizens.
“For many Chinese people, ‘Made in China’ has become the maker of quality,” states Kim Leitzes, managing director of APAC at Launchmetrics. “Now, national pride has become a crucial factor driving consumer engagement.”
Homegrown brands have an advantage in the local market as they know how to speak to their consumers. In fact, global players often lack the right tools and on-the-ground experts to guide them through this changing landscape. Leitzes continues, stating: “They are more experienced in leveraging the right content for the right channels, something international designers have not always been successful with.”
With domestic brands becoming more sophisticated, structuring business operations more efficiently, being exempt from import duties, and offering great design concepts tailored to Chinese consumer needs, shoppers may start turning to local labels even more. Given that, are domestic players posing a real threat to international ones?
According to Felix Krueger, partner and associate director of Fashion & Luxury at Boston Consulting Group, it is too early for that. He says that local brands still lack the exclusive aura, historic legacy, and broad distribution that has allowed global players to win over China’s consumers. As such, collaborations could be the best answer.
Lei told Jing Daily that Shushu/Tong is working on a project with Estée Lauder that will allow it to gain even more worldwide recognition. But non-domestic companies can benefit from this concept, too. “Western brands can learn a lot from Chinese labels, for instance, how to engage with consumers digitally,” says Krueger.
How can Chinese brands become relevant globally?
Homegrown talents are now gaining relevance all over the world. “Chinese talent is a strong force in the fashion industry,” notes Petersson, “especially in recent years with an increasing number of amazing Chinese students graduating from top design schools globally.” This year, Rui was a finalist for LVMH’s young designer prize, while local names have appeared more regularly on the international fashion week schedule, including names like Sankuanz, Masha Ma, and Uma Wang.
However, as Leitzes points out, one of the biggest challenges has been to “change the international market’s perception about the local export and manufacturing business, which was not always associated with high-end and high-quality products.” Nevertheless, as global sales indicate, the market seems to be slowly shifting away from those prejudices. Shushu/Tong is gaining an international audience. And as Lei confirms, the local label’s US market is growing fast after getting stocked by Nordstrom, Dover Street Market, Atelier NY, and more.
Petersson, who believes they will succeed in expanding globally, suggests it comes down to the “celebrities and editorials” that have helped the brand gain exposure. Indeed, the power of fashion icons cannot be denied — either globally or locally —and they have become a shortcut for designers who want to raise awareness and sales.
Meanwhile, having influential stockists will help a name’s image significantly. Not only does it test a new market, but “being stocked by Ssense alongside Balenciaga and Sacai helps with both exposure and recognition,” Lei says. That is because these multi-brand retailers, with their years of experience in the market, can market or suggest the brand to appropriate audiences.
Yet, it is also worth pointing out that, while international Maisons need to adapt to domestic demands, the same is necessary for Chinese names that want to succeed in the West. Young generations, in particular, want to understand a brand’s story and see if it aligns with their beliefs. Krueger points to ICICLE as an example of a Chinese name adapting globally. “It has a really nice story around sustainability and fits current international consumer values.” Indeed, the house is connecting well with Western Gen Z buyers.
There is still a long way to go before homegrown Chinese labels can gain international recognition, which requires significant investment and on-the-ground knowledge. Yet, independent designers might do well to consider relying on trusted partners, such as multi-brand stores or incubators, to receive support and guidance on this big move. Still, as younger consumers continue to show more appreciation for local names, that day shouldn’t be too far off.