Despite a deep-seated patriarchal culture, China is one of the world’s top countries regarding executive gender equality. It now has the world’s highest proportion of women working in senior management positions, the second-largest percentage of female CEOs, and a full half of the world’s self-made female billionaires. In an age of unbridled aspiration, an increasing number of Chinese women are changing China’s business landscape — and its tastes in luxury in the process. Ambitious and image-conscious, this new generation of Chinese women in charge is probably luxury brands’ best target, yet it’s also their most ignored.
Although female entrepreneurship is a rising phenomenon worldwide, China’s unique social conditions have made the “girl boss” identity particularly attractive. First, entrepreneurship is a glorified concept in China today. There’s never been a time or place where so much emphasis has been placed on financial success and personal achievement, and as a result, the social pressure to be a “founder” among the millennial generation is huge.
Second, media representations of “alpha female” characters have been proliferating over the past few years, which has contributed to Chinese women’s expectations to “want it all.” Among the most influential roles are Andi from “Ode to Joy,” the CFO of an investment firm who returns to China after studying in New York; Su Mingyu from “All is Well,” a self-made woman whose look contributed to China’s women’s suit trend earlier this year; and Tang Jing from “The First Half Of My Life,” a workaholic who prioritizes work over relationships. These on-screen characters have epitomized the ideals of successful women in China today, which means being ambitious and capable while also looking gorgeous.
According to a 2017 report co-issued by the business site 36krand the non-profit female entrepreneur network GirlUp, the typical profile of a female Chinese founder largely overlaps with one of a classic luxury consumer. They are mostly millennials (born between 1985 and 1990), overwhelmingly come from the country’s most developed first-tier and second-tier cities, and almost half of them were educated overseas (another aspect pointing to a common background of privilege).
To further understand what these girl bosses value and seek in luxury today, Jing Daily spoke to three of them. Amy Wu, the founder of GirlUp, told Jing Daily that China’s enthusiasm for female entrepreneurship is higher than it’s ever been. “I think female founders in China are in a very fortunate position in Asia,” she said. “Even when compared to western women, they are more open to talking about ambition without the feminist filter.”
While the #metoo movement ushered in a new order of political correctness in the workplace, that ethos has yet to extend to China. The word #metoo is still periodically banned from Chinese social media, and messages containing overt feminist claims are repeatedly taken down by internet censorship. The mix of a conservative social climate and a rise in female entrepreneurship has created a complex scenario for Chinese women today. On one hand, they want to dress to look self-assured and in power, but on the other, they still need to look feminine and adhere to their society’s rigid beauty standards.
As a consequence, femininity remains an important quality for Chinese girl-boss fashion. “By and large, Chinese women in power dress much more femininely compared to the West,” said Zhuorui Fu, the globetrotting female CEO of her eponymous Zhu Studio brand. “Sometimes I do spot gender-neutral looks in Shanghai’s startup scene, but it is very rare.” Similarly, GirlUp’s Wu repeatedly pointed to the term “柔美róu měi,” which means “morbidezza” or a delicate, graceful beauty, as a way to describe the ideal appearance of Chinese girl bosses.
Such an emphasis on femininity also recalls the much-appreciated concept of “刚柔相济(gāngróu-xiāngjì)” in traditional Chinese philosophy, which means “to temper force with grace.” To China’s girl bosses, the feminine morbidezza look doesn’t undercut their strength and determination. “These female founders are extremely flexible and perseverant,” Amy Wu added. “They can be very forceful, but they are not afraid to show weakness when they need to.”
Brands and designs that make women feel a combination of morbidezza and strength will have an edge in this market. A “design for women by women” model seems like the perfect way to satiate the Sheconomy’s new appetites. Luxury Maisons led by strong female personas are Wu’s favorites, such as old Céline (directed by female designer Phoebe Philo), new Dior (Maria Grazia Chiuri), and Chanel. She has also observed a rising interest in the Bottega Veneta brand, now creatively led by Daniel Lee who formerly worked for Celine. “I know lots of former Céline fans who are turning to Bottega Veneta for that certain aesthetic,” she said. “Those clothes [from Céline’s Phoebe Philo period] made me feel professional, chic, and empowered as a woman.”
Beyond this desired femininity, bespoke fitting and personal elements are equally important to China’s girl bosses. Junnie Hwong is the founder of Coson, a Chinese bespoke suit brand for career women. She told Jing Daily that a big chunk of her clients — mostly successful female entrepreneurs — have gravitated to tailored outfits and are phasing generic brands out of their wardrobes. “To my clients, the best personal signature is to leave a great impression yet without letting people easily know where those clothes come from,” said Hwong. Zhuorui Fu of Zhu Studio also said she sometimes prefers to wear traditional Chinese costumes like qipao as a way to stand out from the crowd.
Ultimately, China’s girl-boss generation looks for balance when it comes to power looks. Living in a traditionally male-dominated country at an entrepreneurial zeitgeist, these women want designs that accentuate both professional poise and femininity. That’s because, so far, it’s the best way to make it as a Chinese girl boss.