What Brands Must Know About China’s Fashion Weeks

The big four fashion weeks — New York, London, Paris, and Milan — have had several decades to establish their prominence on the industry circuit, and their routes are well set and understood by designers, buyers, and media people alike. But in China, the fashion week system is far less predictable, and while its wide set of fashion weeks are only beginning to emerge, they hold influence with both local and national audiences.

Closely intertwined with local Government-led committees, mainland China has an intricate weave of fashion events, festivals, and schedules hosted in a variety of different regions and cities. China’s fashion cities obviously can’t compare to the heritage of historical fashion capitals, yet they are driving new agendas centered around tech and consumer experiences. The growing prominence of smaller fashion weeks in cities like Tbilisi, Helsinki, and Copenhagen has led to an interest in a more localized approach to fashion weeks in Europe, and a similar opportunity is being exploited in China. Therefore, for luxury brands that are serious about growing in the Chinese market, understanding the intricacies of China’s fashion weeks is critical.

While China’s fashion weeks all stand to grow in size, they each also face unique challenges. One is that Shanghai’s show has become a dominant force, leaving less room for the newer players. Many of the events also overlap, forcing designers, buyers, and media people to choose where to be.

During 2019, Chongqing, Dalian, Harben, Shishi, Shenyang, and other cities all held domestic fashion weeks. Yet newer events often lack the consistency they need to accrue a legacy. Beijing and Shanghai’s fashion weeks have a history of 22 and 17 years, respectively, but a host of regions using fashion as a quick and easy way to self-promote often fail to stabilize their events, and many disappear as fast as they appear.

Chengdu Fashion Week, for example, launched a six-day event in 2018 with shows from local and international brands like Stella McCartney, yet it failed to return in 2019. Local retailer, Zhuo Ai, founder of the boutique Dressing for Fun, says Chengdu was both in “an experimental stage” and lacking the investment needed for a long-term vision. “For brands in the local area, alternative fashion weeks are useful for support, although I think there are not that many local designers in these cities,” she adds.

Moreover, while some designers and press people often favor international fashion weeks over local domestic ones, others simply ignore alternative fashion weeks entirely or feel too inexperienced to take part in them. Another stumbling block for committees is their failure to attract the locally-born or based independent talent that helps to add a “cool” factor. Yet there are still other gaps: Only Shanghai Fashion Week hosts a public-facing fashion weekend (following their official event), China lacks a men’s fashion week despite growing interest in the sector, and the country’s first Couture week only launched last month. Overall, so many different fashion weeks run by different organizations make one wonder if a siloed, disjointed system is even feasible.

Yet, despite these obstacles, China’s newer fashion weeks present an opportunity not only for local brands but international ones. Indeed, with a forecasted consumer expenditure of 1.2 trillion yuan for 2025, foreign players need to double down on the market. Getting ahead in China and adopting more localized strategies that surround domestic fashion hubs will put a brand in a strong position to capitalize on China’s consumer spending. Whether a brand is local or international, there’s one message: Ignore the domestic market at your peril.

Creative director Rocky Liang of The Mix Place, a creative destination from Guangzhou brand Exception de Mixmind, says that China’s fashion weeks are only now taking their shape. “Exception de Mixmind has featured on Xiamen’s schedule and has held several events during Shanghai Fashion Week, too,” Liang says. “These are more of a platform to showcase brand strength to gain further exposure, and where you find a promising fashion week you might find China’s next big fashion capital.” With this optimism in mind, Jing Daily looks at a selection of China’s fashion weeks, highlighting key opportunities for brands:

Shanghai Fashion Week: China’s Powerhouse 

When: Yearly, March and October

Overview: For now, one thing is clear: Shanghai Fashion Week is China’s most recognized fashion week. Over 17 years, it has built a credible, twice-yearly event that features hundreds of brands on runways, at parties, and in forums, while selling to thousands via showrooms and tradeshows. In response to how she keeps ahead of the competition, Madame Lu, the Vice Secretary-General of Shanghai Fashion Week, says, “We always do things that lead the industry. We haven’t copied what the big four do but have managed to create our own ecosystem here in Shanghai.”

Why it matters to China: As Madame Lu explains, the organizing committees’ focus is making Shanghai a fashion destination that is “attractive to the international industry and also benefits the domestic market and independent talents.” Indeed, the event’s success lies in its ability to tap these local, emerging talents, which are often overlooked by other fashion weeks. It’s a strategy that is paying off, and these designers are now bringing global attention to the city. Moreover, the big four are now looking to Shanghai for innovation: In September 2019, the British Fashion Council started selling tickets to London Fashion Week — copying a pioneering move introduced by Shanghai.

Key brand opportunity: This fashion week is a global-facing event with a growing reputation among domestic buyers, making it an indispensable landmark for brands wanting to crack the Chinese market. But, given the large volume of events both on and off schedule, the extensive competition, and the city’s high level of sophistication, getting your brand to stand out is a big issue.

Shenzhen Fashion Week: The Research & Development Hub 

When: Yearly. Next edition, March 2020

Overview: The municipal government and the Shenzhen Industry Garment Association developed this platform to support their local designers, brands, and businesses. It aims to connect the production industry with research and development to unify fashion, particularly for domestic brands. Having run yearly since 2015, the event coincides with the trade show Shenzhen similarly to how Shanghai does with their trade show, Chic.

IMG, the global management company, has helped to launch the event and currently consults the management committee. It has also brought with it a selection of American brands to participate, including Leanne Marshall, Cynthia Rowley, and Bibhu Mohapatra.

Why it matters to China: Shenzhen has been uniquely developed for manufacturing and trade, and as one of the first Chinese cities open to the West (along with neighboring Hong Kong), it has become a vital hub of design innovation and production. IMG’s Jennifer Taylor, VP of Global Consulting and Business Development, points out that, over the years, the city has been responsible for a tremendous amount of domestic manufacturing, and many global brands now source manufacturing in Shenzhen.

Key brand opportunity: International brands can benefit in many ways from this event by making local manufacturing connections, building their network for distribution to the Chinese market, or increasing brand awareness. And while the Chinese marketplace presents some unique complexities for Western brands, the lure of potential growth undoubtedly attracts. “Showing at Shenzhen Fashion Week and, therefore, participating in the Chinese retail landscape is a great introduction to the market,” Taylor adds.

Guangzhou Fashion Week: A Stepping Stone to China

When: Yearly, April and November

Overview: Guangzhou Fashion Week, which was founded in 2003, is organized by the Guangzhou Fashion Designers Association and supported by the city’s municipal commission of commerce. It’s held in the city’s business district at the GTland shopping Plaza.

Why it matters to China:  London-based knitwear designer and joint course leader in textile design at Central Saint Martins, Derek Lawlor, has been invited to Guangzhou twice and considers it a stepping stone into the Chinese market. “Unlike some other fashion week bases, Guangzhou is an entrepreneurial and manufacturing hub with very interesting clusters of innovation. For me personally, it was an opportunity to see the variety of fabric and textile factories being produced here at different scales.”

Key brand opportunity: A tier-1 city and China’s third-largest, Guangzhou is located close to both Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Like these cities, Guangzhou’s long-held position as a production base means it can also offer brands access to large fabric wholesalers and markets. And while the event has yet to receive much global recognition, it’s developing international ties by inviting brands from outside of China. Lawlor, who showed alongside several brands from the UK and Italy that were invited by Guangzhou fashion week, is optimistic about the event, saying, “I think the international brands built some stable connections and the industry made orders. The level of investment was impressive and there are opportunities there — you just need to hunt for them.”

China Fashion Week: The Struggling Old Guard 

When: Yearly, March and October

Overview: Beijing’s China Fashion Week is the country’s most established and longest-running fashion week. However, it has failed to make the international impact of its industry rival in Shanghai. First organized by the China Fashion Association in 1997, the fashion week has bet on China’s domestic winners over its 22-year history through a combined total of 200-plus shows and events, including brands like Ne-Tiger, Yaying, and Uooyaa. This lineup includes brands from other domestic cities like Dalien alongside non-Chinese brands from over 20 countries.

Why it matters to China: After the loss of international sponsor Mercedes Benz, China Fashion Week has struggled to attract attention both inside and outside of China. Now, having recently partnered with WWD China, it’s showing a new effort to amplify its global reputation. As one of the last fashion weeks on the circuit, most buyers will have allocated budgets by the time it takes place, which means most brands showing there are dependent on the attendance of national buyers. However, given the volume of China’s domestic market, that still equates to big business, and both the event and the China Fashion Association can look to increase its dominance on their home turf.

Beijing is also home to Fashion Now: a separately-organized alternative showcasing platform that runs before China Fashion Week. It appeals specifically to niche, independent designers and the 14th edition will take place in late March 2020.

Key brand opportunity: According to an organization insider, this fashion week offers participating brands unrivaled opportunities for press coverage and media exposure, as Beijing is the unofficial home of China’s media. The roughly 500 media companies in attendance can propel an unknown brand into the mainland’s consciousness in its first season. Similarly to other fashion weeks, China Fashion Week hosts trade shows, B2B events, and forums, and it also organizes the China Fashion Awards, which connects and honors industry professionals.

Xiamen Fashion Week: The Up-and-Comer

When: Yearly, December

Overview: Xiamen has become a haven for fashion design in recent years. As the home of brands ranging from large conglomerates like Anta Sports and Septwolves to young, independent designers such as Ms Min and Sankuanz, it’s fitting that Xiamen would want its own fashion week. Established by the municipal government, the condensed event focuses on local brands like Jiwenbo and The MSLAN with a peppering of international talent.

Why it matters to China: The event targets highly localized brands, but it invited brands from Beijing and Shanghai to showcase this year. Despite these efforts, Xiamen Fashion Week is still decidedly irrelevant to younger, designer brands like Sankuanz, Ms Min, and Deepmoss, all of which are local yet disengaged. Dido Liu, the designer behind Deepmoss, has been showing seasonally at Shanghai Fashion Week since 2015 and suggests the event needs more time. “I think for Xiamen, it’s just the beginning,” she says. “I think they have big plans, but for now, other fashion weeks are more advanced. But, it can’t be built in one day.”

Key brand opportunity: The event bills itself as an “authoritative platform to promote China’s fashion index and new trends.” What this means precisely isn’t clear. However, amid its plethora of B2B showcases, forums, talks, and events, Xiamen Fashion Week offers, at the very least, an outlet for brands to connect with media and potential buyers.

Centrestage, Hong Kong: Gateway to Greater Asia

When: September 2020

Overview: Centrestage is Hong Kong’s official fashion week and is supported by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC). Not to be confused with the city’s textile trade fair, Hong Kong Fashion Week, Centrestage has been running since 2016 and is based at the commercial Hong Kong Exhibition Centre. There it operates a trade-show/showroom experience that offers a bounty of fashion shows from local and invited designers that are primarily sourced from mainland China and Asia. It also plays host to the environmental NGO Redress Design Award, industry talks, and many knowledge-sharing initiatives.

Why it matters to China: Centrestage aims to be the best fashion week in Asia and for Asia. The event invites established brands like Korea’s Juun J and Japan’s Facetasm but is also striving to become a hotbed for new talent. For Jarno Leppanen’s emerging independent menswear brand Ka Wa Key, which is based in Hong Kong and London, the strategy is working. “It’s a good combination of east meets west,” he says. “Centerstage is a brilliant gateway to the Asian market. I think it’s a really useful platform for Hong Kong designers, and even though it competes with NYFW time-wise, it still manages to stand out as its own interesting event.”

Key brand opportunity: With 50 offices globally, the HKTDC organizes a range of buying missions. Alongside local luxury retailers, close to 7,000 buyers from 74 countries and regions visited in 2019. For brands such as FFixxed Studios, the main attraction of the event is access to these buyers. “The year we took part, the organizers had really strong buyers, and due to the concise selection of talent, you are guaranteed they will look at your collection,” says FFixxed co-founder Fiona Lau. She also praised the production of the event and accurate brand representation, which is likely due to the HKTDC’s 50 years of event experience.

Jinan in Style International Fashion Week: Leading Couture

When: Nov 19 – 21, 2019

Overview: The first dedicated couture fashion week in China is a collaboration between the Jinan Municipal Government and the Asian Couture Federation to help promote the local textile and clothing industry of Shandong province. It featured shows from six couturiers across the Asia Pacific region, including China’s celebrated couturier Guo Pei, Japan’s Yumi Katsura, and Sebastian Gunawan from Indonesia.

Why it matters to China: If the event manages to continue and can establish itself as the home of new couture in Asia, it could be a very exciting development for China’s fashion industry. Dr. Frank Cintamani, Founding President of the Asian Couture Federation, affirms this, stating, “As an on-going initiative, we hope to create a singular platform, giving Asia a much needed focal point for the Asian couture industry, and, as such, this affords a unique opportunity to create new markets for couturiers in China.” Also, its student-focused forum, aimed at demystifying and explaining the business of couture, adds value to the event.

Key brand opportunity: The appeal of homegrown couture designers is rising in China, as celebrities and high-profile clients alike are turning to names like Pei and Grace Chen when making investment purchases. VIPs and mostly Beijing-based media attended the event, and it was broadcast on CCTV to over 600 million viewers, which means access to a stream of potential new clients. Designers and visitors have the opportunity to network and meet with leading textile companies.