Subtle statements right on trend
Updated: 2013-08-26 06:57
By Tiffany Tan (China Daily)
The concept store Wuhao and S.T.A.R.S., housed in old Beijing courtyards, reflect the changing tastes of the capital's fashion consumers. Photos by Wei Xiaohao / China Daily
After two hours of assessing them in the mirror, Wang Jingjing decides to buy both dresses. One is black lace and the other is in a printed lilac fabric. Both have long sleeves, end mid-thigh and hug the 22-year-old's shapely figure. From afar, the dresses could be any one of the tiny, clingy pieces you'd find hanging on mall racks around Beijing. But when you look closer - particularly at the tags - you'll find acclaimed foreign names. The lacy black number is by Gareth Pugh, an Englishman who has outfitted international celebrities including Beyonce, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga. Wang's other purchase comes from Jeremy Scott, an American designer known for his quirky prints, who has collaborated with Adidas, Swatch and Longchamp.
Yet many in China still have not heard of these men. And this is exactly why Wang and a cousin decided to seek out S.T.A.R.S. one day this summer, after reading about the store in a fashion magazine.
"It took us a while before we finally found this place," Wang says, referring to the store's location in a courtyard along a winding hutong in northern Beijing. "But this kind of curated clothing store is not commonly seen in China."
The women, who came toting Louis Vuitton and Chanel handbags, tried on dresses, belts and necklaces while the store owner and his buyer darted back and forth to find their dress sizes and help them fasten the necklaces.
Sifan Shao, a French-Chinese actor and director, opened S.T.A.R.S. in October after seeing a local demand for high-quality Western designs not mass-marketed in China. Wealthy Chinese, he says, now want to display aesthetic discrimination after having already acquired some of the world's most popular - and most expensive - luxury brands.
"They want to feel special. They don't want to be seen as just the nouveau riche. They want to show that they have taste," says Shao, 34, who came back to China in 2010 after moving to Paris as a teenager.
"And having taste means, I don't want to have the same thing as you. I don't want to go out and see on everyone else what I've bought."
In its China Luxury Study last year, consulting firm Bain & Company highlighted Chinese consumers' growing preference for distinct, understated brands. This was especially apparent, it said, in the more sophisticated and younger generation of consumers in Beijing and Shanghai.
To find his store's merchandise, Shao says he and his buyer visit designer showrooms in Europe, as well as attend the fashion weeks in Paris, Tokyo, Seoul and Bangkok. Besides Pugh and Scott, the store also features the labels Veronique Branquinho (Belgium), Alexis Mabille (France) and E Tautz (UK).
Concept stores, as curated, multi-brand boutiques like S.T.A.R.S. are called, have become a staple in the fashion landscape of more mature markets like Western Europe and North America. Their clientele includes celebrities, stylists, socialites and other people who normally set fashion trends.
Since these stores have a more limited inventory than large-scale retailers, they're able to change products and collections much faster, "keeping their items fresh and allowing them to nimbly react to consumer demand", says Emma Li, research lead at L2, a New York think tank that helps leading fashion brands with digital marketing.
In the fast-developing Chinese market, will concept stores ever pose a challenge to luxury flagships?
No, since concept stores are characteristically small, independent and limited to mega cities like Beijing and Shanghai, says Jonathan Siboni, president of Luxurynsight, a Paris-based luxury consultancy active in the Chinese market.
These stores also capitalize on their products' relative exclusivity, so the goal is not to go big. "If (concept store) designers become famous or become brand names, some of their customers will move on to find new up-and-coming designers," Siboni says.
Isabelle Pascal is one entrepreneur who has become familiar with such Chinese consumers. In 2010, she opened a concept store in Beijing after sensing which way the fashion winds would blow.
She offered products by homegrown talents and foreign designers, such as Christopher Raeburn (UK), Didier Ludot (France) and Aguri Sagimori (Japan). She filled the store, housed in the courtyard residence of former Chinese nobility, with not just clothes and fashion accessories, but furniture, kitchenware and home decor. She sought out artistic collaborations and thought up custom-made merchandise.
"People said I was crazy to choose a hutong location where no VIP in high heels will want to come," says Pascal, a French corporate lawyer who moved to the Chinese capital in 2009. "They said people only want big brands with logos, mall shops with huge car parks, 10-meter-wide display windows."
But the Chinese shoppers did come to Wuhao, and they are now the store's biggest clients. Most of them, Pascal says, are younger than 25, belong to China's "second-generation rich", run their own businesses and travel a lot.
"Some clients, every time they come, they say, 'Isa, what do you have that's new and unique?'" she says, adding that one customer went as far as to buy an entire five-piece collection of jewelry so that the design will remain only within his circle.
It still happens, though, that their shoppers feel torn between buying a pricey, unfamiliar label and an equally pricey but sought-after global luxury brand. This is when shopkeepers have to step into the role of educator, explaining the designer's body of work, the label's image and which celebrities might have been seen in it.
This is also when Shao's coffeemaker comes in handy. Over a cup of cappuccino or espresso, he chats with these customers and suggests they try on the new labels in front of the mirror. Otherwise, he says, they would be in and out of the door in 10 minutes - and not spend two hours shopping like Wang Jingjing.
Contact the writer at email@example.com.