With bulging eyes and mouths agape, they were the very picture of new arrivals in a city they had underestimated. Buyers from a well-known Japanese department store stood waiting for a show to start at the latest edition of Shanghai Fashion Week. Still stunned from their encounter with a mob of ticket touts selling black market invitations outside, they appeared flummoxed but reflective.
“Power,” whispered one surprised retailer to her colleague. “That’s what it is. I couldn’t put my finger on it before, but now I get it. You can literally feel the power in the atmosphere here.”
Surveying the scene at the lively venue in the heart of China’s commercial capital, the Japanese buyer declined to share her name but she was clearly captivated by what she saw as Shanghai’s ambitious march on her hometown of Tokyo. And faintly protective too.
After listing off Japan’s many strengths — its long legacy of producing master fashion designers, unrivalled street style, sophisticated consumers and cutting edge apparel industry — she stopped abruptly mid-sentence.
“Wait, do you mean Tokyo as an international hub? Like, Asia’s fashion business capital? Hmmm, that’s tricky,” she paused, turning in vain to her colleague for some reassurance. “We won’t lose that chance to Shanghai — will we?”
While Tokyo’s fashion scene is incredibly vibrant, diverse and influential, it is also insular and conservative when it comes to the way the industry operates. Shanghai, on the other hand, is in its honeymoon period with the global fashion industry. Bounding full-throttle ahead, the city’s fashion leaders seem happy to experiment at every juncture — and supremely unfazed when things go a bit wrong.
“People here have a can-do attitude which means things can be surprisingly efficient even though they’re sometimes guilty of being inconsistent or even chaotic,” says Shaway Yeh, group style editorial director at Modern Media. “Anyway, Shanghai has the weight of China behind it. It’s that simple. That’s precisely why Hong Kong and Singapore are not in the running as Asian fashion capital.”
Confident in its position as the gateway to Asia’s powerhouse economy and the region’s largest consumer market, Shanghai Fashion Week is now able to attract niche and contemporary brands to China from around the world. And those most eager to join the event’s 25,000 square metres of selling space often hail from other Asian nations.
Beacon for Asia and broker for China
As vice secretary-general, Lv Xiaolei is the power broker behind Shanghai Fashion Week. “Madame Lu,” as she is deferentially called by almost everyone in the city, chooses her words very carefully — especially when talking about competitors in Asia.
“Well, South Korea’s institutions are willing to promote their local brands in China,” she offers, keen to focus on the relatively new and still fragile spirit of cooperation with her Asian counterparts. “And Masahiko Miyake, chairman of the Japan Fashion Week Organisation, he came to us during this Shanghai Fashion Week to sign a strategic partnership with us too. We’ve been talking for a while, you know. From rivals to friends.”
When asked directly what her ambition is for Shanghai Fashion Week in the Asian context, Madame Lu spends a long time ruminating, responding obliquely and changing the subject before she finally concedes: “OK, we’re trying to build the most influential fashion trade platform in Asia,” she sighs. “Is that ambition enough?”
Without doubt, Shanghai Fashion Week is a work in progress and has much to prove. It may lack the rigour of Tokyo and the pizzazz of Seoul but, make no mistake, it overshadows them both in terms of chutzpah. If for no other reason than the strength and scale of its market, China is in a league of its own. Not even India, with its own vast fashion industry in Delhi and Mumbai, comes close. No wonder Shanghai’s fledgling designers can seem so dangerously overconfident.
“I think sooner or later Shanghai will become the top fashion week in the Asian-Pacific region and I think eventually even Europe will need to buckle up,” says Moto Guo, the Malaysian designer shortlisted for last year’s LVMH Prize.
“Everybody’s working hard to break the Shanghai market. But even so, I was surprised to learn we had almost nine or 10 young brands from Malaysia participating at Shanghai Fashion Week this time.”
The Autumn/Winter 2017-18 collection was Guo’s second selling season at The Tube, a tightly curated Shanghai showroom founded by Zemira Xu who has developed a knack for spotting some of China’s more progressive designer talent such as Xiao Li and Xu Zhi.
“The whole industry here is moving so fast,” Guo continues. “It’s so competitive and so aggressive. But at the same time, people here are getting more and more open-minded. They’re willing to listen to young voices and even spend money to buy our work, which is definitely a great advantage for us as a young label.”
China’s mainstream brands like Reineren and young designer “repats” like Shushu/Tong, Deepmoss and Andrea Jiapei Li may dominate the runways here, but stroll through any of the official trade shows hosted by Shanghai Fashion Week and you can hear dozens of foreign languages spoken by designers, sales agents, showroom reps, and distributors manning the exhibitor booths.
Shanghai Fashion Week’s sales floors have become so international, in fact, that brands from abroad now outnumber those from China at the four official trade shows. A tally of the brands at Mode, Ontimeshow, Showroom Shanghai and Dadashow revealed that international brands make up 58 percent of the 1,000-plus brands exhibiting this season. Just under half of those are from other Asian countries.