"Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life."
It’s a running inside joke for the Chinese community in London that if you want to feel most like home and see familiar faces, your go-to places are Chinatown restaurants and Harrods’s shop floor. But it is no joke when it comes to the Chinese customers’ contribution to the luxury market. By far the most important national cohort of consumers, Chinese buyers made up 32 percent of the purchases in the luxury good market in 2017. For brands particularly favoured by them such as Burberry, Ferragamo, Gucci, and Bottega Veneta, the number is even higher.
Among them, one of the fast-growing and most influential group of Chinese customers is called the “post-90s generation”. One thing to know about them: They are almost always the golden only child in the family due to the country’s one-child policy. Their parents, the first Chinese generation to experience new wealth, invest their earnings in showing their status and success, or upgrading their living quality. They also raised a new generation to become the “real and organic” consumers.
“They don’t need to worry about (purchasing) properties. Their education has been paid for, they can walk into a job quite easily, and they don’t have a mortgage. So basically they’re a group of people who have never felt the need to save (money) or work hard to make money,” Angelica Cheung, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue China, told Business of Fashion.
With so much disposable income, the post-90s generation are granted to make purchases based on their own judgements, however shallow or complex that may be. “A few years ago you would talk about Chinese consumers as new money peasants with money but no taste, but now they want to become more sophisticated, and to me that’s a very positive thing to see,” says Cheung.
So the luxury fashion brands market their products with the packaging called “good taste”. Duh. What could ever go wrong with that? It’s just a matter of what is considered good taste to the elusive Chinese post-90s gen.
Of course, taste is a very subjective idea. But in China, where social media is more influential than ever to the hearts and souls of this generation, celebrities and KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) like are the ultimate tastemakers. It’s a two-way lane for the brands and the influencers: collaborations are done, reputations are built, and consumers are gravitating towards their say on what’s in or not.
Ye Si, also known as Gogoboi, is one of the biggest social media personalities in China. The fashion-features-editor-turn-blogger has over 7 Million followers on Weibo and opened his own e-shop on WeChat last year, partnering up with major luxury e-tailers like Yoox, New-a-Porter and Farfetch. And Ye’s only one of the major pool of influencers that’s shaping the generation’s consumer behaviour.
On the other hand, a survey conducted by McKinsey & Co. shared with Business of Fashion showed that Chinese customers are collectively picking up taste preferences that are influenced by Western cultures. The young consumers, in particular, prioritise the product’s quality and value, and whether the brand is social-conscious. “Brands that are really innovating, like Gucci, or even Burberry on the digital front, are winning over customers,” says Lan Luan, one of the authors of the report.
Although it does no good to my never-ending fashion wish list, I do enjoy going shopping with my big-spender Chinese friends. They’re digital-savvy, so they live and breathe information on the latest hot trends; They’re also conscious shoppers, so research is always done before the shopping trip. It’s almost enlightening to shop with them, also I just really get a kick out of watching people splurging on Chanel handbags.
I bet you’ve all seen a prototype of the fashion-forward Chinese post-90s gen on the streets of London before: head-to-toe designer names or cult streetwear brands, constantly checking WeChat or Weibo on their phones, and just oozing this sense of style that’s balancing on the fine line between expensive good tastes and trying too hard.
I asked my Chinese friends what they think about their fellow youngsters. “Often it’s obvious to tell the difference—some of them are brought up with expensive tastes, and that adds up to become real styles; some of them are just blindly following what’s considered good taste, but the way they’re trying so hard to flaunt it, it just becomes tasteless really,” says one of them.
Benjamin Lin, Global Private Client Executive at Farfetch, shares some insights into this group of customers by dealing with them directly over the years. At first, he was curious about, and a little frustrated even, with how the young Chinese customers have quite a collective taste on brands and products. “Then I learned that they want to invest in good taste. So often they ‘default to’ certain brands or products to stand out while blending in,” he says.
So who cares if legendary fashion magazine editor Diana Vreeland once said that “A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste”? Even if it’s a splash of bad taste they’re after, they’ll make sure that it’s so unique and quirky that it becomes good taste in other people’s eyes.
Meg is a full-time fashion journalism student at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. She moved to London at the age of 18 to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer.