Asian fashion brands challenging Western labels

FASHION brands from China, South Korea and Japan are becoming serious rivals of their Western peers as Asian consumers become increasingly confident in their own style and take pride in buying home-grown labels.

Asian consumers are the world’s biggest spenders on high-end fashion, representing around half of total buyers.

Most of them are under 35, Internet-savvy and increasingly on the hunt for small, cool, original brands that will make them stand out and look different from their parents, fashion executives and retailers said.

High quality is no longer the preserve of Western luxury brands, and Asian brands are attracting attention as they experiment with new textiles and materials, facilitated by their local manufacturing base.

This growing threat from the East is likely to add misery to brands like Prada, Kering’s Bottega Veneta and Tod’s, already suffering from plunging sales, partly due to excessive price increases, over-exposure in certain markets such as China and mega-brand fatigue.

Chinese fashion brands, such as Ms Min and Comme moi, are the fastest growing contemporary design labels sold at department store Lane Crawford, which has outlets throughout China, said its Chairman Andrew Keith.

The company also sells South Korean menswear brands such as Woo Young Mi and expects to start selling Korean womenswear soon.

“You sense there is a pride about seeing China develop its own creative community and seeing China emerge as a creative force,” Keith said.

The store has seen its pool of Chinese labels grow over the past four years to more than 30, from just four. Twenty percent of Chinese-designed clothes bought online are shipped outside of China “mainly to Chinese nationals living abroad who want access to these brands,” Keith said.

He said his average customer in mainland China is aged 25 while in Hong Kong the average age is 35 to 40.

Also high on Asians’ shopping list are Japanese brands, such as Sacai and Tsumori Chisato, many of them older and better established than South Korean or Chinese labels. Lady Gaga regularly wears Japan’s Roggykei, created in 2006 by two graduates from Osaka College of Design.

Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai all have fast expanding fashion weeks, sponsored by local industrial groups, showing dozens of budding brands. Some labels have also moved West and started showing at Milan and Paris fashion weeks and opened shops there.

As seen in Paris

Beijing-based designer Guo Pei, whose yellow long cape dress was worn by Rihanna at the Met Gala last year, started showing at Paris Couture week in January, while Chinese shoe brand Stella Luna, whose stilettos cost more than 500 euros (US$565), has three free-standing shops in Paris.

Chinese-born designer Yiqing Yin, whose creations are sold in China, New York and Paris, has won several European fashion awards and has been hailed by the international fashion press as one of the most promising designers of her generation.

Popular South Korean brand SJYP, run by duo Steve Jung and Yoni Pai, sells in Europe and the United States, including at Selfridges in London and Opening Ceremony in New York and Los Angeles, while Chinese-born Uma Wang, a graduate of London’s Central Saint Martins design school, sells in China and in Europe, including at l’Eclaireur in Paris.

“Before, many Asians thought luxury goods had to come from the West,” said Lee Seo-hyun, president of Samsung C&T’s fashion division and daughter of Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee.

“But they are becoming more sophisticated and discerning and … are interested in local designers who have their own point of view.”

Samsung C&T is one of the biggest corporate investors in Seoul’s fashion scene.

Every year, it gives US$100,000 to two or three designers to help them develop their collections, and since 2005 has invested US$2.7 million in 19 design teams through the Samsung Fashion & Design Fund.

The fashion unit has a stable of brands, ranging from South Korea’s Bean Pole to Belgium’s Ann Demeulemeester.

Erwan Rambourg, author of the book “The Bling Dynasty” and luxury goods analyst at HSBC, says Asian brands, even if they are still small and not widely distributed yet, are fast becoming serious competitors for Western brands.

South Korean cosmetics have long been popular with Chinese customers, and Rambourg said TV series and pop music acts have helped boost South Korea’s image as a trend-setter throughout Asia.

South Korean entrepreneur Sung-Joo Kim said: “Koreans’ self-esteem and self-confidence has been boosted by the power of ‘K culture’ and this is why Korean and other Asian brands have started to become more popular.”

Kim, who previously developed Gucci’s South Korean business, said local brands cater better to Asian women’s more petite shape than Western brands.

Joowon Park, director at Seoul-based Simone Fashion Co, said: “Can we make ‘made in Asia, designed in Asia’ cool, I think yes we can because the stigma that Asian brands had is disappearing and we have all the right ingredients.”

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